As a first year tax preparer in 2010, working under a franchisee, I filed many tax returns for clients at the Barrie South end location known as Bryne Dr. I remember clients coming in who travelled from Innisfil to file at Bryne Dr. as it was the closest Liberty Tax Office for them. Innisfil is farm land with pockets of small towns scattered in between. In 2010, Innisfil was only starting to develop farm land into new home communities. There is no public transportation within Innisfil and or to Barrie to this day. The taxi business is a good business to be in, as Barrie is 20 plus kilometers away.
There were quite a few Innisfil residents that would make the trip to Bryne Dr. for an instant refund. Some were dropped off at Bryne Dr. by a family or friend who were on their way to work. They came in hoping for a refund, to cash the cheque, do some shopping, and then cab back home to Innisfil. When they did not qualify for a refund and their ride was now punching a time clock, it meant a long wait for them until their ride finished work, or a long walk home. I was not in a positon to pay for their cabs or I would have. It is the clients from Bryne Dr. that changed me and my future with Liberty Tax.
In Sep 2012, I purchased my first franchise territory; I was offered a variety of territories to select from but I only had one territory in mind and that was Innisfil. It was a service this small town was just waiting for: a Liberty Tax Office. To this day I think about the clients from Innisfil that prepared their taxes at Bryne Dr. If I could change back the clock I would, but at least I can make a different moving forward.
Here is my story.
As a Zee it was very clear to me from the first day to listen, look and react to the people of my community, they will direct you to the path of success, and this could not be truer.
I signed my lease mid Oct 2012, I took over a shell, no furnace, no hot water tank, no electrical, so lots of work. It was very close to Christmas and I needed a place to hold my tax school. I started to receive a lot of interest in tax school but where and how was I going to pull this off. I contacted so many places in Alcona, Innisfil, and it was A: booked for Christmas parties, or B: so out of my budget. I had to resource to my Opps manual for helpful hints and it mentioned churches and community centers, so off I went. I spoke to Mariam who was in charge of booking the Lions Hall, which was only a block away. She didn’t have anything at the time but would look into this for me.
Later that day, Mariam called and said, Ann I can put something together for you for Friday mornings. I have a lady that rents the kitchen to make her cookies, and she doesn’t mind if we rent the hall, it was only Friday mornings but it was a start. My tax school filled up quickly. At our class we had to set up tables and chairs and make a school setting; it wasn’t long before I could see my team forming right in front of my eyes: Fouzia, Tina, Marilyn, Angie they were the ladies helping each other set up and tearing down the tables and chairs, interacting with each other, being friendly, smiling—that’s my team. They will treat my customers the same way they are treating each other. We were at the Lions Club every Friday morning until the new Liberty Tax office was ready, which at that point we moved the class from the Lion’s Hall to the Liberty office. I still had tax school inquiries coming in so I added two more tax classes, evenings and week-ends; this gave me a variety of applicants. From these two additional classes the rest of my team formed: Mike, Julia, and Rebecka. Without the Lions Club, I would have been in a jam how could I ever repay them for helping me out the way they did?
I open my doors in mid-December 2012, and worked daily in my office with the open sign on, I had so much work to do why not, and I wanted to let everyone know I am here. My first client, a gentleman came in as if he had been coming here for years, and he said can I file these now. I said sure and asked him to sit down. It was four years’ worth of returns at 7 o’clock pm. My grin could not have been more loud and clear how surreal this all was. It was also very clear that 7pm was a good number for me and if this one customer came in at 7pm on a Tuesday just a week plus before Christmas then more people must be thinking about it.
I listened to my very first customer and to this day I have extended hours, during and off season, open early, open late, on Saturday, Sunday and Super Bowl. On my drive home from Innisfil to Barrie, between 5-6 pm, I noticed 10 plus kms of traffic bumper to bumper, all the commuters were on their way home. I could only think about all the businesses that close at 5pm. That is crazy I thought, all these people are just getting home. This again was another reason to extent the hours of operation. I quickly saw a trend of people slipping away from home, after they had dinner or got the kids settled; to come in and take care of some tax matters. The general feedback was this is great, I can just walk here from home, and you are open all the time. This news spread like a wild fire.
