By Doug Sheppard, Tax Notes State commentary editor
Being the first American rock band of perhaps thousands to cover a reggae song would have to be considered a major milestone — if not something to brag about.
If one knew that they were breaking new ground, that is. Informed years later that Brownsville Station’s 1973 version of Jimmy Cliff’s “Let Your Yeah Be Yeah” was the first rock version of a reggae song, guitarist/vocalist Cub Koda responded, “I won’t dispute that statement, but if I had known we were making history, I’d-a paid more attention.”
So went Carol Calkins’s 40-year career in state and local tax: She was the only woman in her accounting class at Louisiana State University, the only woman in her sorority in business school, one of the first women hired as a revenue agent by the Louisiana Department of Revenue, the first woman in several organizations of which she was a member, and, perhaps most notably, the first woman to earn SALT partner status at a major accounting firm, with Price Waterhouse in 1991. And all the while, it rarely occurred to her that she was also blazing a path for more women to follow.
“I started thinking about all the things I did, and I thought to myself: ‘How in the world did I do that?’ Seriously, I was a single mom and I had two young children, and I’m climbing the partner track, and I have all these responsibilities,” Calkins said.
“It really made me stop and think: ‘That was an accomplishment that maybe I didn’t recognize at the time.’”
Though her first love was acting, which manifested in her roles in many school plays, Calkins knew she would have to find a more practical career path — and began planning as early as high school, when the general manager for the telephone company she worked for advised her to get a business degree.
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“I did not really want to be in business; I wanted to be an actress,” Calkins recalled. “I enjoyed acting and I loved the performing arts, but I realized that acting didn’t really pay. I thought that getting a degree in business would be a good way to be able to take care of myself, and that acting could be an avocation.”
A family move from Spencer, Iowa, to Bossier City, Louisiana, for her senior year in high school in 1965-1966 hastened Calkins’s path toward the private sector. The move not only ensured a warmer climate (which appealed to a family raised in frigid Nebraska, South Dakota, and Iowa), but perhaps was one reason Calkins enrolled at LSU on a scholarship after graduation from Airline High School.
Highlights of Calkins’s years at LSU include dancing to John Fred and His Playboy Band, having a management class with basketball legend “Pistol Pete” Maravich, tutoring members of the basketball team on which Maravich played, working at City National Bank to supplement her education funding, and attending various Pi Beta Phi sorority functions. But in terms of impact, perhaps nothing was more pivotal than an auditing class she had her sophomore year.
Calkins, the only woman in the class besides an older woman who sat in the back of the lecture hall (more on her in a moment), was asked one day by Dr. Guerra (whose first name is lost to history) — a visiting professor from Washington University — to stay after class.
“Carol, I’ve noticed that you’re getting a degree in general business,” Guerra told Calkins. “I really think there’s a place for women in accounting. Why don’t you consider changing your major to accounting?”
Thus inspired, Calkins did just that shortly after the conversation. “I look at that as God putting an angel in my path, because little did I know how switching my major was going to impact my entire life,” she said.
“So when I graduated [in 1970], I signed up for the civil service exam in Louisiana, because if you would remember back then, there were very few women in accounting — and it was very difficult to find a job,” Calkins recalled. “I mean, I literally had one place tell me that I was the most qualified, but the boss wants a man for the job. That just happened a lot back then, so I signed up for civil service.”
That led to Calkins landing an interview for a revenue agent opening at the Louisiana Department of Revenue. To the new LSU grad’s surprise, the woman who interviewed her was the same one who’d been in the back of the room for that fateful auditing class: Shirley McNamara, the DOR’s technical director for audit. “She essentially hired me on the spot,” Calkins recalled.
Baptism by Fire
Four years of collegiate study left Calkins well-prepared for the technical aspects of her new revenue agent position. She had a lot to learn about the rigors of the job, however.
“My first assignment was to audit all the pinball machine operators in east and west Baton Rouge Parish for occupational license tax,” Calkins said.
The assignment wasn’t anything like, say, the idyllic vision of pinball presented in Tommy — as many of the machines were controlled by organized crime.
In one more memorable audit, Calkins went to an establishment with no windows penetrating its cinderblock walls. After ringing the doorbell required for entry, the young agent was struck by the baby blue filing cabinets (virtually all others were gray) as a woman dressed to the nines (with alligator shoes and matching bag) greeted her.
