Imagine having to calculate the sales tax for your product sold across every state in the country.
Within those states, sales tax rates may vary from county to county, so imagine figuring that in as well. Most people don’t have the laser-like focus to comprehend such formulas.
This is where Anna Howell, director of state and local tax for CBIZ Memphis comes in. CBIZ is one of the largest tax, accounting and consulting providers in Memphis. Howell is a certified public accountant and a specialist in sales tax compliance and personal property tax.
Things are about to get a whole lot busier for Howell if the Marketplace Fairness Act, already passed in the U.S. Senate, is approved by the House of Representatives. The act, sometimes referred to as the “Internet tax bill,” will require online and catalog retailers to collect sales tax from consumers regardless of where they are, provided the company has sales of more than $1 million.
Simply put, under the current law, a supplier in Memphis shipping its product via common carrier to Arkansas is not required to collect sales tax from the customer. This will change with the Marketplace Fairness Act, and that supplier will be compelled to register and collect tax from that customer. It’s a heady, complex proposition for small businesses and large corporations alike.
“That’s why people would call me,” Howell said. “Because I have a practice that can prepare sales tax returns for every jurisdiction in the country, we do that for our clients. So a small business that doesn’t have a tax department or even know what the rates are – and especially can’t handle filing all of those returns – it’s a big burden.”
Howell grew up in nearby New Albany, Miss., and, coming from a family of Rebels, attended the University of Mississippi herself. She went with the intention of a medical career with sights set on pharmacy school, but a single class in accounting was enough to switch her from a life as pill counter to one as bean counter.
Ole Miss has a “fabulous accounting school,” she said.
“Actually, one of my accounting professors was a fraternity brother of my dad, so it just kind of all fell together,” she said.
She was recruited from campus to work with Price WaterhouseCoopers LLP in their audit division, and moved to Memphis upon graduation. With a move to Bowling Green, Ky., nearly a year later, she found work in-house at the Fruit of the Loom corporate headquarters, in its tax preparation division.
“My tax job was kind of a niche area, and it’s still what I do today. It’s focused in sales tax and property tax, more of an indirect tax, a typical term for the industry,” she said. “Those are operational taxes, so you have to understand operations to work with it.”
After nearly six years, she moved over to Sumitomo Electric Wiring Systems Inc., a Tier 1 automotive supplier for the likes of Honda, Toyota and Acura. There she worked in tax, as well as budgeting, forecasting and fixed assets. Though the tax situations were similar, the culture was different, and Sumitomo is where Howell gained expertise in the automotive industry, a specialty that still serves her well. She sits on the membership committee for the Southern Automotive Women’s Forum, a Tennessee-focused organization made up of female executives across the automotive industry working to bring more women into STEM fields, which feed into that industry.
“We raise scholarships for 12 states trying to encourage women to go into automotive careers,” Howell said.
When she moved back to Memphis in 2000, it was also a move back to public accounting with Thompson Dunavant PLC, acquired by CBIZ in 2011.
“I’d been out of the Memphis market for a while and just kind of wanted to learn about a lot of different companies before I chose to work for a corporation,” she said. “I thought it would be a short stint with Thompson Dunavant and that I would get to corporate, but I’m still here.”
She enjoys such work – the public side being more “client focused” – and said she is more of a people person.
“I enjoy the client relationships and being able to help a lot of different types of companies solve their tax problems,” Howell said.
She also relishes the challenge. With CBIZ being the only firm in Memphis with a dedicated sales tax practice and the only office across CBIZ nationally with a focus practice like this, Howell says she will have her hands full with the Marketplace Fairness Act.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge because there’s going to be a lot of confusion and they’ll implement it quickly in typical government fashion and people will scramble to get the right answer.”