Today’s guest is Bernardo Diaz. Bernardo was born in Mexico, immigrated to the U.S., finished high school in two years, and started his career at Deloitte. Since then he’s worked for some of the world’s biggest brands. Read about it below!
Grim: Thanks for joining us today. Can you tell us about your background?
I'm originally from Mexico City. I moved to South Texas my junior year in high school and have been living in Texas for the last several years. I went to school at the University of Texas Pan American -- now known as the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
When I started college I wanted to be an attorney and I started as pre-law. I quickly realized I needed another career path in case law school didn’t happen. I remember during my first tax class thinking “this is it, this is my career”. That’s when I started pushing law school to the side.
I came out of school in 2009 during the recession and there was a lot of competition for Big Four internships at the time. My dad was in the U.S. on an investor Visa, which meant that when I turned 21 I was on my own. So I had to decide if I wanted to go back to Mexico and work for the Big Four, or stay in the U.S. on a student Visa and get my master’s. I decided to stay and get my master’s in accounting from my alma mater. During graduate school I met a lot of Big Four partners and senior managers. One of the senior managers was from the Orange County Deloitte office and had a good relationship with the San Diego clients and the Partners and Directors from that office. The San Diego Deloitte office had a need in their international tax group based on its big presence with outbound and inbound cross-border clients. Based on my background and bilingual skills, I was a good fit for it. I interned there in 2010 and started full time when I graduated in 2011.
What was it like immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico?
I was fortunate enough to have a good education in Mexico, so my English was pretty good by the time I got here. However, I didn’t get full credit for my studies in Mexico. I should have been a junior when we came to the states, but I had to start here at the freshman level. So I didn’t have a life in high school. I was taking early bird classes, after school classes and summer school to catch up. I ended up graduating high school in two years.
Another challenge was the fact that I was going to require Visa sponsorship. I felt like this put me at a disadvantage compared to some other candidates. When I took my first tax class there was a lot of legalese in the tax code that I didn’t understand. So I decided to take a couple of pre-law classes to help read and decipher the internal revenue code. That taught me the IRAC process, which stands for Issue, Analysis, Research and Conclusion. I used the IRAC process when submitting my essay for Deloitte. They were impressed by my English (although it’s my second language) and writing skills, and also the fact that I had a good grasp on legal terms and analysis. Anyway, taking this back to requiring Visa sponsorship -- if you’re in that position you have to do something to set yourself apart.
How was starting your career at Deloitte?
I started out doing compliance work. After filing all the forms it was October or November, and that’s when compliance usually slows down and consulting picks up. As a result, I got put on a lot of consulting projects, and my first one was with a big multinational company based in Mexico that also had operations in the U.S. This was a pretty complex project. They were trying to get dual consolidated losses to offset some of their income, and the dual consolidated losses were in their foreign operations in South America and the Caribbean.
I was dealing directly with the partners and directors, so it got me exposed to upper management very early in my career. I was given a lot of responsibility in terms of my deliverables. Usually there are multiple levels of review before it gets to the director. So there was a lot of pressure, but I was very fortunate. Looking back it was a very rewarding experience.
How were the next few years at Deloitte?
I stayed there until 2013; it became really stressful. With all of the consulting work, I had put the CPA on the side. I passed two sections during college, but I didn’t want to be taken off my engagements to study. Also, living in an unfamiliar city with no family or friends and working 65 to 75 hours a week took an emotional and personal toll on me.
Eventually I decided to relocate back to Texas and wanted to take a break from public accounting. A senior manager I worked with in San Diego had transferred to the Deloitte Dallas office and knew of an opening at Cinemark. They needed an international tax analyst and she thought it was the perfect role for me. She was a mentor of mine and, while she tried to convince me to stay with Deloitte, she recommended me for the job at Cinemark.
What was it like going from public accounting to industry?
Obviously there’s better work-life balance, but you’re still putting in at least 50 hours a week sometimes. One of the biggest differences in industry is that you have to get to know all of the different departments in the company. It’s not like public where you can just request information from the client. You have to know how to get it yourself or who can get it for you at the earliest convenience.