According to Calkins, the woman’s records were as impeccable as her fashion sense. But the best — or as it were, worst — was yet to come as Calkins drove away in her white 1964 Plymouth Valiant.
“When I left there, somebody started following me, and it scared me to death,” Calkins recalled, emphasizing her fright. “I mean, I zigged and zagged all over town and went one way and went another way — and finally, I didn’t see that car following me. And I don’t know who it was following me, but I can also tell you that two weeks later, that company was indicted for interstate transportation of gambling devices.”
Calkins’s next assignment was auditing plants along the Mississippi River out of the DOR’s Baton Rouge office. “I also had an interest in chemistry, so it was really interesting for me to try and understand the process, because that impacts the taxability for sales and use tax purposes of what’s used, what’s raw materials, and what is not a component part,” she said.
“And I actually worked with some of the chemists at LSU to have them help me understand the process in what they were manufacturing — and what were the raw materials and what were the catalysts.”
“I also learned the hard way that you have to be really careful opening filing cabinets, because if you pull the top drawer open, the whole thing will fall over on top of you,” Calkins added. “So there were a lot of lessons learned in the very beginning.”
After two years in Baton Rouge and four in the DOR’s Shreveport office, Calkins made an even bigger move in 1976 to the department’s Dallas outpost.
Once again, the move was prompted by McNamara, who had returned to Louisiana to become the secretary of revenue and taxation, asking Calkins if she wanted to move to Dallas. Additionally spurred by her husband, Don Bordelon, who was in banking and enthusiastic about the opportunity, Calkins made the move.
“One of the reasons that Louisiana had people living there was because so many oil and gas companies did business in Louisiana — like Mobil Oil,” Calkins said. The new position as an out-of-state auditor saw her jet-setting across the country on now-defunct airlines like Pan Am, Allegheny, Eastern, TWA, and Ozark, in addition to still-extant names like United and American, conducting audits and building her reputation and contacts in the private sector.
Calkins also continued her membership in the National Association of Accountants, eventually becoming its Dallas chapter president in 1980 and 1981. And around this time, she and Bordelon welcomed two children into the family, though the couple would divorce in 1983.
Into the Private Sector
The associations and business contacts paid off in June 1981, when Calkins was recruited to be the state income tax supervisor for Sun Oil’s Dallas subsidiary, Sun Exploration and Production. But if she thought she’d seen everything in 11 years in state and local tax, she quickly learned otherwise.
“I was just auditing for Louisiana, and I thought: ‘Well, if I can audit for 40-plus taxes for Louisiana, how hard could it be for me to learn 50 state income tax laws and the local jurisdictions?’ Because I just assumed they were all just the same,” Calkins said.
“But surprise, surprise: They were all very different and many of them did not use separate accounting, which is what the oil and gas industry used, so it was a bit of a surprise to me, but also another learning opportunity.”
By 1983, Calkins had passed the certified public accountant exam. Her stint at Sun also saw her get involved in various organizations that would shape her future, including the American Petroleum Institute, the Committee (now Council) On State Taxation, and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, for which she chaired both state taxation committees.
Among many other acquaintances made through these organizations were Jim Buresh and Paul Frankel, with whom Calkins almost became synonymous thanks to speaking on many panels with them in the ensuing years.
“They recognized my love of state and local tax and encouraged me,” Calkins recalled. “We used to give speeches together all over the country, and they called us Goldilocks and the Two Bears, because they were great big, huge, tall guys — and I’m 5’2”.”
Undoubtedly, the public speaking helped Calkins when she registered as a lobbyist in 1983, as she successfully spearheaded the reversal of laws in Oklahoma and Louisiana.
The Oklahoma law charged businesses $25 an hour for an audit unless they brought their books to the state (an unrealistic proposition), while Louisiana attempted to reduce the depletion allowance — which “was really important to the oil and gas companies,” according to Calkins.
Likewise, while chairing the American Petroleum Institute’s energy industry committee, Calkins testified on rolling back from worldwide combination to water’s-edge combined reporting in California. But even with these successes, it soon became apparent to Calkins that lobbying was not a long-term proposition.
