Gray hair might help BDOs youngest board member

November 6, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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Matt Becker comes across in an interview as someone who is very precise, but that is probably to be expected from a CPA who had a dazzling academic record at college — and who began his professional career at Arthur Andersen.

Becker is a partner and tax business line leader for BDO USA LLP’s West Michigan offices, a firm he joined in 2002 as Arthur Andersen was dead in the water in the wake of the Enron scandal.

His tax expertise has made him a news media resource at tax time, providing last-minute tips for individuals. More significantly, and most recently, he was elected to the BDO USA board of directors in Chicago, effective Nov. 1.

At age 36, Becker is one of BDO’s youngest board members in its history. The firm, previously known as BDO Seidman, has more than 40 offices nationwide and more than 400 independent alliance firms. It is the world’s fifth largest network of independent public accounting firms, doing business in 119 countries.

He admits his youth sometimes makes him somewhat conspicuous. Many others “in the role I’m in are considerably older, so I often do get questions about my relative age. And I’ve often been tempted to dye my hair gray,” he joked.

Becker is a native of St. Johns, a small town about 10 miles north of Lansing. During high school, he took some accounting classes and enjoyed them, so when he started at Michigan State University in 1993, he declared a major in accounting right from the start. Becker said he was basically “an average student” in high school, but that was not the case at MSU. Among all the MSU students graduating in December 1997, he had the second highest GPA.

Becker, who figures he has always been a numbers person, said he has enjoyed accounting “because I was good at it.” He said he also enjoyed it “because it seemed to create the opportunity to help people solve problems.”

CPAs in general often seem cheerfully undaunted by the popular American culture that views accounting as “boring.” Becker noted that his wife “finds it odd that I can get excited about a subject matter that seems so boring to so many.”

Matthew K. Becker

Company: BDO USA LLP
Position: Tax partner and business line leader for the West Michigan Tax Practice
Age: 36
Birthplace: Lansing
Residence: Rockford
Family: Wife, Kristy; son Keegan, age 6, and daughter Eva, 3.
Community/Business Involvement: Board member of Junior Achievement of the Michigan Great Lakes; board member John Ball Zoo Society; member of advisory boards of MSU Department of Accounting and GVSU Department of Accounting.
Biggest career break: “Joining BDO.”

His career path to date does not sound boring.

Right out of MSU, he was hired by Arthur Andersen in Grand Rapids. Less than four years later, the firm — one of the five largest audit and accountancy partnerships in the world — was implicated in the abrupt demise of Enron Corp. The publicly held energy company was a house of cards that had a stock high of $90 per share in mid-2000, only to go below $1 by late 2001, with shareholders losing billions. Arthur Andersen admitted in 2002 that it had destroyed records related to its botched Enron audits, and the firm was later convicted of obstruction of justice due to the actions of a few of its executives.

“It was a trying time,” Becker said of being an employee of the firm.

Soon the Grand Rapids office was acquired by Ernst & Young. When that happened, E&Y asked each of the former Andersen accountants if they wanted to work for E&Y.

Becker said he stepped back and looked at the situation and decided he wanted to work for a firm that focused on the kinds of businesses in West Michigan “and that employed the client service approach that was consistent with the way I wanted to serve my clients.”

That turned out to be BDO Seidman.

Becker called on BDO, was interviewed and offered a job as a manager, which he accepted. The following year, he was promoted to senior manager and then made a partner July 1, 2005. Late that year, he was named tax business line leader, responsible for managing the firm’s tax professionals in both the Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo offices.

BDO Seidman, headquartered in Chicago, changed its name to BDO in January 2010. It was originally founded in New York in 1910 as Seidman & Seidman. Lewis William Seidman, who was born in East Grand Rapids and died in May 2009, was the son of one of the founders. Becker said the second Seidman & Seidman office was established in Grand Rapids during World War II. Some of the firm’s professionals were asked to assist the government with accounting issues when some furniture plants here were converted to production of wooden gliders for the invasion of Europe.

Becker’s specialty is taxes, both business taxes and individual income taxes, because sometimes one leads to the other. Today, said Becker, sometimes tax issues facing small businesses are so intertwined with the individual tax issues of the owners that it is difficult to effectively assist the business without understanding the related individual tax issues — “and the same is true from the individual to the business.”

What is Becker’s take on the proposals heard in Michigan and on the national stage for totally different tax structures, touted as “simpler” and “fairer” — such as the “flat tax” on income or a sales tax in lieu of income tax?

“Most Americans would agree that the tax code and the tax rules are complicated,” said Becker. “The reason that the code is complicated is because life is complicated. And, unfortunately, however we may try to simplify the tax system, attempts to do so often free us from some complexities only to expose us to others.

“I don’t spend any time trying to analyze the various tax proposals of political candidates, because it is only when those candidates get elected that it becomes a relevant issue. But I do think that, regardless of the politician, regardless of the party, it’s easy to talk about a proposed plan in a simple way. It’s when those plans get implemented that the complexities are revealed.”

Becker often travels abroad for U.S. companies with operations overseas, so he necessarily sees aspects of other systems of taxation.

“I would say that all tax systems have their advantages and disadvantages. The issue we have in the United States is we have an enormous budget deficit. At some point, our tax system is going to have to be adjusted in some way to compensate for that budget deficit, unless we lower the budget deficit in other ways by decreasing spending and so on,” he said.

Taxes tend to be an issue that continues to grow in complexity for businesses, which obviously means more work for accounting firms, especially those like BDO with international networks.

“I think the struggle for business in dealing with the taxation of their profits is the complexity of the Internal Revenue Code, and then all of the tax systems of the various states and local governments — combined with having to address different tax systems in every country that a business operates in,” he said.

What is Becker’s advice for young people about to start college who are undecided about what to study? “I would recommend a career in accounting to anyone,” he said.

He said there is an image of an accountant as a person wearing a green visor, sitting in a room crunching numbers day in and day out, but “nothing could be further from the truth.” Much of the work of the modern accountant is far beyond number crunching. For Becker, it has recently involved a great deal of intense work with a client company trying to acquire an international competitor — a situation that involved 10 countries and BDO people from around the world.

“When it was all over, everyone was happy with our work. It was an absolute success,” he said.

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