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Moving Mountains in Minnesota

An uphill climb

For Debbie Gellatly, getting started in the tax preparation business was certainly an uphill climb, if not an outright attempt to move mountains. When her contemporaries were in college, Debbie was getting married. (She was widowed at age 22, while expecting her first daughter.) While those same contemporaries were getting their start in the tax profession, Debbie was remarrying, having five more daughters, divorcing, and raising six girls on her own. And while those who took a more traditional path were beginning their own tax preparation businesses, Debbie was getting remarried and running a home daycare business so that she could spend more time with her four-year-old stepson. Finally, when her colleagues in tax preparation were settling into a groove, Debbie headed off to college at age 40 to become an Enrolled Agent.  “I still tell my colleagues I am a greenhorn compared to them, as I have only been doing taxes since 1997,” Debbie jokes.

Getting there is half the fun

It was 1996 and single mother, Debbie Gellatly was working several jobs - banking during the day, encoding mail with the US Postal Service nights and weekends, and waitressing part-time at the local casino - when she signed up to take an H&R Block basic tax course.

Debbie stayed with H&R Block for four years working as a tax preparer and office supervisor and preparing late and amended returns in the summers. It was during one of those summers that Debbie’s now-husband, David, walked in. “He was distraught over his impending divorce and his late tax return,” says Debbie, “and when he asked me to lunch, I thought he just needed a sounding board.” Two years later, they married, and added his three children to Debbie’s family.

At age 40, Debbie, who is part American Indian, went back to school in Cloquet, at a local tribal and community college.  There Debbie was president of the American Indian Business Leaders club and was named Student of the Year. It was also during her time at FDLTCC that Debbie discovered how much she enjoyed creating business plans when she and some fellow students attended an American Indian Business Leaders Conference in San Diego in 2001. The team created a business plan for a Traveling Tax Service and took second in the competition.

Though she had originally planned to get her four year degree in accounting, Debbie decided in her third year that she wanted to work with small businesses, so she decided to become an Enrolled Agent instead.  She passed her EA exam on the first try after only five years as a tax preparer, an accomplishment she attributes to a lot of studying.

The journey continues

Today, Debbie Gellatly runs a successful tax preparation business out of her home. Her practice is primarily individuals and, unlike many tax professionals, Debbie loves Schedule C’s and helping start-up businesses. “I spend extra time with someone when they tell me they want to start a business,” says Debbie. “I became an EA because I wanted to help the little guy.”

And she’s helping a lot of people these days. Though she does very little advertising, Debbie offers an incentive for customer referrals, which generate 10% yearly growth. “My goal when I began was 500 clients; that’s all I felt I could serve with a personal touch.  I’m at 510 now, so I may have to hire a couple of daughters,” she says. In addition, Debbie has a few partnerships and corporations and is still in the process of learning those returns. She also has four payroll and bookkeeping clients and is learning governmental accounting to help assist with a newly formed special district in the area. The fact that she’s always learning something is part of what Debbie loves about this business. That, and the people.

“Every job I ever had, it was the ‘people’ aspect that I enjoyed,” says Debbie. Since many find the very idea of completing a tax return intimidating, Debbie works hard to put her clients at ease. “I have been told they never thought having their taxes done could be so much fun,” she laughs.  On a more serious note, Debbie says, “In tax preparation, you really need to listen to your clients. They each have their own set of challenges - job losses, elderly parents, troubled relationships, gambling and alcohol problems. You’re the barber; you’re the bartender – you hear it all.” Debbie knows that her journey to the place she is today is part of what makes her successful at her job. “I have experienced loss, and I have struggled,” she acknowledges, “so I truly have empathy with my clients”

Debbie’s home (not so far) away from home

In 2002 Debbie and David built a separate building that houses her tax office and his woodshop. “We only have one septic system, though, so if someone needs to use the bathroom, they have to go into the house. We have this policy that one bathroom must stay clean all the time during tax season,” she laughs.

With only two children still at home, Debbie says her family is “pretty self-sufficient” these days. That’s a good thing because during tax season, a typical workday for Debbie starts at 6 a.m. with a cup of coffee and a recipe in the crock pot. “If my husband makes dinner, it’s venison,” says Debbie. “If I want anything other than venison, I have to put it in the crock pot in the morning.”

