Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of profiles highlighting the diverse interests and careers of VSCPA members. Know a member (including yourself) who would make for an interesting profile? Email VSCPA Communications Specialist Chip Knighton.
When VSCPA member Charlie Equi, CPA, began his accounting career, he found an industry in transition. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 had shaken up the federal tax code, and technological advances were changing the way tax professionals did business.
Those changes created the environment that allowed Equi to flourish. Nearly 30 years later, he’s the managing partner of Roanoke firm Johnson, Equi & Co., specializing in tax, accounting services and business valuation.
“Technology helped the growth of the tax preparing business,” Equi said. “You were able to do more tax returns in less time. When I first came there, we were doing it by hand. There were a couple of Compaq computers on the desk that looked like alien beings that a few might be able to use. … Eventually, technology went through and tax preparation became a lot more efficient than erasing a mistake, then going through and erasing it again.”<
Equi began his career right around the time the Tax Reform Act passed, but he hadn’t taken the typical path to the accounting profession. He entered the work force after graduating from Andrew Lewis High School in Salem, working several different jobs while getting two associates’ degrees before transferring to Virginia Tech at 27.
He worked construction, warehouse and restaurant jobs before matriculating at Virginia Tech. That time in the workforce didn’t just ensure he began his career during a tax preparation boom — it shaped his entire outlook on the accounting industry.
“I learned a lot about these businesses when I was in them,” he said. “They’re the kind of clients I’m working with now, helping them. My knowledge was beyond someone who just took an accounting class and went out to help someone.”
And his experience led him to institute a dress code that’s not exactly the norm in the accounting industry.
“Let it be known that I don’t like to wear suits,” he said. “None of [my staff] wear suits unless we’re meeting with a specific client or we have to be somewhere that requires a suit. Back when I first started, everybody had to wear a suit and tie — the official black suit — and that was your uniform.
“Back in the late 80s, early 90s, everybody was doing casual Fridays. The kind of clientele that I work with told me that I looked like a lawyer and it scared them because they felt like they were in there for legal advice, so I started dressing down like they did to make them feel more comfortable.”
Johnson, Equi & Co. focuses on small businesses because it is one. With Equi’s wife, Debbie — a fellow CPA and VSCPA member — also working there, the Equi family makes up one-third of the firm’s employees. (Their daughter, Laura Krell, CPA, is a senior accountant at Norfolk Southern in Roanoke and a VSCPA member.)
While he entered college more mature than your typical teenage freshman, Equi was equally impressed with the education and training he got at Virginia Tech.
“I have a lot of buddies who graduated from there who probably couldn’t get into it now, me included,” he said. “It’s a very difficult program to get through. You go in there and take the classes and feel like you got your money’s worth. If you get out of there, you have a very good chance of having an excellent career in accounting. If you take the Exam within the first five years, you have a very good chance of passing. You come out and you’re ready for the world. You have a superior degree when you come out.”
And while Equi has seen the explosion of the tax preparation industry and recognizes what technology has done for his career, he still carries a bit of nostalgia for the old days.
“When you have the experience of being able to do a tax return by hand, you really understand the connection,” he said. “When you have new staff where all they’ve ever known was a mouse and computer, they’ve kind of lost that. You have to really dive into it and see what the computer does to see what the calculations are sometimes.”