My store faces a Tim Horton’s drive thru and in Canada that is the pot of gold. You cannot buy that kind of advertisement, so I was open for business for my drive thru audience too. To my left is a Beer Store (another Canadian pot of gold) and a variety store; to my right is a Laundromat that also rents video, and offers dry cleaning, and then Pizza Pizza-- Lots of traffic, and lots of people stopping in asking questions. At the reception, I made sure I had a stack of $10.00 off coupons for anyone that came in and asked a questions I invited them back with $10.00 off their tax return. Everyone left with something. Being the new business in town I wanted people talking about me about my Liberty.
My Grand Opening was held January 25th 2013, usually a very cold time of the year. It was full of fun, my new team, family, friends, clients, face painters, the local press, balloon artist, two large cakes, Leafy, Lady Liberty and a Raffle with all proceeds going towards the Innisfil Lions Club. We raffled off Liberty promotion material, a Keurig coffee machine, Liberty Hoodies, many single tax returns and two sets of 5 years’ worth of free returns. The opening was a great success. Later, we presented the Lion’s Club will all the proceeds, and a stack of free returns to be used for additional fundraisers, and or to be handed out to their family and friends, and people they know that need help to file their taxes. They were so grateful.
My first year as a Zee had many rewarding stories, and with every great experience, opened more opportunities. It became clear that we just need to help each other, and I needed to empower my employees to follow in my footsteps.
Marilyn, helped me with B2B (business-to-business marketing), she would return to the office with all her stories and clip board of visits. Marilyn would say: Ann you need to go and speak with the Community Church they have a food drive and a clothing run & they would be interested in working with us. Ann here is the business card for the retirement home, they are interested in house calls—Marilyn continued with such great opportunities for us through her B2B, to work more closely within our community and help bring our service a little closer to people who needed it the most. Naturally, I followed Marilyn’s leads. I drove to the Innisfil Community Church and met Pastor Courtney and his wife Beulah.
Beulah runs the clothing drive at the church, the last Thursday of each month; she was telling me that they start early to line up; each person will receive one clear garbage bag and they can fill it all for free. There is something for everyone, a suit for a job interview, a blanket for a baby, shoes, towels, diapers the list goes on. I suggested I could come on Thursday and hand out free tax return certificates. Beulah was thrilled with this and we had a date. I arrived to a line up and even when there was no line up I just stayed and handed out free returns; something happens to you when you see the look in people when they have an opportunity with free clothes and now a free tax return, they were on the right path—we were a part of that path. I met so many people, and listened to their stories, some came from far away for the free clothing drive, they were new to Canada, or getting back on their feet, or they were a one household income raising children, no one judged, no one was felt unwelcomed. In fact, the team at the church was proud to talk about a man who came in and pick up a full suit for his job interview. That is what it is about. It was about helping each other.
With a head start and no out of pocket expense they can file their tax return and keep refunds and credits flowing in for the family. My first year we received 91 free returns I tried hard to reach 100, but I was happy to know I helped 91 people in our community. Again listening to our community through B2B helped us to reach out and be there to support our community.
The 2nd B2B I followed up was at Lakeside Retirement home. This turned out to be a very rewarding experience. We were offered a table and chair on the main level so all the residents could leave their taxes with us. We would complete them at the office then return them to their apartment to sign off. We had a set schedule every-other week. Liberty Tax was mentioned in their newsletter that went out to family and friends and we were posted in every elevator. Not only did we complete the returns for the residents but we completed their family and friends. It wasn’t about the additional returns we completed from the Retirement home it was the relationships that was built, and the friendship as we sat and listened to stores, went through family photos, and visit with their pets. When we completed a return for a Lakeside resident, the hands would go up in the office, I will go the preparers would say. We may have done Lakeside Retirement a favor by offering this service to their residents but they did us a favour by allowing us into their lives.
At the end of 2013, I purchased Bryne Dr. and opened a third location. My second year I increased tax returns by 47% and completed over 250 free returns. I was blown away.
