Brian’s fly-fishing nets stronger client relationships
Brian Wagner wasn’t exactly in love with fly fishing the first few times he went, but a friend had invited him and promised cold beer was involved. After a few times, he began to learn the knots and techniques to catch fish and it became a lot more fun. And while unplugging from work is nice, there are many parallels — no matter how much you study the technical skills, to truly excel, you must also learn the “art” of both fly fishing and business.
In this episode, Brian and I talk about how his fly fishing has built some really strong client relationships. It’s also given him the ability to hone some skills that translate straight to the office, like focusing, remembering to be in the moment, and patience — as Brian says, “Nothing good happens when you rush it.” I also really liked talking with Brian about how it’s up to individuals to own their career but the organization must support it, which includes sharing passions or creating shared experiences as a team. The last thing Brian wants is for everyone in the firm to be the same (i.e., accountants who only talk about accounting) because that’d be a very boring place to work.
Brian Wagner is a Shareholder and Director at Strategem CPAs located in Denver, CO.
He graduated from the University of Northern Colorado with a Bachelor’s, Accounting and later received his MBA from the University of Colorado at Denver.
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Okay. Now it’s time for this week’s guest, Brian Wagner. He’s a shareholder and director and the firm’s success strategist at Stratagem outside of Denver, Colorado. If you check out their website, I absolutely love how their whole page, right there in the middle, says in huge font, “Focusing on relationships.” It talks about building trust. This goes for not only clients but also coworkers, as well.
Brian, thank you so much for taking time to be with me today on the Green Apple Podcast.
Brian: You bet. Glad to be here.
John: One question I love to start it off with is just how did you get into accounting?
Brian: That’s a great question. I think it’s a genetic defect, to be honest. My parents have two children: myself, and I have an older sister. We’re both CPAs.
John: Oh, my goodness.
Brian: I think that the deck was stacked against us from the very start. It’s really funny, because neither of my parents are accountants or CPAs. Growing up, my mom owned a small counted cross stitch shop when I was in elementary school. We got sucked into doing the year-end inventory counts and all of that kind of stuff. I think it was just kind of a natural extension on career day to go spend a day with an accountant that I happened to know.
I thought, “You know, this makes sense. I could do this.” That’s how I got here.
John: That’s awesome, man. That’s so cool. Your sister – does she also do similar accounting work, or completely different type of stuff?
Brian: She’s a CFO. She did her stint in public and has her CPA and keeps it active and all that.
John: You guys passed each other in the hallway? Like, “All right, I’m going to public.”, “See you. I’m going to private.”
John: That’s awesome, man. That’s very cool. Very cool. I guess just to get into the meat of it here, when you have some free time, what sort of hobbies and passions occupy your nights and weekends when you’re able to get away?
Brian: I probably have too many passions and hobbies. Work gets in the way of pursuing them all as much as I want. The big one for me is – my wife calls it a vice – I tell her that has a negative connotation to it.
John: I politely disagree.
Brian: I look for, “passion” or “hobby” or something a little bit more positive. It’s fly fishing. I love to fly fish. In Colorado, there’s a million streams and mountain lakes. It’s one of the best places to do that. That’s probably the big one for me.
John: Somebody who’s never been fly fishing like myself but I’ve seen a river runs through it – is that pretty much what it’s like?
Brian: I would say that that’s somewhat accurate but has the typical maybe Hollywood sensationalism in it. You’re not very often casting that far across the waters like that and going downstream. Hopefully, you’re not doing that, anyway.
John: Then you’re doing it wrong.
Brian: You’re doing it wrong, and you’re probably not going to be doing it for very long.
John: That’s true, too. That’s excellent. That’s so funny. How did you get into fly fishing? You can’t just go out and do it. What gets you into that?
Brian: I have a really good buddy who invited me to go up a couple of times. To be honest with you, the first three or four times I did it, it was really hard and really frustrating. I didn’t remember all the knots that I should have remembered learning how to tie from being a boy scout and all those things.
I’m like, “This is ridiculous.” But I kept going, because something that goes hand-in-hand with fly fishing is cold beers. Worst case scenario, I’m staying astream drinking a cold beer. I kind of powered through those first few times with my buddy. All of a sudden, it just kind of clicked, and I started just catching fish. It was a lot of fun. I started conquering the knots. It wasn’t so much work, and it wasn’t as complicated as it is when you first start it.
John: That’s awesome. Yeah. That’s very cool. It’s got to be really beautiful and somewhat relaxing when you’re out there, and there’s beer involved. Why not? Hello?
