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Meet Betty Wilson.

From St. Louis to Las Vegas, From Horses to Harleys TEI's Newest Leader Blazed a Different Path to Presidency

Betty M. Wilson of the Arizona Chapter was installed as Tax Executives Institute's 2000- 2001 President in Monterey, California, on August 8, 2000. In an effort to learn more about Betty Wilson, only the second woman to lead the Institute, The Tax Executive (TTE) recently sat down with Betty and talked about her background, her involvement in TEI, and her aspirations for the organization during her year at the helm. An edited version of the interview follows.

The Tax Executive (TTE): Congratulations, Betty, on becoming TEI's newest President. And thank you for finding the time to visit with us. Although TEI members and other readers of The Tax Executive may have seen your name and photograph in the magazine over the years, they may not know much about you personally. Maybe a good place to start is by you're telling us a little bit about yourself.

Betty M. Wilson (BMW): Thank you very much. It's my pleasure to be here today. Not only because it means I've attained one of my dreams -- to be TEI's President -- but because it gives me an opportunity to share with our members what we hope to accomplish this year.

You asked who Betty Wilson is? She's an honest, straight forward woman from the Midwest who now lives in Las Vegas. She's someone who started working for a white-shirt / navy-blue-suit public accounting firm and then a financial institution, and now works in the gaming industry and an advocate of casual dress. I was born in Moberly, Missouri, in 1947, and grew up in Centralia, Missouri. When I was eight, my family first moved to West Allis, Wisconsin, which is a suburb of Milwaukee, then to Terre Haute, Indiana, and finally to Collinsville, Illinois -- 15 miles east of St. Louis -- where I attended high school.

TTE: That's an awful lot of moving around.

BMW: Certainly back then it was. Now, I think it just goes with the territory. My father was an electrical/maintenance engineer, and the moves were tied to his job. After finishing high school in Collinsville -- which, by the way, is where my mother went to school and still lives -- I went to Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado, to study accounting where I graduated as the top student in the College of Business in 1969 with a BS in Business Administration and a major in Accounting.

TTE: What did you do after getting your degree?

BMW: I returned to the Midwest to work in St. Louis. My first job was with Arthur Andersen & Co. I spent one year on the audit staff before the head of the tax department asked me to transfer into the tax practice. I was unsure about the move, so I made him promise me that if I didn't like it, I could transfer back into audit after the busy season. I fell in love with the tax area and spent five years with AA in the tax department. I passed the CPA exam at first sitting and became a Missouri CPA. (I still have my license to practice there.) At the end of my fourth year at AA, I became the first woman Tax Manager in the St. Louis office. After two years in that role, I grew tired of bumping against the glass ceiling and decided to make a career shift. So I left public accounting and took the position of Director of Taxes for ITT Financial Corp. in St. Louis.

TTE: How soon after you joined ITT did you become a TEI member?

BMW: My ITT colleagues in New York told me immediately that I should join TEI and get active in the local chapter. They were very encouraging and very high on TEI, and so less than a month after I started work at ITT, I sent in my membership application. My membership certificate (No. 7071) was issued in March 1976.

TTE: Betty, we understand that you were the first female member of the St. Louis Chapter. Did you experience any problems in joining TEI?

BMW: The St. Louis Chapter of TEI welcomed me with open arms and I felt like a valued member immediately. I served as chair of several committees, and then on the Board of Directors of the chapter before becoming a chapter officer. I served through the ranks of office and was President of the St. Louis Chapter in 1983-1984.

TTE: Earlier, you alluded to "the glass ceiling" you encountered early in your career. Do you care to elaborate?

BMW: So much has changed during the past 25 years, I don't think it would be productive to dwell on the past. Let me just say this: I don't think I am alone among female professionals -- or female tax executives -- in seeing discrimination, sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle. At the same time, I am pleased to say that at ITT I found acceptance for my work from the start and was judged by the value I added to the organization. So, too, with the St. Louis Chapter, where as you noted I was the first female member. I must confess that at times I was disappointed by what I perceived to be "the good old boys" network at TEI National and the organization's slowness to recognize that "the times they are a changin'." But the times have changed, and the more I have become involved in TEI, the more I've come to recognize that the issue has as much to do with how the Institute communicates with its members as with any one or other of its policies or programs.

TTE: Was there any one thing that piqued your interest ... something that prompted you to say "I want to get more involved at the national level"?

BMW: I think it was some very special people rather than any particular projects that turned the tide and made me commit myself to get involved. It's always a dangerous thing to start naming names, because you are bound to leave someone off the list. But I'm going to take the risk by singling out Jim Murray of the Portland Chapter. Jim was the chairman of the Corporate Tax Management Committee (and later an International President), and he let me know that he didn't think there was necessarily anything wrong with making waves or suggesting changes. I joined the CTM Committee and spent three years as vice chair to Marty Levine of the Baltimore-Washington Chapter and two years as chair. I was also exceptionally honored to be appointed to the Executive Committee by Jack Skinner of Dallas, who encouraged me to step up my involvement, as did Linda Burke of the Pittsburgh Chapter and Bob Perlman of Santa Clara Valley.