This past off season 2014, I was working in the office with Tina and Sandra. Mariam from the Lions’ Club came in with her husband. They said they had something special for me. They said do you remember the funds you raised and the certificates you gave us. We want you to know that we donated all the money raised to Lions Camp Dorset, which is a camp for children with kidney failure. The funds went towards the purchase and care of dialysis equipment. I just could not believe what I was hearing and it was very hard for me to hold back the tears. We received a Certificate letter, an Honorary Life Directorship Certificate, a Lions Camp Dorset badge and pin. I really had no idea so many children would benefit all from holding a tax school.
November 2014 we participated in our first Santa Claus Parade, we had a great turn out and the weather was just perfect for late November. We had 5 Leafys and 12 Lady Liberties, we handed out thousands of Leafy crowns, candy canes, and free gift Certificates for tax service. Two Lady Liberty would hand out candy canes, two would hand out crowns and two would hand out certificates, Liberty Ladies were on each side of our float. We were the only float on foot and we walked and worked the crowd. Leafy was the talk of the town for the days to come as they danced and high-five the crowd. We returned back to the office for Pizza and we all talked about how much fun we had.
From the Santa Claus parade we were approached by the Rotary Club to fundraise for and at the YMCA for their Lights and Wishes fundraiser for children.
Santa will be there, live music, a silent auction and crafts. We would donate $25.00 for a Liberty Christmas ornament, and I donated a five year package worth of free tax service for their silent auction. We asked if we could bring Leafy and Lady Liberty to say hi and hand out crowns to the children. We stayed for the afternoon and I can say Leafy will be in many children’s Christmas photos this year. It was another even that pulls the community together; the Santa Clause Parade was the week end prior and we had a lot of parents mention how their children worn the crowns all day even to bed, and how the free tax return certificate could not have come at a better time.
Two weeks later, I had a Christmas card waiting on my desk. I opened it up to see a photo with two Yonge girls holding their new favorite stuffed animal and a big thank you--our contribution brought gifts for under the tree for many children. Again this was a surprise and something I was not expecting.
As a Zee, I have learned that I am better ahead to offer a free return for someone who is in need. When I can help put tax refunds and credits into the pockets of the people who live in our community the more they will invest and spend in the community. They visit the grocery store, the dollar store, buy some treats for the kids, pay bills etc. At times as a Zee we need to make a decision to help our clients to get ahead of their situation. I can sit with multi years in my work in process file or I can file them for free or 50/50. This not only brings your customer closer to you but it helps people from being “stuck” to moving “forward”.
I find we can spend a day just answering the why’s, why did I not receive a refund, why did I receive this letter from CRA, why did I not receive my credit, why do I have to file every year, why can we not file as single, why do I have to pay more interest. There is no exchange to the why questions, some why’s take time and some days there are more whys then sales. But there is an opportunity to listen to everyone that walks in with a why question: welcome my name is Ann or Tina come in have a seat, let me see if I can answer some of those questions.
My third tax season is approaching and my goal is to complete over 500 free returns. My staff approached me and said, Ann what is going to happen when all the people from the Santa Clause parade and the YMCA come in with their free gift certificate? I smiled with that oh so familiar grin I remember from my first client and I said, we are going to be busy.
My stories are only a few of many, we sponsor sports teams and players each year. This year we will offer our first bursary to a high school student. It is called the Leafy Learns Award. It is for a student who has a pass in all subjects, tutored another student, and who has been an ambassador for the school in a social or sports team. The bursary is $500.00. From the Leafy Learns Award, I am starting my own foundation, called the Leafy Learns Foundation. The Leafy Learns Foundation will help fund additional tutoring above the education system for children and Yonge people who need help with reading, writing and math. Some children need help but their parents or guardians cannot afford the additional out of pocket expense to pay for a similar tutor as Kumon (for example). With the Leafy Learns Foundation we will fundraise so we can help children attend a Kumon (for example) and reach and strengthen their academic goals.
Remember to walk out of your office, and look at your community, listen to what your clients are saying, and break down barriers that kept clients in a stuck position, react to their needs, not your needs, teach, train and develop your team to follow your footsteps, your goals and your passion. Fill your day with what is convenient for your clients and not for yourself, build up your community. And start something amazing to make a difference, to make a change, and to lead and move forward to a stronger place for your business to grow and prosper.
Innisfil and Barrie South East.