Brian: Yeah. It’s very serene. You’re standing in the stream. Most of these places, even if you take your cellphone, you don’t have coverage, so you can’t be worried about your phone buzzing or going off. You have to really be in the moment. You have to focus on the fly, or you’re going to miss it when the fish comes up and takes it. It’s a very cool thing.
Being in nature and that sound of water rushing around your feet and then when you’re catching the fish – that’s pretty cool. Then there’s releasing the fish. It’s all catch-and-release. At least, most fly fishermen are catch and release. It’s just a very serene, cool, relaxing environment. It’s just a really good Zen moment.
John: Do you find that that translates to the office at all? How does that impact when you go back to work?
Brian: Great question. There’s a lot of similarities between fly fishing and work. Nothing good happens when you rush it.
John: There you go.
Brian: If you rush too fast in fly fishing, you end up with a bunch of knots. If you rush things in work, typically, that doesn’t turn out well. If you got too early, if you set the hook too early, you rip the fly right out of the fish’s mouth. Nothing good comes from that. You end up in a tree with more knots. If you don’t let things mature to the right point in business and you go too soon, typically, nothing good comes from that.
The profession has a lot of Type A personalities in it. Myself would be included in that. I think that there’s a lot of really good things that you learn about. Everything in its time. You certainly don’t want opportunities to go by. There’s another missed opportunity. If you miss the fish, if you’re late on the set, if you don’t return business development calls timely – there’s just a lot of good things about natural evidence flow of business and fly fishing.
John: That’s fantastic, and something that surely isn’t in the brochure for accounting or whatever, or even fly fishing., “Hey, you do this, and when you get back to work, there’s some parallels here that maybe going into it you didn’t think about at the time.”
Brian: Absolutely. There’s more art. We all focus on the science a lot, right? But here’s an art.
John: No, that’s for sure. School and CPE and everything is all the science side, like you said. There’s a whole art side to this that is easily forgotten or brushed under the table. That’s fantastic.
What might be one of the cooler, most rewarding experiences, or something that you’ve gotten to do – fly fishing, maybe it was a certain river, a moment in time that really sticks out?
Brian: Yeah. I can tell you exactly what it was. It was the last Sunday of July in 2013. My son would have been 15 years old. It was just he and I. We were on a river on a Sunday afternoon. He’s a really good angler. It really ticked me off, because he doesn’t care about it as much as I do. You’ll see him do something, and I’ll be like, “Buddy, how did you do that?”
He’s like, “I don’t know.”
I’m like, “Seriously. That was one in a lifetime cast. You did it.”
He’s like, “I just did it.”
I was down steam fishing, and he was upstream a little bit from me. He whistled at me, which – we’ll whistle back and forth if we need help netting a fish or if we got stuck or something. I walked up steam a little bit. Long story short, I netted a 31-inch, 16-pound rainbow trout that he caught on an olive colored hare’s ear fly. It was ridiculous. It was the biggest fish I’ve ever seen. Biggest trout I’ve ever seen. To catch that fish on a fly rod is just a really, really, really rare, special thing. That was a really cool moment for us. One I’ll never forget.
John: That’s awesome, man. That’s so cool. Take the pictures, and then you get to hold the fish for the pictures, too., “It was this big!” That’s awesome. You wonder how the fish get that big. Gosh. Wow. That is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of a thing.
Maybe that’s it. Maybe he peaked, and he’s like, “I’m out. It’s not going to get any better than this. I’m done.”
Brian: Go out on top, even though he was 15 years old.
John: No, that’s awesome, man. Very cool. What a cool moment. Especially just a father-son, just the two of you out there. Is fly fishing something that you talk about at work and that comes up in the office?
Brian: I talk about it a little bit in the office, but I do a lot for business development activity. I take clients and friends and referral sources and prospects fishing. Probably 15 days a year. I’m known for that in the office a little bit. Probably not as much as out of the office. It’s absolutely something that’s out there and that’s special to me in Denver that I’m known for.
John: That’s awesome. I have to imagine you’re out there and you’re hanging out and there’s a lot less stress and you’re able to develop a real relationship there with those clients that pays dividends long-term, I would think.
Brian: Yeah. Fly fishing is a really great relationship-building activity. If you compare it with golf, number one – here’s your green apple moment – not as many guys fly fish as golf. You stand out a little bit just by virtue of that. But back to the relationship-building topic, it’s kind of hard to develop a relationship in between golf swings at a golf course. You might have a minute or two in between your cart mate hitting his ball and you hitting yours.
John: Right., “Mine’s in the trees, and yours is down the middle of the fairway. We’re not even close to each other.”
Brian: Truly. We have to play golf together, because I’m not in the middle of the fairway.