Debbie’s workday includes answering phones, responding to emails, taking appointments, meeting with clients, preparing returns, and scanning documents until she finally drags herself in for a late supper at 9 or 10 p.m.  It takes a bit of pressure off Debbie when she can recruit one her daughters to answer the phone and do filing and data entry. “I hope to have one daughter working full-time on bookkeeping within the next year and another working part-time doing basic returns. The office is so small, we’ll be on top of each other – I may have to expand!” Debbie’s grateful to her husband, David, for his help, as well. “He does all the snow shoveling and vacuuming and turns the lights on in my office in the morning,” she says.

Debbie is open year-round but works substantially fewer hours during the off-season. “I’d say I cut down to about 24 hours a week from at least 100 during tax season,” she says. In addition to being an EA, she has her notary license and is a Certified Senior Advisor. She also spends a lot of time advising clients who are considering opening a business. “I help clients create business plans and budgets, set up federal and state ID's, write hardship letters, file for unemployment - the list goes on,” she says Debbie knows her clients need her to be their “go-to” person, and she takes that responsibility seriously. “We’ll start with a Schedule C and see where it goes from there. We talk and plan free of charge.”

Making the journey with Drake Software

When Debbie opened her own practice, she was using another tax preparation software, but that didn’t last for long.  “I spoke with a Drake representative at a seminar and received a CD to check out,” she says. “I was sold on the product and have been using it since 2003.” Debbie values the confidence Drake Software has given her to complete more returns, gain new clients, and save clients’ money.

Debbie appreciates how easy Drake software was to learn on her own but also recognizes the value of professional training. “I spent a week in Franklin two years ago at an Update School because I wanted to know everything the program had to offer,” she says. “I was amazed at all the little features I was not using that made my life easier, like the Drake Document Manager! I use it for everything; I even scan my new recipes into Drake’s DM,” she laughs.

Like many of Drake’s customers, Debbie especially appreciates the technical support. “You can call Drake and, within seconds, have someone to talk to. It’s tremendous.” Debbie also attends a local Drake Users Group once a year. “We have a core group of about 100, and everyone shares user tips and ideas with one another,” she says.

Beyond the office doors

Giving back to her small community is important to Debbie. “I believe we need to give back, whether with money or time,” she says. To that end, she serves as a district representative for the Minnesota chapter of the National Association of Tax Preparers (NATP). Throughout her many years raising children, Debbie has served on a nursery school board, as a Girl Scout leader, a soccer coach, a Sunday School teacher, and a North Country Ride volunteer helping handicapped children ride horses. And she is still helping with the all-night graduation party at the local high school.

Debbie sees her daughters almost daily, as all live within 30 miles. “My family is my key focus in life,” she says.  “I worked a lot when my kids were little because I had to,” Debbie says, “so they had to help raise themselves.” Because of that, it’s especially important to Debbie that she now make time to help her daughters raise their children. “I like to try to give them a break,” she says.

“Grammy,” as her thirteen grandchildren call her, enjoys gardening, baking, and taking walks with the children. And because she works for herself, Debbie is often able to work her clients around her grandchildren’s schedules and be there for them at school programs and sporting events.

Debbie and David make time to visit their parents, as well, all of whom are still living within four hours of the couple. “We love to travel, but our travel these days is mostly limited to visiting family,” says Debbie. “Either that or it’s tax-related,” she laughs.

The rocks in the road

Though Debbie enjoys working for herself, she acknowledges that there are some downsides. One drawback is that when she is struggling with a tough question, she has to work a little harder to find the answer. “I don’t have someone in the next office to say, ‘Hey, have you come across this before?’” So Debbie relies heavily on the network she has cultivated over the years. “I have met some wonderful people along the path. In this business, you really need people you can count on.” Debbie counts on the advice of her IRS liaison, Carole Smith, as well as her support system at Drake Software. “When I have that really dumb question, I can always count on the folks at Drake to answer it for me.”

Another challenge for Debbie is that it often feels as though she is always playing catch-up. “There is so much to learn and to know,” she says. “I keep saying that one of these days I am going to read a book that is not a tax book. Someday I am going to lie on a beach and read a book just for fun!”

On the horizon

Debbie can’t help but consider the possibility of slowing down a little in the future, but she’s wary of making that move. She just can’t bear the thought of leaving her valued clients, people she considers her extended family. “I wouldn’t want to just say ‘I’m done’ and leave them,” she says seriously.  “I would love to bring in a couple of my daughters and introduce them to my clients, then I could eventually phase myself out.”

In the meantime, Debbie Gellatly will keep doing what she’s doing – counseling clients, chasing children, and maybe even moving some mountains.

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