A Conversation With Betsy Nolen: The busy accountant’s best friend

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Betsy Nolen is not an accountant, but at the CPA firm of Barfield, Murphy, Shank & Smith in Birmingham, Alabama, she's a VIP. Ask anyone who works there and they'll tell you that this young woman is well-loved. What does she do? For the last two years, she has filled the role of personal valet to every member of the BMSS staff, from partners to the receptionist. It all started when founding partner, John Shank read about another firm that employed a valet to help busy CPAs get through the hectic tax season with a little more peace of mind. Shank admits... he stole the idea... and it was a good one.

As a firm that values its staff, BMSS has always tried to reward employees for good work and make life easier for them when possible. That's probably why the firm has almost no turnover, and why they are consistently voted among the best places to work. In fact, this year they were named among the top ten firms in Birmingham. Before hiring Nolen, they were already bringing in people to give massages during tax season, compensating for long tax season hours with extra time off in the slower season, and even giving paid sabbaticals to long-time staff members. Always looking for new ways to keep employees engaged, hiring a personal valet to ease the stress of tax season seemed like a natural solution.

Nolen learned through a friend who worked at BMSS that they were looking for someone to fill this newly created position. Earlier, she had graduated from Auburn University in Alabama with a degree in Health Promotion Corporate Fitness, and then moved to Charleston, South Carolina to continue her education. During the day, she worked as a full-time nanny. That job, she says, was good training to be a valet, since she had to learn to manage other people's schedules and to multi-task. When she heard about the opening at BMSS she threw her hat in the ring. Now the staff and partners at BMSS wonder what they did without her.

"Let's see what happens..."

Originally the job was a bit of an experiment... a "let's try it and see what happens" scenario. Since the position was new, Nolen has pretty much created it from scratch. On a typical day, she does banking and shopping for anybody at the firm that needs it. But, she says, she never really knows what a day will bring. She may need to take a car for servicing, give someone a ride to the airport, or pick up a prescription for a coworker's child.

During tax season, when the firm provides dinner once a week for the whole staff, Nolen stays late to help coordinate. She has also become the go-to person whenever there is an event to plan, like a baby or wedding shower or a staff birthday party. She is often asked to pick up a gift for a partner or employee who can't get away to do it, and she even keeps a stash of gift wrap in her desk and does the wrapping herself. It may not take a college degree to be a personal valet, but it definitely takes a special person.

Qualities to Look for in a Personal Valet

"Flexibility is important", says Nolen, to anyone wanting to pursue this kind of work or to a firm looking to hire a personal valet. She starts most days with a plan, but knows that she has to be willing to throw out the plan when necessary. That means she has to know how to prioritize tasks and know what can wait until another day. And although she always tries to be accommodating, she has to know how to prioritize and sometimes to say with diplomacy",I probably will not have time today, but I'll try to take care of it tomorrow."

It goes without saying that a person doing this job must also possess great organizational skills, since it involves juggling appointments, pick-up times, deadlines, responsibility for the credit cards of coworkers that are entrusted to her, and hundreds of other details.

That first tax season, having Nolen on board was so well-received among the staff that the partners decided to make it a full-time year-round position. That must mean that the services she provides pay for themselves. It's easy to see how her presence takes a lot of the stress out of the job for employees at BMSS. They have more time to devote to clients because they are not distracted by errands that aren't getting done.

"Recruiting is so competitive right now", says Shank, and offering the services of a personal valet is a great drawing card. "If you have something that really differentiates you, like a personal valet, that definitely helps." It also helps with retention. That means that year after year, clients can return to BMSS and know that their favorite tax consultant will be there.

What do the staff and partners think about having Nolen on board? "Everyone loves her… she's part of the family... the perfect person for the job." Shank adds that not only does Nolen handle her assigned tasks well, but she goes out of her way to find new ways to help people. You can't ask for much more than that.

Firms that are looking for ways to increase productivity, boost morale, and enhance their recruiting and retention tools may want to start beating the bushes to find a personal valet before next tax season. But forget any ideas you might have about spiriting Nolen away from her current job. Don't let those gentle southern accents fool you. The good folks at BMSS will not take kindly to anyone who messes with family.

Hiring a personal valet is a great idea… but you'll have to find your own Betsy.

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