John: I gave you the benefit of the doubt on that one.
Brian: Yeah. I wish.
John: You’re on the trees in the left. I’m in the trees on the right. Either way.
Brian: There we go. But fly fishing, you spend an hour with your guests in the car driving up. It allows for a longer, deeper, more substantive conversation. Then you spend a day on the river. You catch fish and have a couple of beers. Then you have an hour car ride on the way back home to continue building a relationship, or if it’s a business client, talk about a couple things that might be going on in the business. If it’s a prospect, maybe advance commitment and next steps and that type of thing. It’s a much more effective relationship and business development tool, I think, than maybe some other activity.
John: Yeah. Most people think, “I’ll go to their office and sit down with a big brochure and talk through how important and how smart I am and blah blah.” Nah, how about we just go hang out? How about that? Then people’s guard are down and you can actually have a real relationship there as opposed to that superficial business one that oftentimes isn’t necessarily the best start or the best long-term type of approach.
Brian: Yeah. It gets back to Seth Godin, the Purple Cow, right? I think he said, “Be remarkable.” Don’t be very good. The opposite of remarkable is very good, and very good is boring.
John: Yeah. Everybody’s very good, right?
Brian: Yeah. You go to his office, sit down, and go through a brochure – yuck. I’d much rather go fly fishing.
John: Yuck. That’s the exact response that everyone should have right there. It’s so great. It’s like, “Let me put this in the stack of all the other brochures of everyone else who is amazing at what they do.”
Brian: If you’re lucky, it goes in the stack. More than likely, when you walk out, it goes in the trash can.
John: Right. Exactly. Yeah. That’s the thing. I was talking with someone once just a couple of months ago. I was talking to them, and it came up that a hobby that re really liked was remodeling cars. I was like, “Oh, that’s so neat. What’s your favorite care?” Whatever.
I said, “Do your coworkers or any of your clients happen to know you for this?”
“No, no. They know me for my expertise.”
I was like, “Oh, well, gosh.” Sure, they can know you for your expertise, but there’s got to be more to you. Gosh. What makes them want to stick to you? Doing a hobby together, going fly fishing is so simple. Plus, you both enjoy it. It’s fun. I think it’s excellent.
Brian: Yeah. I have those conversations with my tribe at the firm, which is, “What are you passionate about? What do you love to do?” I’m not the standup comic, but I think our profession is a very easy target. I don’t know why. Most of the CPAs I know do great quality work, and they care tremendously about their clients, and they do the right things with people of high character and moral value and integrity. And they’re fun, but they have kind of a mental block about being vulnerable and sharing what their passions and pursuits and hobbies are with other people. I’m like, “Just take that step.”
The first time or two you do it, your heart is fluttering a little bit or racing a little bit. You might be a little bit uncomfortable. But whoever you’re sharing that with isn’t experiencing that. It’s not awkward to them. Just overcome your fear and take a little step. The next time, maybe you’ll take a little bit bigger step. It’s a profession with so much to offer, and our people are so great.
John: That’s so well said, man. Anybody that’s listening that’s on the fence – I didn’t have to say it. You did it. That’s so great. Take Brian’s word for it. It really is. It’s all in your own head. It is. I’m not sure what it is. Part of me thinks it’s just like excessive professionalism where I’m playing the part of what I think an accountant is supposed to be.
It’s like – no. An accountant is just a person. Just be you. I have to imagine, too, when you interview people and you hire people, you hire them for all of them, and not just this part of them that is the accounting side. There’s other dimensions to people that they can bring to the table that help their career.
Brian: Yeah. It’s the whole work-life balance thing debunked, right? I don’t have a work life and a personal life. We all have one life. I don’t know how to compartmentalize it in neat little buckets that I can just say, “Okay, well, I’m going to pick this bucket up and carry it for ten hours and put it down, pick that bucket up and carry it for five hours and put it down.”
It’s an integrated life. The more that you can do that brings you energy and passion and joy, the happier you’re going to be about it. That comes through. It comes through in how you answer the phone and dial off with clients, and it comes through with how you do your work and how much energy you have to take home to your family and your kids at night. Life’s too short to try to compartmentalize everything and manage those buckets and keep them separate and not have energy and enjoy what you’re doing. Nobody’s getting out alive. We’re all human beings.
John: You’re exactly right. There’s that famous quote on someone’s deathbed, no one ever said, “Gee, I wish I had worked more.” Work hard and put in your hours and do what you’ve got to do – but it doesn’t mean that you can’t bring a little life to the party while you’re at work. Breathe a little oxygen into the place. You’re still humans. Make that happen.
