Third generation tech firm plants corporate flag in city center
Like most good business leaders, TaxSlayer CEO Brian Rhodes prefers making decisions quickly.
“Maybe a little too quickly,” he acknowledges. “I like to meet things head-on and say, ‘Let’s go.’ “
If the 39-year-old is a bit too impulsive, younger brother Scott Rhodes is there to keep him in check. TaxSlayer’s 35-year-old chief financial officer is the more methodical and analytical type.
Keeping the brothers’ yin-and-yang in harmony at the family-owned business is cousin Ashleigh Wilder. But the 28-year-old’s primary job as TaxSlayer’s head of human resources is helping the third-generation firm attract the talent it needs to transition from a boutique tax software developer to a full-fledged technology company.
And that, ultimately, is why the trio has invested millions to turn a 94-year-old building in downtown Augusta into an “innovation and technology campus” that will house its rapidly expanding staff of software developers and engineers.
“We want to have an innovative space where people can collaborate and come up with new products,” Ashleigh says. “This building will help us attract top talent.”
When finished in December, the nearly 40,000-square-foot former YMCA building at 945 Broad St. will exude techie hipness at every level.
The ground floor of the future campus will include a full-service gym and lounge-style game room. The second floor’s old school basketball court will see new life as an auditorium and meeting space. The third-floor employee lounge boasts an outdoor patio capable of handling everything from a quick coffee break to a happy-hour party.
The fourth floor atrium will be one of two conference rooms overlooking next door’s Lafayette Center. And the high-ceilinged fifth floor will give TaxSlayer’s information security staff virtually unobstructed views of the Hull McKnight Georgia Cyber Center for Innovation and Training.
That $100 million, state-backed tech incubator – coupled with the continued success of downtown’s other major tech employers, such as Unisys, EDTS and RSI – played a major role in TaxSlayer’s monumental decision to expand downtown.
There were pragmatic motivations as well: TaxSlayer is out of room at its Columbia County office.
The 33,000-square-foot mid-rise opened in 2012 under the company’s second-generation leaders: Jimmy Rhodes, Brian and Scott’s father; Carl Rhodes, Ashleigh’s father; and their business partner Zane Christopher.
Space constraints were evident by the time the generational baton was passed in January 2016.
“We knew pretty early on we were landlocked,” Brian said.
“Three or four years ago,” Scott adds, “we were thinking we would just build another location in Evans.”
But a tech wave was washing over downtown, and a campus in the central business district not only made sense for the executives – Brian, Scott and Ashleigh live within blocks of each other in Augusta’s historic Summerville neighborhood – but would be embraced by the company’s 51-percent millennial workforce.
“We decided as a group that we wanted to make the move,” Brian said. “When the (Hull McKnight center) was announced, it turned out we were right.”
The Evans office will remain a crucial component of TaxSlayer’s operations; it will house its support staff and a tax-season workforce that swells to more than 300.
TAX PREP TO TAX TECH
Long before Brian, Scott and Ashley were blazing new trails – before they were even born – there was Rhodes-Murphy & Co., the tax and accounting firm their grandfather Aubrey Rhodes Sr. created in 1965.
It remained a brick-and-mortar tax enterprise until 1989, when the second-generation decided to create their own tax software to use in house and license to other firms.
Brian remembers his father floating the idea to an Augusta University professor over a round of golf.
“He said ‘We’re getting into the tax software business,’ and this guy said, ‘That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” he recalled. “But they decided to do it anyway. So I think we’re lucky to be an extension of what they started in the early 1990s.”
The third-gen managers are no neophytes; they literally “grew up” in the business.
“My first job was cutting the grass at all the tax offices,” Scott recalled with a smile.
Brian was the first to join TaxSlayer full time – in 2000, just two years after it launched its now-widespread consumer software, whose “TaxSlayer” name was inspired by Jimmy Rhodes’ email address.
