By Katie Scarvey
Being a certified public accountant isn’t an inherently exciting job.The glamour factor goes up considerably, however, when an accountant has celebrity clients.
Back in 1989, when he struck out on his own as a CPA, Alan Burke didn’t know much about NASCAR.
He does now. About 55 percent of his firm’s revenues now come from racing clients, including marquee NASCAR drivers.
Getting his first driver was kind of a fluke for Burke, who now heads up a financial services team that operates from an office on Jake Alexander Boulevard.
In order to accommodate a client, Burke was keeping a small office at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was simply office space ó he didn’t have anything to do with the racing community at the time.
Burke got a call from a rookie driver who was renting a shop in Salisbury. They set up an appointment.
“We hit it off,” said Burke, who grew up in Salisbury and is a 1979 graduate of Salisbury High School and a 1983 graduate of Appalachian State University.
Burke became the accountant for the driver ó Joe Nemechek, who remains a client to this day.
Burke later learned that the referral had come from insurance agent Jeff Whittington, who knew that Burke had an office at the speedway.
Burke says Whittington had told Nemechek that Burke “knew everything about racing.”
Which was far from the truth.
But Burke recognized opportunity when it tapped on his door.
After talking to Nemechek, he locked the doors to his office and drove to a bookstore.
“I bought whatever I could find on racing,” he says.
Nemechek was named Rookie of the Year in 1990 and won the Busch Series Championship in 1992.
Happy with Burke’s service, Nemechek began referring him to others in the industry.
“It snowballed from there,” says Burke, who realized that specializing in NASCAR could be a great way to build his business.
“I rolled up my sleeves and worked hard.”
In 1991, he called Dale Earnhardt’s business manager and even talked to Earnhardt himself.
“I learned that I was on target with how we were doing things,” Burke says.
He can’t disclose the names of all his clients, but Burke can say that six drivers in the Winston Cup series use his firm’s services. Two clients are former Busch Grand National Series champions, and another is a past champion in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck series.
His clients, he says, have probably won a combined total of at least 80 major races.
Rod Moskowitz, executive vice president of Motorsports Management International, is familiar with what Burke’s firm offers drivers.
Moskowitz became acquainted with Burke through his client Jamie McMurray, number 26 of Roush Fenway Racing.
Denny Hamlin, number 11 with Joe Gibbs Racing, is also a client of both Moskowitz and Burke.
Burke’s firm offers a “solid group of money managers,” says Moskowitz, who adds that it would be difficult to find the services Burke’s firm provides at an affordable price with one of the big accounting firms.
Racing is “a great industry that appears to be recession-proof,” says Burke, whose wife Lori also works for the firm. Currently, there are 14 people with the CPA firm, which has grown 113 percent in the last four years.
Burke says his business might be perceived as a “glorified H & R Block” to an outsider.
Nothing could be further from the truth, he says.
Burke is proud of the systems in place at his firm to handle things efficiently. His office is well on the way to being paperless, with files in electronic form and securely backed up off-site. That means that client information is available instantly, Burke says.
The bill-paying service is an aspect of the business that Burke believes can be useful for other kinds of professionals, including retirees.
Over the years, Burke has learned a great deal about his clients and their financial needs.
“The racecar driver we typically work for has grown up in a modest home with modest means and therefore hasn’t been exposed to high finance or accounting,” he says.
One driver shared with Burke about how on Friday, his father would cash his payroll check so he could buy parts for his car, which he’d race on Saturday night at a local track. “And hopefully,” Burke says, “he won enough money to pay his dad back so he could buy groceries.”
That driver is now in the Winston Cup series and doing very well, Burke says.
Often, drivers “don’t have a clue about finances and investments.
“You’ve got young men making a whole lot of money without a whole lot of experience,” Burke says.
“We’ve been very lucky to have the opportunity to learn how to teach these guys and their spouses about finances.”
Burke often uses racing analogies to make points to the drivers. Like, “If you don’t want to scratch the car, you don’t get on the racetrack.” Or, “Sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug.”
Burke says he’s a “therapist” in his clients’ financial world. Part of that role involves figuring out their background and the way they think. He’s learned through trial and error what resonates with them, he says.
He typically tries to get a feel for his a client’s moral and religious beliefs. For some, he says, tithing is serious business.
“We’re heavily involved with all aspects of their financial lives,” says Burke, who considers his business a comprehensive financial services firm.
He’s had to become educated about drivers’ specific financial concerns.
“It’s a different world,” Burke says.
The average accountant probably doesn’t know about the costs of owning and operating $3 million airplanes or about how to advise a client on whether a $300,000 motor coach is “reasonable and necessary” from an IRS standpoint.
Typically, drivers are not financial risk-takers, says Burke, who adds that part of his job is to help them understand risk versus return.
“The worst thing to do is have them in investments they’re uncomfortable with,” he says.
Because drivers are away from home so much, Burke’s firm often ends up managing special projects for them. For example, they’re managing one driver’s real estate development project since he has to be on the road so much of the time.
The typical driver will retire at 45 or 50, which means that his money has to last a long time.
Burke sees himself as a problem-solver. He loves helping clients find solutions to their problems. If his firm doesn’t have the expertise to handle a particular issue, he will point the client in the right direction, whether it’s to an attorney or a real estate professional.
Burke ó who always considers himself his clients’ advocate ó helped one client driver decide whether or not a buyout offer was advantageous for him. The client did end up selling, and the buyer was so impressed with how well Burke advocated for the client during negotiations that he ended up hiring Burke as well.
Not surprisingly, Burke is a race fan, although he says he doesn’t go to races as much as he used to. He likes having a pit pass and hanging around at the track but says he usually won’t stay for a whole race.
“I’d rather TiVo and watch a four-hour race in two hours,” he says. nnnContact Katie Scarvey at 704-797-4270 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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