I guess one thing that I think about too is just when it comes to that culture, getting people to open up, and I think it’s awesome you’re setting the tone from the top and also asking people and going out and genuinely interested in the people that you work around, what kind of passions do you have, do you think it’s more on the organization to create that – the tone at the top, if you will – or is it more on the individual to make their own little circle and maybe ripple out from there?
Brian: A little bit of both, but I lean pretty strongly that it’s towards the employee to own their career. Showing up is no longer sufficient. Bring some energy, add some value, and own your career. We don’t want everybody to be the same. We don’t want everybody to be like me. We don’t want everybody to be like another partner or another manager or whatever. That would be a very boring place.
Be who you are, and be real, but I think that that’s on each employee to figure out who they are and what they’re passionate about and what they want to do and what they don’t want to do. We need to work that a little bit, but I think they have to own it.
John: I agree. That’s awesome. I love how you said that, especially at the end there. The individual has to own it, but the organization supports it. That’s the thing is I think a lot of people don’t really maybe know themselves or are as confident in who they are to open up and be that little bit of vulnerable. They feel like they’ll be taken advantage of or people will use it against them like we’re in seventh grade again and you’re going to get stuck in a locker in PE. We’re not.
People are going to celebrate it. It’s cool. It’s cool now. Whatever it is that you do, own it. Don’t shy away from that.
Another thing too that I find is sometimes people say, “Oh, well, fly fishing – no one else fly fished here. No one’s going to care that I fly fish and whatever.” How do you know if you don’t share it? There’s seven of you that are sitting around and all think that no one else fly fishes, and then all of a sudden –, “I do, too. What?” Half the office all of a sudden does whatever the hobby passion is. Well, how are you going to find out if you never share it?
Brian: Not only might other people do it, and then you have some friends and colleagues to go out and participate in that with, but like me, I got involved in fly fishing because a buddy – I had never done it, but he had mentioned it a couple times – offered to take me with him, and I went. I wouldn’t have this whole avenue of my life that just brings me so much joy had he not talked about it.
Maybe somebody isn’t doing it, but that might be something else. A lot of people talk about hobbies or I hear people doing different things and I have no interest in it, but I think it’s very interesting and very cool just to see what other people like to do. Maybe it isn’t something I’m every going to go do. Comic-Con came to Denver a little bit ago. I’m never interested with Comic-Con, but I think it’s phenomenal, and it’s really cool, and all these people get really into it. I was talking to somebody who was going to it and all dressed up and the whole nine yards and showing me pictures on their phone. I’m like, “That is very cool.” I have no desire to join. That’s great. That’s okay.
John: Right. Also, when you have to think of people that you’ve worked with, that person’s going to come top of mind, and it’s not going to be because of the work they did. It’s because of that they really are into Comic-Con. That’s what I’m going to remember.
That’s the thing is if you’re trying to be super accountant and all about that, well, the sad thing is that you’re kind of forgettable. That’s just how the brain works. You’re a commodity. You’re just like everybody else. Be super accountant who also happens to love to go to Comic-Con or whatever it is.
Brian: Be remarkable. Stand out.
John: That’s exactly, exactly it. Anything else that you guys do as a firm to kind of encourage that? People to open up or feel like it’s okay to be a little bit vulnerable?
Brian: We have a few things that we do culturally that people can join in or if they want to participate. If they don’t, we have a Friday golf league during the summer. Friday afternoons, we just hose the office for people who want to take off and we go play golf. That’s a lot of fun. Nobody’s very good at it. That’s not true. We have a couple of ringers, but most people aren’t very good at it.
John: That’s a cool thing.
Brian: We participate in Tough Mudder every year. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that. They have it up in a mountain resort town every year. People who want to participate in that – I’d say last year we probably had 15 or 20 team members participate in that. It’s like a 12-mile course and, I don’t know, 16 or 18 or 20 obstacles. We go up the night before and stay in hotels and eat a carbo-load dinner and then go do the Tough Mudder and have a couple of beers. That’s a really big team building, morale building event for us. I didn’t really feel all the things coming that I learned from that. There’s a lot of these obstacles you physically cannot do by yourself regardless of how strong you are or what kind of shape you’re in. It’s about communicating and problem solving and helping your teammates out and seeing things from different perspectives.
You go through this pretty grueling 12-mile course. I learned to have a deeper appreciation for each person on the team and just the mental grit it takes to get through it and the perseverance I think is really good application to our culture and our team as well.
John: Yeah. Wow. That’s huge, man. That’s really neat. So great that there’s 15-20 of you that went up and did it. Wow. That’s fantastic. I love it, too. It’s absolutely nothing to do with accounting, but the team building has to be through the roof when you get back. Months later, the people that did it have to have such a strong bond. That’s fantastic. Really, really great.