TTE: Did the Corporate Tax Management Committee undertake any special projects during your period of involvement?

BMW: Yes, we did. We helped put together a seminar ... I believe a first by the Corporate Tax Management Committee. The seminar was a huge success, because it was held as more and more senior tax executives were realizing that they had to think more about management than about technical tax issues. That's a revelation to some people who pride themselves on being "Tax Techies." There is certainly nothing wrong with being technically adept ... that's how we all began. But I have always believed that tax executives must be better communicators, must be an active part of management, and should be looked upon by management as an integral part of all strategic planning. Tax Departments must not be "black boxes," as Marty Levine used to say; they must not be seen as the department that always says no. In other words, tax executives must find ways to assist the operations managers, to help them accomplish their goals in the most tax-efficient manner possible. The tax executive of a company must make sure that management is aware of the tax consequences of transactions before they decide to do them, so that fully informed decisions are made. In order to accomplish this, tax executives must communicate in business language and terms, not in code sections and technicalities. Thus, my philosophy of "keep it short and simple" so top management will read it, or listen to it, and understand it.

TTE: Betty, before talking about your goals for TEI this year, I want to make sure we cover how you got from St. Louis to Las Vegas.

BMW: It's not a very long story. My husband Jerry and I moved to Las Vegas in 1995 when ITT purchased Caesars World, Inc. and asked me to transfer to the desert and run the tax function for the gaming businesses of ITT. I am currently with MGM MIRAGE and the management here is wonderful. Management values the contribution that I make to the organization and recognizes what an in-house tax department has to offer. Working in the gaming industry is exciting, more so, I daresay, than the finance industry. I deal with customer tax issues as well as corporate tax issues, with reporting and withholding issues, with depreciation issues (such as when is a riverboat casino a vessel and when is it a building), with sales tax and property tax issues and with operating issues (like employee cafeterias), with contracts issues, and with transaction issues (like the acquisition of Mirage Resorts, Inc. by MGM Grand, Inc. to create MGM MIRAGE).

TTE: Do you like it? Was the transition difficult?

BMW: We love the desert! Being transferred from St. Louis to Las Vegas was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Both Jerry and I love it here and hope to retire and stay right where we are. We live in a very quiet neighborhood northwest of Las Vegas. The glitzy streets are there if we feel reclined to visit them, and they are great for entertaining. The best entertainment in the world comes to Las Vegas at one time or another and we always have access to the excitement of the Strip. But we also have a home in a nice quiet place much like any other desert community, where we have peace and quiet and relaxation.

One difficult thing about the move is the absence of a TEI chapter in Las Vegas. In St. Louis, I had the companionship of a dedicated group of tax professionals who willingly gave their time and energy to helping their fellow members. I am now a member of the Arizona Chapter, but I regret that I have not been able to give much to the chapter because of the distance I have to travel to attend meetings. (I almost invariably have to spend a night in Phoenix to attend.) The meetings I have been able to attend have been excellent, but you can't get around the challenge the distance poses. That's one reason why I was a supporter of the proposal to charter a new chapter in Austin, Texas: TEI has to go to where its members are. That's key to serving their needs. When I first moved to Las Vegas, I had hoped to start a TEI chapter here. I quickly found out that there just aren't enough tax professionals in town, other than at the public accounting firms, to justify a chapter of TEI.

As for other challenges, I miss my family, my mother and sisters, who still live in the Midwest, but I certainly don't miss the winters and driving on ice and snow. I love the desert climate. I find that I handle the heat much better than the cold as I get older. And we can ride our Harleys all year long in Las Vegas!

TTE: Speaking of Harleys, what are your hobbies? And more particularly, do you get a lot of grief for riding a motorcycle?

BMW: I don't fit the stereotype of boring tax geek, do I? Well, truth be told, very few us of us do. As for my affinity for Harley Davidsons, I came to it fairly recently. My first love was a different type of horse power -- horses. I've loved horses all my life, and I got one of my own when I was nine. I rode in college and taught horsemanship as a student instructor in the athletic department at Colorado State. And I rode competitively and trained horses until 1982 when my knees finally gave out. I am proud to say that I was named the Missouri state champion barrel racer twice, in 1976 and again in 1980.

TTE: How did you make the transition from horses to Harleys?

BMW: I'm getting there, but first let me tell you about another hobby -- country western dancing. Like a lot of people in the Midwest, I grew up on country music and always loved it. In 1980, I started giving dance lessons (two step, swing, ten step, line dancing, etc.) as a diversion from work. I've always needed a forced diversion to get my mind off work. Horses provided it for a while and then for 14 years, the diversion was teaching CW dance. My husband Jerry and I even owned and operated a Country Western Saloon and Dance Hall in Collinsville, Illinois, "The Silvermoon," before moving to Las Vegas.

TTE: And the Harleys?