Scott joined in 2006 and Ashleigh came on board in 2012, the same year TaxSlayer built the Evans office and spun off the Rhodes-Murphy tax service. The business still exists (Ashleigh’s husband Andrew is a partner in the 18-office firm).
Although 20-and 30-something executives are common in the tech industry, few mid-level firms boast TaxSlayer’s stability. Last year it processed 10 million income tax returns, about a quarter of the volume handled by market leader TurboTax, a product of Intuit Inc., a $5.1 billion corporation.
And few possess TaxSlayer’s outsized brand recognition, which it boosts through corporate sponsorships of college football (the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl); golf (PGA Tour players Patrick Reed and Kevin Kisner); NASCAR (Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove for TaxSlayer); and sports venues (the 12,000-seat TaxSlayer Center in Moline, Ill.).
Its profile was raised even higher in 2015 when the IRS awarded it a five-year contract to supply software to the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance and Tax Counseling for the Elderly programs. The second generation laid the foundation for the $26 million contract, but implementation rests on the shoulders of the third.
“All three of us have been around the company for so long and we’ve each worked our way up to where we are now, which helped us earn the respect from the employees and made the transition a lot easier,” said Brian, who started as an entry-level tax preparer. “We’re very familiar with the company’s inner workings and our partners, and I think that goes a long way into helping our age not be an issue.”
BRANCHING OUT FROM OLD ROOTS
If the triumvirate’s age has had an impact on corporate culture, it appears to have been positive.
According to TaxSlayer’s profile on Great Places to Work, a group that helps create the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list, 98 percent of surveyed employees said the company had a “great atmosphere,” and 95 percent said they had “great bosses.”
Besides treating full-time employees to an annual Caribbean vacation, the executives strive to provide employees the work-life balance they seek for themselves. Brian has three young children and Scott has four, while Ashleigh is trying to squeeze in as much travel as possible before having children.
“A lot of employees want flexibility in their work, and we understand that,” Brian said. “They might not want the accounting office hours. They’re not going to want to leave here at 5 o’clock and be on River Watch (Parkway). So we’re looking at ways to maintain our workload while giving employees flexibility. I think this new campus will force our hand to make that work.”The firm’s large millennials workforce, when combined with its more tenured employees, puts the age of the average TaxSlayer employee in the mid-30s.
The combination of veterans and fresh-faced hires has enabled TaxSlayer to meet one of its three main goals: expand its product line beyond tax software (the other two are boosting the market share of its core product and becoming an “employer of choice”).
The past year has seen TaxSlayer launch its first non-tax products: LegalSpark, a direct-to-consumer legal advice service (managed by TaxSlayer general counsel Nick Gladd, Brian and Scott’s brother-in-law); and Workful, a small business application that incorporates human resource and point-of-sale functions into the TaxSlayer Pro payroll and accounting suite.
“We wanted to find an all-in-one solution,” Scott said of Workful. “There were really only two or three on the market, but they only serve large companies and they’re pretty pricey. So now a small business owner doesn’t have to learn – or pay for – six different products.”
LegalSpark re-launched in May after months of beta testing. It enables consumers to get 20 minutes of rapid-response legal advice from a licensed attorney at a fixed $50 fee. The concept aims to do to legal consultation what Uber does for ground transportation – bring convenience to a previously complicated transaction.
What TaxSlayer cooks up next depends largely on what happens on Broad Street in a space that Ashleigh refers to as the “innovation lab.”
“How do we do we grow beyond tax?” she says. “We give people time to innovate. We make the space where they can collaborate. We think this is the campus where all those things will come to life.”
And what if the company develops a “game changer” – something truly revolutionary? Does that mean a public stock offering is on the horizon?
Not likely. Brian said he’s stopped answering the “three or four” calls a day he gets from venture capitalists and equity firms.
“We want this to be around for the fourth generation,” he said. “All the decisions we make, we try to keep that in mind. We have not only responsibilities to our own families but to the 160-something full-time employees and 300 seasonal employees and their families as well.”
Article appears in the June/July 2018 issue of Augusta Magazine.