I did some consulting projects there, like transfer pricing and foreign tax credit analysis. But I did a lot more compliance work than I had previously. This was beneficial for my career but not what I wanted to focus on.
What was the next step in your career?
After Cinemark, I went to American Airlines working on international tax projects. I was fortunate enough to experience the integration of American Airlines and U.S. Airways. At Cinemark, I was part of a lot of mergers and acquisitions projects. That experience was very helpful during my time at American Airlines. Bringing the two airline companies together was exciting because we were blending two very different companies -- from a tax and technical perspective, as well as culturally.
Due to tax treaties, airlines are tax exempt in most foreign countries. Also, airline companies carry large net operating losses. These factors lead to a low pressure environment for the tax department. It’s viewed as a cost center and you’re not the priority for the CFO, which limits upward mobility. I wasn’t actively looking to leave, but a recruiter reached out and told me about a manager position with AT&T. I interviewed and accepted the job and so far, it’s been a great fit. Our tax department has over 400 professionals and we have three divisions within the tax department. I’m currently in the international compliance group, but we also have a large focus on in-house tax consulting. That is one of the things that I’ve been missing since leaving public, so it was a really attractive part of working at AT&T.
I’m not a tax guy, can you briefly touch on the different sides of a tax department?
Sure, there’s three sides. The first is compliance, which is focused on tax filings with the IRS and foreign governments. There’s tax accounting, which is in charge of tax provisions, deferred tax assets/liabilities and creating the tax footnote that gets disclosed in the 10-K. And finally there’s consulting, which works on tax planning strategies to minimize tax liability.
What’s your advice for someone working in public accounting -- how can they get the most out of that experience?
Start exploring which industry you're most comfortable with and you like the most. Once you understand that, look for the clients that would help you the most in your career. Those clients will stick with the firm, so you can continue to work with them throughout your career -- all the way through becoming a partner.
Any advice for students or folks who may be in the same position you were?
My biggest advice would be to finish your CPA before you graduate, that way you can focus on your career 100%. I don’t think a lot of students realize how challenging and demanding working for a big four firm is. There’s also a financial incentive for getting it done within your first year; I think Big Four these days offer up to $15 grand.
If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?
Be very diligent with deliverables. When I first started out and was working directly with directors, there were certain things that I didn’t feel like I had the time to analyze as much as I wanted. Nothing was wrong technically, but I could have spent more time working on my presentation skills and how I was relaying information to my managers and directors.
What are some of the key things you’ve learned in your career?
I would say the biggest thing is building and leveraging your experience with a network of professionals. Throughout your career, you're always going to have to reference something, and it’s always nice to be able to draw on a past experience with a former coworker. And even with stuff like hiring, if you’re looking for -- for example -- a senior, chances are your network can help you find someone.
How about leveraging that network on the public side?
Interact with as many people outside of your group as you can; network with people from the assurance and the audit side. The big four emphasize all sorts of groups. I was part of the African American group, I got to know a lot of the partners on the audit side, and it all led to great career advice. Make the most out of those groups.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
Know your client. And that doesn’t just mean in public work. In my case now at AT&T, my client is my director. So, get to know your boss, get to know your client. Spend time learning about their likes, dislikes, and expectations. Once you understand these things, either on the public or industry side, you can advance quickly in your career because they’ll be satisfied and give you great reviews.
What are your long-term career and life goals?
COVID was one of those things that makes you think a lot about where you want to go. We might get another economic crisis, in 10 years I may be director with AT&T and there may be layoffs -- you never know. So one of the biggest lessons I learned from my dad’s experience in Mexico -- and the reason why he finally decided to open a business -- was watching him go through a couple of layoffs.
All of this sparked my entrepreneurial spirit, and I realized I can do this on my own. So, through COVID, I reached out to a former colleague of mine. We always said maybe one day we can try to see if we can open a CPA firm. So during COVID I had a lot of additional time that I didn't have to spend in a commute or at the office -- I'm fortunate enough to work from home. I used my extra time to think of ideas for my own business.
So, long-term, I obviously want to keep going with AT&T, but also have something on the side. That way, if there's another COVID in 10 years or there are any layoffs, I still have a way to provide for my family. I definitely want to grow with AT&T, but I also want to start growing that entrepreneurial dream.
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