BMW: The Harleys came into our life with our move to Las Vegas. In fact, after the move, our first purchase, after our home, was a 1996 Harley Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide. My new diversion became the motorcycles and participating in the Harley Owners Group (HOG). Jerry and I have both been officers in the Southern Nevada Chapter of HOG. I rode behind Jerry for one year until I decided that I wanted "control" myself ... no more backseat riding for me! So I bought a 1997 Heritage Springer, which I still have. Then in June of this year I saw a new 2000 Road King in the showroom window and just had to have it. So now I am the proud owner of not one but two Harley Davidson motorcycles. We ride as much as possible and even rode to the TEI Annual Meeting of Members in August. When I get on one of my Harleys and take a ride, the world just goes away and for a little while it is just me and God and the wind and the great outdoors. It is a very refreshing sensation, and makes me feel alive and in touch with who I really am ... a human being blessed with a great life.

So in real life I have been a cowgirl, a dancer, and now I am a biker! Not exactly what you call a typical CPA or tax executive, right?

TTE: Is there is any such thing as typical tax executive?

BMW: No, I think you're right.

TTE: Betty, switching gears, what are your goals for the year? What do you hope to accomplish?

BMW: My official goals have been stated before, and they follow the strategic plan. I think it is critical for us to follow up on the excellent work done by the three strategic planning task forces that reported to the Board in August. These groups did a lot of pioneering work in three key areas -- Marketing, Advocacy, and Volunteerism. Second, we have to successfully implement the upgraded computer database system for TEI. The new association management system (or AMS) will enable our members to get more out of their organization and it will liberate the staff to work more creatively to increase the value of membership. Third, because we are only as good as our members and staff, we need to update and refine professional development plans for all members of TEI's staff and ensure that we have realistic succession plans in place. At the same time, we have a continuing plan to attract volunteers to fill leadership positions throughout TEI, and are always on the lookout for new talent. Finally, we need to review and possibly realign TEI's geographic and functional structures in order to promote interaction with the modernized IRS.

TTE: Betty, I know those are your official goals. You wrote about them in your column in the last issue of The Tax Executive. How about your personal goals? What does Betty Wilson want to be remembered for doing?

BMW: I personally hope to make a real difference in TEI by making the leadership more accessible to the general membership. I believe that TEI leadership must get in better touch with the general members in order to know what those members want and need from TEI. The future of TEI is not me, or the other incoming officers, it is the general members, all those out there in the local chapters, all those tax professionals in corporate America who chose to belong to TEI. TEI must step up to the challenge of change. We must not drag our feet. We must move into the age of electronics with our new AMS (not kicking and screaming but willingly). And we must embrace the differences in young tax professionals of today and welcome them into the fold. We must be willing to accept new ideas, new ways of doing things.

TTE: What are some of the new ideas you have in mind?

BMW: I thought you'd never ask. Earlier, I mentioned the frustration I felt early in my TEI career, and I attributed it in part to feeling somewhat estranged from the TEI leadership. To break down the barriers between the membership at large and TEI's leadership, we have worked hard to reduce the level of formality, the so-called pomp and circumstance, at our conferences. For example, at our upcoming San Diego meeting, we have eliminated our head tables and will have our leaders sit throughout the conference hall where they can interact with the members. We are reaching out to new, younger members. We are also reassessing the types of meetings we are having and when and where we have them. For years, TEI's conferences have begun over the weekend, requiring members to sacrifice time with their family for the profession. That sacrifice, however, just doesn't cut it for many people. To be sure, more and more women are joining TEI, but this is not a "Venus versus Mars" issue. We need to take a close look at our programs and make sure that they meet the needs of today's tax professionals, not just women, but all young tax professionals. Don't get me wrong. I think TEI is clearly moving in the right direction. By working together, we can make the organization even better.

TTE: Thank you, Betty, for taking time for this interview. Do you have any closing thoughts?

BMW: Yes. I want everyone to know how extraordinarily proud I am to be TEI's president. I look forward to meeting as many TEI members as possible in the coming year, beginning with the Annual Conference in San Diego. I hope to be seen as a TEI President who is accessible to the membership, who listens to the members' concerns, and who will work with them to facilitate change. By working together, I know we can do great things.

Betty M. Wilson is Tax Executives Institute's 52nd International President. She joined TEI's St. Louis Chapter in 1976, and transferred to the Arizona Chapter in 1995 when she moved to Las Vegas to assume the top tax job at Caesar's World, which had been acquired by ITT Corporation. She previously was Vice President, Director of Taxes, and Assistant Secretary of 117 Financial, a division of ITT. Ms. Wilson served as 1983-1984 president of the St. Louis Chapter, and served as the chapter's representative on the Institute's Board of Directors. She joined TEI's Corporate Tax Management Committee in 1987, and chaired the committee for two years in the mid 1990s. Ms. Wilson also served as a regional vice president. She received her B.S. degree in accounting from Colorado State University in 1969, and is a certified public accountant.
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Title Annotation:President of the Tax Executives Institute
Publication:Tax Executive
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2000
Previous Article:Division Headquarters.
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