“They say nothing is certain but death and taxes, and I decided that taxes would be — because I had two young kids, I needed to be in the tax realm — as opposed to the lobbying realm,” she said.
“And when the oil and gas industry started to go down around that time, they cut that lobbying staff down to one person, and they had at some point probably 40 people in that group. So I made a wise choice there going back into tax.”
And in 1986, the move by her friend Ron Fulks from Phillips Petroleum to Price Waterhouse soon inspired her to follow: “He told me he was having a ball and that I needed to think about joining them. So he put that little bug in my ear.”
The Ascension to Partner
Impressed by her knowledge of master limited partnerships, which she had helped Sun set up, Price Waterhouse (now PwC) hired Calkins as a manager at its Dallas office in 1986. But if she thought this would be smooth compared with her experiences at the DOR and Sun, she was wrong.
Shortly after being hired, Calkins answered an after-hours phone call from SEDCO, which was seeking tax advice. “I have the captain of the boat on the line with me, and we need to know where to park the drilling rig,” said the voice on the other end.
“This was at 5 o’clock at night, and I was still at the office — and everybody had gone, because it was April 15,” Calkins recalled. “I said, ‘Well, the only thing I can think to do is pull it into Mobile Bay and throw a tarp over it.’ I totally winged it, but that actually was where it needed to go, because they had very favorable property tax laws there.”
Isolated incident? Not quite.
“Two weeks later, I get a similar call, and they’ve got a rig that’s off the West Coast,” Calkins said. “Again, this is after hours when I answered the phone, and they’re asking me the same thing. So I said, ‘Pull it into Oregon.’ Same deal — good sales tax laws there.”
Later research confirmed that Calkins had gone two for two in her boating advice, but the third time never came: “I didn’t answer the phone after hours after that.”
Similarly, Calkins found the firm’s archives lacking as she helped build the multistate practice: There was only one CCH state tax guide — for Texas — and nothing for any other states. Eventually, she would be responsible for the central region of the United States, which extended from New Mexico to Canada, over to Cleveland, Ohio, then down to Mississippi.
“It was a huge area,” Calkins said. “And you talk about management by walking around? Well, it was more like management by flying around. And over time, I built a great staff in Dallas, and then eventually hired people in Houston, hired people in St. Louis. We already had some people in Chicago, we got people in Cleveland and Columbus; we had offices wherever Price Waterhouse at the time had an office. We tried to get people on site there.
“Bill Essay was a big part of my success,” Calkins added. “He was my right-hand guy. He had a very successful career in SALT at PwC when I took on the national roles.”
Calkins also built up a formidable list of clients, including Frankel (then with W.R. Grace & Co.), Electronic Data Systems (which she helped with its spinoff from GM), Exxon, Shell, ARCO, Hunt, Kerr-McGee Corp., Devon Energy Corp., Mary Kay Inc., and Halliburton. She even handled a master limited partnership for the National Basketball Association’s Boston Celtics.
Along the way, Calkins was promoted to senior manager in 1987, then made partner in 1991. This time, she knew she was making history as the first woman to become a SALT partner at an accounting firm:
“I recognized that, and I was very appreciative of it. And it was a big deal. I wasn’t the first female partner in the Dallas office; there were several of us.”
The promotion brought new challenges, including a reminder of the differences between how men and women behave in business settings.
“It just seemed like I needed to talk louder,” Calkins said. “Like when I would go into partner meetings, the guys would just be very loud and boisterous. So I just realized that if I wanted to be heard, I needed to speak much louder.
“But again, I was very lucky in that the partners were very accepting. And Luther Campbell, who was the tax partner in charge, just made it clear to everybody: ‘She gets treated the same way, and I’m treating her the same way as I’m treating the rest of you guys. You need to show her respect.’”
In her new role as partner, Calkins had additional oversight of the credits and incentives and property tax practices in addition to the central region. Her status as the first female partner also dovetailed nicely with being named the co-chair of diversity and work-life quality for the entire firm in 1994.
“I stayed in that role probably until 2000, and we really drew a line in the sand and said: ‘Here are our goals and here are our metrics, and here’s how we’re going to accomplish that.’ And we built that into the partner plan, so that people were being evaluated — and these were senior leaders — and they were being evaluated on creating a pipeline of diverse partners. So that was my night job.”
