Several years ago Sarah Windham recognized an under served opportunity to focus on tax and advisory services in the agriculture industry. As a recognized leader, she shares with us her experience of testifying before Congress, her work with Angie’s project, a women’s focused agriculture group, and how she integrates career and life as a successful mom and industry leader.
AGH: Hello everyone and welcome back to another episode of our DHG Podcast Series. I’m Alice Grey Harrison, your host and I really love this venue because we get to hear from our people about the things that matter most to them; flexibility, careers, and people. And today, I’m really excited because I have with me Sarah Windham who’s a senior manager in our Charleston, South Carolina office, and I think that Sarah has a very interesting perspective. She focuses on the agricultural industry and for those of you who may not know, we go to market as an industry and services based firm from strategic geographic locations. So in South Carolina, we have a really strong agricultural industry and I think it’s really interesting that Sarah chose this industry as her focus. She has really excelled, and in 2014, the South Carolina Farm Bureau Federation recognized her as a government relations All Star. So welcome Sarah!
SW: Thank you.
AGH: How did you decide to focus on the agricultural industry? That isn’t an industry that we typically think of as a “female-oriented industry”.
SW: Well, it originally happened just by coincidence. I’ve been with the firm for about 17 years and one of our partners, who is now retired, worked with a fair amount of farm and agriculture clients. I worked a lot with him on a lot of those clients and got to know them, the industry and what was important to them. About five years ago, I was taking a good, hard look at my clients and realized that we had this great core group of traditional farmers that we had been working with for a long time. It added up to be a lot more clients and dollars than anybody had ever realized. I did some research on the state and the industry and realized that there was not a CPA in South Carolina, or in many states for that matter, that marketed himself or herself as an expert in the agricultural industry for tax, audit, consulting, whatever it may be, anything accounting related. And I started talking to a lot of my friends and clients in the industry. They got really excited about the thought of someone focusing on this and taking an interest in it from a tax and advisory standpoint. I got a lot of attention because there wasn’t anybody else out there that was focusing on agriculture and I’ve had a lot of fun doing it and met a lot of really neat people.
AGH: Wow, that’s really cool. I knew that you excelled but I never realized you were such a trail blazer in this industry. So for you, what’s the most interesting aspect of working in the agricultural industry?
SW: I think it’s just by nature a very genuine group of people. They are all very hard working. I think just being involved in an industry that’s one big happy family, everybody knows everybody and everybody looks out for everybody. When there’s an issue or a problem, people quickly step up to help others out. Whether it’s the flood that we just had in October in our state that devastated the farming industry, or a legislative issue that comes up that could impact farmers. That family, that hardworking background, it comes out in lots of different ways, and to me that’s very appealing and says a lot about the industry and the people that I work within it.
AGH: Absolutely, and you mentioned legislative issues. I understand that you testified in front of congress. What was the topic and what was that experience like?
SW: Well, it all happened fairly quickly and was a little bit scary. It was also very exciting because over the past several years, I have developed a great relationship with some wonderful people at South Carolina Farm Bureau. And in South Carolina, the farm bureau is a very important part of the agricultural community, especially from a legislative standpoint, and they picked up the phone and called me. One of the South Carolina congressmen had reached out to them and asked if they had a farmer that could testify regarding cash basis accounting for farmers. They realized that this wasn’t necessarily something that they wanted to have a farmer testify about but maybe someone that supported the industry. So they picked up the phone and called me and in a matter of about a week I was in DC testifying in front of a congressional committee about cash basis accounting.
AGH: Wow that must have been really, really nerve racking.
SW: It was, very much so. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to think about it because it did happen so fast and there are, as I learned, protocols that you must follow. There are background checks, a written testimony that has to be submitted, as well as an oral testimony. So there are a lot of i’s to dot and t’s to cross to be able to do something like this, so I didn’t have a whole lot of time to think about what I was doing until it was over.
AGH: That’s probably a good thing.
SW: Probably, yes.
AGH: So I want to talk for a minute about Annie’s Project, which is what spurred me to ask you to join us. Can you tell us a bit about Annie’s Project and how you’ve been involved in it?
SW: Well, I became aware of Annie’s Project several years ago through some different people in the agricultural industry in South Carolina, as well as being a part of Women Forward in our firm and advocating for women advancing in different industries. The project fits very well with what I believe in. It was started in Iowa a good many years ago and is an educational series of classes geared towards women in the agricultural industry. It’s everything from finance, to insurance, to estate planning, to true agriculture education about different things going on in the daily lives of women in the industry. It’s being taught in about 30 to 35 states and has taken off. A few years ago, I was asked to come speak at their meeting, which usually takes place in May in South Carolina, and now I’ve been speaking for four years. I enjoy working with the women and educating them about both estate and succession planning. I look forward to each year when I get to participate in the program.
AGH: Yeah, I think it’s really interesting because I don’t typically think of women in the industry and I’ve read somewhere, I can’t remember, I think it was via Annie’s Project, that women represent about 14% of the industry. So there are a lot of women and a growing number who are getting involved in agriculture each year. I think that is really cool. So what is your topic for this year’s discussion?
SW: I’ve actually been asked to speak on very similar topics every year, primarily focused on succession and estate planning, which usually go hand in hand for family run businesses. I make sure to convey to these women and their families the importance of protecting their assets and planning for the next generation. This is a big deal in the agriculture industry because the farm usually has a tendency to get passed down from generation to generation. Just teaching them about different things they need to consider, whether it’s their will, or disability insurance, or who’s going to take over the farm when it’s time for them to retire. So it’s been a great topic. I’ve had a lot of follow up phone calls and e-mails where I hopefully have been able to get people some good advice about their family and their future.
AGH: That’s terrific. So now, I have to ask about your family. I know you have a precious family and as a female professional in a very progressive industry, tell me what it’s like to manage your work and your life and integrate the two?
SW: Well, I would be kidding myself if I didn’t say it wasn’t a challenge. It can be a very demanding industry and we have a very challenging busy season to say the least, which we’ve just wrapped up. And fortunately, my family is very supportive and they understand that in January, February, March and the first few weeks of April, I need to focus on work and meeting deadlines and taking care of that aspect of my life. Then during the rest of the year, particularly in the summer when my kids are out of school, I can focus a little bit more on being a mom and spending time with my husband and my family. I have learned over the years that it’s not about balance necessarily and things aren’t always going to be balanced the way you want them to be. It’s about integrating your career and your life and making priorities and understanding that some days, work is going to be more of a priority and other days, family will be a priority. You have to figure out how to draw your line in the sand and decide what will take precedence on each day.
AGH: Absolutely. Well Sarah, I certainly appreciate your time today and I’m so excited to see you continue to progress in your career. For our listeners, you may have heard Sarah refer to our Women Forward Program, which promotes learning and leadership for both women and men here at Dixon Hughes Goodman. If you’re interested in learning more, then please visit our website, WomenForward.com. For all of you, thank you for listening to our Life at DHG Podcast series. If you like what you just heard, we hope you’ll tell your friends and colleagues. Be sure to check out our DHG Life Blog for more great stories about our life beyond numbers and Sarah. Thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your story with us.
SW: Thank you.
AGH: Join us next time for another edition of Life at DHG.