Understanding Your Business Operation, Tax Matters and Liability

by Shari L. Lipski November/December 2009
Not knowing the basic foundation of how your company is running or how the government views your company’s liability could be your biggest exposure in these hard economic times. You could be playing a game of roulette with your money and the business that you’ve spent a lifetime building … or would that be a game of craps?

A few weeks ago when Monitor senior editor Stuart Papavassiliou asked me if I’d like to write an article for the upcoming issue, I jumped at the chance. For those of you that know me, I always have a lot to say. I asked Stuart what he wanted me to write about. Stuart said whatever I wanted; it should be something that is important, interesting to Monitor readers and something that everyone needs to know about.

As I sat in Las Vegas one evening after a long convention day, I thought what a fabulous place to “people watch” and get inspired to write this article. So, I picked a lounge at one of the casinos, took paper and pen, and then … nothing. I stared at the blank, lifeless lines for about one half hour. I thought to myself, I could leave the industry and then I wouldn’t have to write this. No, that wouldn’t work. Stuart is a nice guy. I could do this. Think. Think.

I looked out at the people in the casino, some were happy, some sad, some with an air of confidence, but most of them were looking nervous. Did they know what they were doing? They were betting, but did they really know the rules? What if they lost? Hedging their bets. Trying to beat the odds. Isn’t that what we do everyday — personally and professionally?

As we wake up each morning, we put our faith in the people that we work with, our clients, our employees, family and our government. But are we really doing justice to them and ourselves? My day-to-day life is working with companies to make sure their people know where their money is going, where it’s coming from and what needs to be done to make sure that when the tax man cometh, he doesn’t taketh it all away.

In a down economy you start making decisions based on reaction rather than a plan of action. In this economy you may be hedging your bets, working the odds or testing your gut instincts when calling the shots, and letting the chips fall where they may. Many people end up making decisions that they would never have thought of or would have wanted to make given a more positive environment or set of circumstances. One way to hedge against this is to sit down and take a look at all aspects of your business and make sure you know exactly what is going on and that all parties are fully aware as well.

So what can you do? Take this time to organize and strategize. Take action now and formalize the affairs of your company by doing a few things that most business owners forget to focus on when things are going well.

  • Go back and update your business plan. Many companies never even had a formal business plan. Today, only the strong, focused and empowered can survive.
  • Review and update employee instruction manuals and other materials that formalize how things should be done within your organization. You’d be surprised to find out how much has changed since you first drafted that manual, or how many employees are rolling the dice each day to try and make things work because they weren’t trained properly or have become set in their ways. Inefficiency and low productivity can hurt any business no matter how good the economy.
  • Establish a record retention program and make sure everyone understands the importance of a documentation trail, when and what can and should be destroyed, and what the policies and procedures are. A little planning now can save on storage fees and the dreaded hours and hours of searching and hunting for one file.
  • Set up a disaster recovery plan. In hard economic times, things may seem like you are constantly stacking your chips so they won’t come crashing down around you but in the event of a real catastrophe, like a fire or flood, you could end up folding just when you have the best hand at the table.
  • Every person within a company has a job and responsibilities. Make sure they are in writing and contain explicit detailed instructions and supporting forms, checklists and the like make cross-training employees with others job descriptions and responsibilities a valuable asset in case of an emergency. In the event of a person leaving the company or training a new hire, it will make transitions work a lot smoother if all the cards are on the table and you’re not searching for an ace that’s at the bottom of the deck.
  • Make sure your computer networks are secure and that you don’t fall pray to hackers or theft.

As you look for new opportunities to expand and grow your business, these fundamental practices will play a vital role in educating your employees to be better prepared to deal with crisis as well as how to build rich, prosperous relationships with existing and future clients.

Often business owners forget that a large portion of their income is due to Uncle Sam in one form or another. More often than not, people don’t take a look at their tax liability until it’s too late in the year to do something about it. The current economic climate is not only difficult for business budgets but, especially, tight for government agencies. As all government agencies scramble to reconcile their budgets, the money can only come from one place … us. If you Google “tax increase” you get 63.9 million possible choices. Those aren’t good odds.

When you mention tax compliance, most people think, “How boring,” and their eyes glaze over. Their immediate reaction is: “What are the odds that I’ll get audited?” Well that’s a good question. Let’s see…

  • The odds of being dealt a Royal Flush in five cards is 1 in 649,739.
  • The odds of getting a hole-in-one or finding a four-leaf clover are 0.01%.
  • The odds of becoming a billionaire are 0.00001%.
  • And, the odds of being audited by the IRS are about 1 in 100 in any given year. Yes, that’s right 1 in 100. And if you earn over $100,000.00/year, your chance of being audited almost doubles to 1 in 60. Still feeling lucky?

You can’t turn the TV on these days without hearing about another government office that is raising a tax or inventing a new tax. Raise the liquor tax, add a tourism tax, tax evil candy, a separate tax on fur, and so on and so on.

Some questions to ask yourself might be: “Do I know what the Streamline Sales Tax Act is, and how does it affect my business? Are we required to pay and file for electronic recycling? Have we ever filed an Unclaimed Property Report?” Not sure the answers to these questions? Some suggestions…

  • Find out how many jurisdictions you have nexus in and that’s your footprint for reporting.
  • What are the reporting responsibilities in each of those jurisdictions?
  • Find out if you are updating the sales & use tax rates on your portfolio on a regular basis. Are you billing, collecting and remitting the right amounts?
  • Make sure that you are receiving all the applicable forms and manuals from the government. Many people don’t realize that never filing taxes doesn’t make the matter go away because the statute of limitations doesn’t start until you do. So if you’re out of compliance today, knowingly or unknowingly, you will be opening up your company and your checkbook for years to come.

And finally, remember that your tax responsibilities are more than just sales, personal property, real estate and income tax. There are literally hundreds of taxes and thousands of taxing jurisdictions. Most of which didn’t exist 20 years ago.

Not knowing the basic foundation of how your company is running or how the government views your company’s liability could be your biggest exposure in these hard economic times. You could be playing a game of roulette with your money and the business that you’ve spent a lifetime building … or would that be a game of craps?

Shari L. Lipski is a Certified Lease Professional and a principal with ECS Financial Services, Inc., Lease Portfolio Managers & CPA’s. Lipski has been in the equipment leasing industry for over 20 years and is currently on the Service Provider’s Business Council for the Equipment Lease and Finance Association. She has been an active member and served on various committees and board positions with the Eastern Association of Equipment Lessors, the United Association of Equipment Lessors, the CLP Foundation and the National Association of Equipment Leasing Brokers.

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