Few would call their daily commute thrilling, but few are as lucky as Kim Grieves, who got to pass through Milan’s arts district each day during a short but stimulating stay in Italy last fall.
“Navigating the cobblestone streets every morning, peering through café windows and staring up at flower-wrapped balconies, I kept thinking, ‘Someone pinch me; I’m walking to work in Milan,’” says Kim, a 30-year-old senior tax manager in BKD’s Dallas office.
Kim spent two months as a BKD ambassador with Italian firm Pirola Pennuto Zei & Associati—a member of our Praxity, AISBL alliance. And who better to represent the firm than a recent recipient of the prestigious BKD PRIDE Award?
Rob Wagner, managing partner for BKD’s International Tax Services (ITS) practice, started talking about an employee exchange with Pirola’s managing partner after meeting him at a conference. Based in Milan, Pirola employs more than 500 tax consultants and attorneys in nine Italian offices and international offices in London, England, and Beijing and Shanghai, China.
“We want to give our employees opportunities to experience the culture of other countries in a professional environment,” Rob says. “Staff exchanges help BKD develop stronger relationships with other Praxity™ firms and can also lead to new business opportunities.”
Wagner contacted Dallas Tax Director Rick Klahsen, who approached Kim about the two-month exchange. Rick barely had a chance to finish his pitch before Kim gave an enthusiastic “Yes!”
A New World in the Old
Kim’s overseas stint lasted from September 29 to November 30, 2016. In the days leading up to her departure, she was a little apprehensive—she had never traveled abroad by herself, spoke no Italian and wasn’t well-versed in Italian tax law.
After a madcap race to catch her connecting flight in Miami, Kim arrived in Milan. She spent the weekend settling into her one-bedroom apartment in the heart of the city and enjoying the incredible restaurants and museums.
Monday morning marked the start of Kim’s new life—one filled with contrasts. One of Kim’s early responsibilities was to create a presentation for Pirola partners about U.S. taxation basics and international taxation issues related to U.S. investment.
“What strikes me most is how often everyone here deals with international tax issues and how much they work with clients in other countries,” Kim says. “We may think IRS exams are bad in the U.S., but the issues Pirola faces with the Italian taxing authorities seem terrible.”
Kim also had to adjust to some distinct cultural differences. The Italian workday is from 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. And while everyone spoke English to some degree, she found it challenging to understand her co-workers at times. Initially, she even struggled with her keyboard, which had a few extra keys.
There were plenty reminders of home, but even they had a distinct Italian flavor.
“Coffee is a staple there,” Kim says, “but when I say coffee, I mean never-ending espresso shots—morning espresso, after-lunch espresso, afternoon espresso, meetings with espresso. It’s everywhere!”
The enormity of the changes was overwhelming at times, Kim admits, adding, “Sometimes it was so discouraging, I just wanted to stay in my room.”
Fortunately, her reclusive impulses were few and far between, and wanderlust won out. The accessibility of public transportation made it easy to explore new locations every week, and Kim even had opportunities to travel to England and France.
BKD Road Show
Pirola sent Kim to all nine of their Italian offices to meet with partners and clients. This took her to renowned cities like Rome, Naples, Parma and Verona.
“It felt like a road show,” Kim recalls. “For two months, I was essentially a BKD promotion, sharing about the firm and answering questions.”
Sometimes these questions revolved around U.S. tax. It was a far cry from her usual responsibilities in Dallas, where she chiefly reviews returns. In true Principled Innovation style, though, Kim connected BKD resources to client needs—hitting the books and calling in BKD’s crack team of ITS experts.
Her presentations left an impression: Since returning home, Kim’s Pirola associates have contacted her with tax questions five different times.
Keeping It Personal
Kim enjoyed interacting with Pirola staff, and their conversations crossed a variety of topics.
“We talked about the U.S. election,” Kim says. “I was amazed how much people knew what was happening in the states.”
Occasionally, chats strayed into more personal matters. She recalls her conversation with a female partner who spoke of balancing a career and caring for her 3-year-old daughter. Hearing how she’d returned to work only a week after giving birth—with her newborn in tow—gave Kim a new appreciation for BKD’s Growing Together parental leave program.
“The people at Pirola were fantastic,” she says. “Everyone was entertaining and hospitable.”
That hospitality was especially on display the evening the Naples office took her out for pizza. Kim remembers the close-knit office of 12 filling the night with laughter and the clink of wine glasses.
“This job can be stressful. Being part of that evening reminded me how important it is to trust and like those you work with.”
Kim returned to Dallas with an insatiable travel bug, lasting friendships, professional connections and much higher standards for Italian cuisine. But her greatest takeaway was philosophical.
“There’s rarely one right way to accomplish something,” she says, echoing BKD’s focus on Principled Innovation. “It’s important to broaden your horizons and consider other perspectives. I learned to appreciate what I have and to keep an open mind. After all, there’s a lot of world beyond Texas!”
In the spirit of reciprocity, BKD Dallas will host a Pirola tax manager for two months this summer. Kim’s coach, Rick, is eager to showcase the firm’s signature unmatched client service and expects more staff exchanges in the future.
“These connections help enhance BKD’s reputation for serving clients worldwide” he says. “Plus, they demonstrate to our employees that opportunities within our firm are abundant and expanding.”