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Michelle Brown joined Saltchuk Tax after 28 years with PricewaterhouseCoopers

By Hilary Reeves

Brown smiles and casually leans against a wall in front of a marina.
Brown outside the Saltchuk Corporate Home office on South Lake Union in Seattle

In the waning months of 2015, Michelle Brown began contemplating retirement after 28 years at the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), one of the largest accounting firms in the world. Ultimately deciding to retire from PwC, but seeking a new challenge, she joined Saltchuk in January of 2016 as the company’s Vice President of Tax. Among the perks her new position affords is a reduction in the administrative work that sometimes kept her out of the action.

“I have a staff of five now, as opposed to a staff of more than 20 before. I spend a lot less time on administrative work and recruiting, and more time on technical work – on the actual work itself.”

And the work is plentiful. In addition to the preparation of some seven Federal tax returns, Saltchuk companies file in almost every state.

“I think we counted at least 65 tax returns last year filed between September 15 and October 15. The next four weeks are the busiest of the year.”

From Sports Medicine to Accounting

Brown was born in Boulder, Colorado, and moved with her parents to Seattle when she was a small child.

“My father was a contractor, a brick-layer, and then a firefighter,” she said. “We moved (to Seattle) so that he could work as a firefighter.”

Brown’s mother owned an antique store in the city’s famed Pike Place Market.

“My first job was selling popcorn on the weekends out of an antique popcorn machine in my mother’s store,” she said. “When I was 16, my parents wanted me to gain some experience outside the family business. I loved books, so I got a job a local bookstore where I worked through my junior year of college.”

Brown was a high school athlete, and began her collegiate career at the University of Washington majoring in Sports Medicine.

“I took my first sports medicine class when I was a freshman; at the end of my freshman year, (the University) closed the entire program. The nearest Sports Medicine program was in California. I was putting myself through college, living at home, and at the time I didn’t understand how I could afford to go to school out of state. It was just inconceivable. I had taken an accounting class already, and had done well in math at high school. One of my mother’s business partners in the antique store was an accountant. I called him and asked if he needed any help at his firm. I wanted to try it out before I changed my major.”

Brown made that phone call during the winter of 1984. She was hired on temporarily, but stayed on until graduating with a degree in accounting and becoming a Certified Public Accountant.

“The guy I was working for, it was a small, two-person accounting firm,” she explained. “They had come out of one of the ‘Big 8’ (the eight largest accounting firms in the world), but after college, he wanted me to get the right experience, so he encouraged me to go to work for one of the big firms. I joined Coopers & Lybrand.”

Brown spent three years there before leaving to join Pay ‘N Pak, a large regional retailer, as their Tax Manger. After the company went bankrupt, she rejoined Coopers & Lybrand – now PricewaterhouseCoopers – and worked there an additional 25 years.

She retired from PwC as a Partner in their Tax Department, focused on Federal taxation, as well as mergers and acquisitions, restructurings, and state and international tax planning and compliance.

“Since I’ve been (at Saltchuk), we’ve bought two companies and sold one,” she explained. “Fortunately, toward the end of my career especially, I gained a lot of experience on what kind of issues to look for when going through those kind of transitions.”

One strategy Brown’s employed is to assign a single staff member to build relationships with the companies in Saltchuk’s main outposts in Seattle, Alaska, and Florida.

“The idea is that if, say, something were to happen over at Foss, that person is already familiar with the people and the system,” she explained. “On the other side, every CFO, every Controller knows, ‘here’s my primary tax person who I can call if I have a question.’ We’re working to develop more of a service-type approach, rather than a compliance approach. I think it’s really helped in terms of what the businesses are getting out of Saltchuk Tax. They’re more willing to call and engage us.”

A brand-new challenge

Brown married her husband four years ago, and has two grown children from a previous marriage.

“My son graduated with a finance degree, and is a financial advisor in Bellevue,” she said. “My daughter is in school pursing a nursing degree and lives in Ellensburg.”

In addition to her time on the job and with her family, Brown has traveled to Washington D.C. several times to lobby on behalf of Saltchuk shareholders.

“We’re trying to get some legislation changed,” she said. “An administrative oversight currently has shareholders paying taxes they were never intended to. Congress and the Treasury agree that they didn’t intend for them to pay.”

Brown said her and others were close to resolution before the new administration took over.

“Tax reform is still supposedly moving forward,” she said, “and a big piece of that is supposed to ease the burden on private companies. Both the House and the Senate and the administration are trying to figure out the best way, and we’re trying to educate them about where we see issues in any proposed tax legislation, where it doesn’t work and what solutions would make it work better.”

The legislative work, Brown said, is brand-new to her.Brown smiles looking back at the camera over a bench.

“I’d never done anything like that before,” she said. “It’s been really fun. I’m thankful we get the opportunity.”

And after “way too many hours” worked in her previous position, but not quite ready to retire, she’s finding her current situation a perfect in-between.

“As I continue to learn and grow, this is the perfect role for me,” she said. “Before I’m done, I’d like to get the next generation of tax professionals off to a great start. I love to mentor and coach and develop. And so, to me, it would be really rewarding that I can pass on what I know to the next generation of leaders in the Saltchuk Tax Department.”