“When you stop and think about it,” she added, “that was a lot. And then came the merger with Coopers in 1998, and I retained the co-chair of diversity role for the firm, and I also retained my regional responsibilities. And then I was asked to run the national sales and use tax practice, so I took that on — giving up the regional responsibilities.”
By the time Calkins was flourishing as a partner, the state and local tax landscape had undergone a dramatic transformation. What was once a backwater — or at least an afterthought — to federal and international practice was now growing exponentially, and she had witnessed the entire transformation.
“It’s much more sophisticated, and because there have been so many changes, I also think it’s much more respected in this day and time,” Calkins said. “When I first started, when you’re doing the tax provision, people weren’t even really looking at the state tax piece of the tax provision. And now that’s just built in. It’s all part of the process from a Big Four standpoint.”
What’s more, as accounting firms established SALT practices, so did law firms — giving partners like Calkins yet another opportunity: “The Big Eight really got out there creating the practice [in the 1980s], but then quickly following, the law firms then started building state and local practices. Because accountants cannot litigate, I partnered with a lot of different law firms that were building state and local practices. We would work with them on technical litigation issues — so I got to work again with Paul Frankel.”
In turn, the growth of SALT at accounting and law firms led to a massive influx of women — something Calkins had made a personal mission: “During my career, I always looked for opportunities to advance women in accounting. In fact, I even have a scholarship for women in accounting at LSU in my will.”
Among the women Calkins has mentored are Janet Krueger (KPMG), Valli Perera (Deloitte), Melanie McDaniel (PwC), and Maureen Pechacek (PwC).
“You just don’t know how you’re influencing people’s lives by encouraging them to excel,” Calkins said. “Valli ended up being a global audit partner, Janet is still practicing, and Melanie and Maureen just retired.”
In turn, those mentored by Calkins recognize her impact.
Pechacek, who credits Calkins with convincing her to join public accounting to specialize in state taxes, describes her as “a wonderful role model for all of us. Carol was great with clients, a confident and inspirational leader and a brilliant and creative technician.”
Calkins has also been active at her alma mater, first as the lead partner for LSU recruiting and spending 100 hours on campus annually, and more recently on the executive committee of the LSU Dean’s Advisory Council at E.J. Ourso College of Business and the national board of the LSU Foundation.
“It’s really about giving back,” she said. “We are in a campaign at LSU to raise $1.5 billion by 2025, and I lead the North Texas geographic area for that.”
Retirement and Beyond
Calkins and Bordelon remarried in 2001. Sadly, Bordelon developed colon cancer in 2004 and was gone a year later.
That same year PricewaterhouseCoopers asked Calkins to move to New York to be in its quality and risk management group, where she stayed until her retirement in 2008 — racking up frequent flyer miles faster than Grand Funk Railroad earned gold record awards in the early ’70s.
“That was really interesting, because I was flying all over the United States doing quality review audits,” Calkins said. “But in addition to that, they asked me to be the lead partner on the conversion of work-paper bundles to TMS, which is electronic work papers. And trying to convince people to go from paper to electronics back in that time period was a challenge. But it was a lot of fun, and I made 2 million miles on American Airlines in May 2008, the month before I retired, so I am platinum for life. And that doesn’t count all the miles on all the other airlines.”
In addition to her work with LSU and doting over her five grandchildren, Calkins has served on PwC’s national Retired Partner Committee for five years. And in what she calls “continuous learning,” she’s also mentored people both inside and outside PwC. More recently, she joined the board of directors of b1BANK.
“In the roles that I had at Sun and PricewaterhouseCoopers, I had the opportunity to give speeches all over the United States — actually, even internationally, because I spoke in Canada and Germany,” Calkins said. “I also was very involved in teaching at the state and local tax schools and really enjoyed that. So even though I didn’t become an actress, I did have a stage. So I got the best of both worlds.”
To Calkins, it all goes back to the LSU auditing class a half-century ago.
“It was a great ride,” she said. “I had a fabulous career, and I really owe it a lot to LSU, because it was there that Dr. Guerra and Shirley McNamara put me on a track. So it wasn’t a matter of me being attracted to it; it was a matter of serendipity.”