Brian: Yeah. The tribe that completes that every year – you get a headband when you cross the finish line. The first day back at the office after whatever day that event’s on, everybody that does that wears their headband.
John: That’s funny.
Brian: It’s kind of funny to watch a bunch of accountants wear orange headbands. But it’s just a cultural thing.
John: Yeah. It’s like, “We could have known from your limping, but the headband gave it away. You still have mud in your fingernails….”
Brian: I’m kind of on the fence if you did run or not.
John: Have a rough weekend? Oh, no, the headband. Oh, okay. Tough Mudder. There we go. That’s great, man. Really, really cool. I love it. I think it’s fantastic. I’m glad I didn’t work there, because I’d probably still be in accounting. I think we all win on this. But this has been fantastic, Brian, but I do have my 17 rapid fire questions I like to do at the end before I decide to come out to Colorado and go fly fishing-slash-get my rod stuck in a tree with you.
Brian: Any time.
John: Yeah, man. I’d love to. My 17 rapid fire questions that I like to do – we’ll have a little bit of fun here. Let me fire this thing up. All right. Here we go. First one, easy. Sudoku or crossword puzzle?
John: Crosswords. There you go. Do you have a favorite color?
Brian: Impact blue.
John: Impact blue. Look at you going all designer on me. How about a least favorite color?
Brian: New England Patriot blue.
John: Is it more the blue or the New England Patriots part of that?
Brian: New England Patriots, yeah.
John: How about when it comes to movie series – Star Wars or Star Trek?
Brian: Star Wars all the way.
John: Yeah, absolutely, man. When it comes to computers – PC or Mac?
Brian: I’m a Mac guy, but I have to live in a PC world at the office.
John: Oh, goodness. I don’t know how you do it.
Brian: Yeah, it’s tough.
John: When it comes to a mouse – right-click or left-click?
Brian: I am a right-click kind of guy.
John: Okay. All right. Do you have a favorite band?
Brian: I’d have to go with Zack Brown Band.
John: Okay. Yeah. That’s right up there with the fly fishing sort of a thing. I don’t know why I said that, but it just seems like it.
Brian: Yeah. Ireland meets southern rock meets country.
John: Yeah. A little bit of everything. What did you have for breakfast? Or typical breakfast?
Brian: Bacon, eggs, what toast, dry.
John: Wow. All right. Wow. You’re going on. That sounds really good, actually. When it comes to financials, more balance sheet or income statement?
Brian: Balance sheet.
John: Balance sheet. All right. Do you have a favorite Disney character?
Brian: Favorite Disney character…see, Toy Story is Disney, right? Pixar is Disney?
John: Yeah. I’ll let it count. Who cares, right?
Brian: Let’s go with Woody.
John: Woody. There you go. Solid answer. Are you more pens or pencils?
John: Pen. No mistakes. There we go. More jeans and a t-shirt or suit and tie?
Brian: Suit and tie.
John: Suit and tie. All right. You didn’t say that very enthusiastically. All right. Do you have a favorite actor or actress?
Brian: Jason Bourne. Matt Damon.
John: Oh, yeah. Okay. All right. Are you more early bird or night owl?
Brian: Early bird.
John: Early bird. All right. Three more. Do you have a favorite number?
John: Five. Why is that?
Brian: That was my wife’s volleyball number, and it was the day of the month we’d get married.
John: Solid. Two excellent reasons right there. Hard to argue that. How about cats or dogs?
John: Dogs. All right. The last one – favorite thing you own or the favorite thing you have?
Brian: Favorite thing I own – and this will make the deep impact blue question a little bit more appropriate – I have a deep impact blue Shelby G 350 Mustang.
John: Sweet. We are driving that to go fly fishing.
Brian: You got it.
John: That is awesome. When did you get that?
Brian: I just picked it up last June.
John: That’s awesome, man. Well, this has been so fun, Brian. Thank you so much for taking time to be with me on the Green Apple Podcast.
Brian: You bet. Thanks for having me.
John: That was so, so good. I liked how Brian talked about the parallels between fly fishing and business. No matter how much you study the technical skills, to truly excel, you must also learn the art. That means being human and maybe even a little bit vulnerable in the office. What it also does is make you somewhat unique, because as Brian said, the last thing I want is for everyone in the firm to be the same. That’d be a very boring place to work. Brian, I couldn’t agree more.
Be sure to go to greenapplepodcast.com to see some really cool pictures of Brian with a huge fish he caught and even his Shelby G T. While you’re on the page, please click the big green button and do my anonymous research survey.
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