August 11, 2017 People in Tax

Interview with John Thorner, Director, ABA Section of Taxation

By Thomas D. Greenaway, KPMG LLP, Boston, MA

 

Editor’s Note:  John Thorner joined the Tax Section staff as director on April 10, 2017, after more than 20 years of high-level association management and board experience at the Academy of General Dentistry, the American Society of Anesthesiologists, and other organizations.  He received a B.A. from Duke, a M.S. in Journalism from Columbia, and a J.D. from the University of Georgia School of Law.

Q: John, can you tell us something about your background?

A: My background is somewhat eclectic.  It has included stints as a journalist, as a lawyer, and as a manager of professional associations. 

I started my career as a journalist and worked for various news organizations, including the Washington Post and Associated Press.  I was working for the Atlanta Constitution as a reporter when I decided to go to law school.  When I finished law school, I took a position with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) as an attorney advisor for one of the Board members.  However, I was more interested at the time in combining my journalism and law backgrounds, so after three years at the NLRB, I jumped at the opportunity to work for Legal Times of Washington, a startup newspaper aimed at helping lawyers in their practice. 

Still wanting to combine my journalism and legal backgrounds, I left Legal Times for a communications/legislative/regulatory lobbyist position at an industry trade association.  After that, I became a general counsel of an environmental engineering professional association.  I moved from that general counsel position to an executive director position at another environmental engineering association.  And from there, I took a post as an executive director of an organization of physicists.  I moved to Chicago about nine years ago for executive director positions with first a medical and then a dental professional association.

I returned to D.C. to be closer to family.  I heard about the position with the Tax Section and thought it would be a great fit. I enjoy working for professional associations, and I especially enjoy working in an area that is current and exciting. It was energizing to work for a medical association during the Obamacare debate, and now I find it very exciting to work for a legal organization involved in tax issues at a time of tax reform. 

Q: So with your extensive background working with professional organizations, what do you see as some of the best strengths of professional organizations generally?

A: Members of professional organizations tend to have a strong desire to elevate their profession.  They want to continually educate themselves to better serve their clients.  They want to conduct research to assure their profession is evolving. They want to assure that government officials have the best information on which to base their decisions, and they want to do something for the public good.

The collective brainpower of association members can make all these things happen and more!

Q: And how about common challenges that you faced working inside professional organizations?

A: Common to all associations is the challenge of membership: keeping people interested and excited about being a member of the organization and about actively supporting the organization with their time and money. So finding the set of activities and services and pro bono activities that capture the enthusiasm of the members is common across-the-board.

Q: You’ve been at the Tax Section now for four months. What are your first impressions?

A: I am very impressed with the quality of the Tax Section’s educational programming and publications.  There is a strong involvement of members.  The Section has strong, dedicated leaders. And I’ve been very, very impressed with our staff, who have the skills and experience to serve the members well.  Q: We have a core of members who are active in our meetings.  But the vast majority of our members do not attend our three annual Section meetings.  Do you have any ideas how we can use technology to do a better job of connecting to and activating those members? A: We have to be mindful of the pressures and challenges our members face.  I’ve heard from many that law firms are not enthusiastic about paying for member dues and even less enthusiastic about paying for continuing legal education.  We have to recognize that the cost of travel is not only airfare and hotels, but also fewer billable hours due to the time out of the office. Only if we offer benefits that are crucial to our members’ professional lives will they or their firms be likely to pay for those benefits. 

So one of the main things we have to do is constantly look at how we can provide a valuable, worthwhile, cost-effective educational experience for members. We have to provide comprehensive, quality education remotely through webinars.  We also are exploring podcasts as another mobile educational medium.

We also need to improve our onsite meeting experience.  We need to assure the best education by paying attention to impediments to learning, such as overlapping topics or overcrowded meeting rooms.  We need to pay attention to distractions such as attendees walking in and out of sessions.

I believe it’s really important that we first understand that we have to be doing things that are useful and valuable to our members.  They have to be current.  They have to be exciting.  Second, I believe we need to continue to understand our audience by reaching out to them for their feedback.  Today’s technology makes it easier to get member feedback, and we need to utilize these tools.

Q: Well, let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about the finances of the Section.  I’d like to get your thoughts on two things.  Are we in a sustainable mode with respect to our operations and our budget? And what do you see in terms of financial changes, if any, going forward?

A: For the past few years, the Section has been spending far more than it makes in revenue.  The Section has reserves that cover this deficit, but these reserves would soon be exhausted at the current pace.  So we will not be in a sustainable mode unless we change how we do things.

Much to his credit, Section Chair Bill Caudill has done a tremendous amount to cut unnecessary expenses.  This trend definitely will continue under the leadership of Chair-Elect Karen Hawkins and incoming Chair-Elect Eric Solomon.  Staff will do everything it can to assist with this effort.   Hopefully we can accomplish a balanced budget without too much impact, but we cannot do things the way we’ve always done them.  We need to do things more efficiently and economically, and we need to cut down on some amenities to concentrate our resources on educational programming.

We also need to grow our membership and find other ways to generate new revenue. We need to develop new products and services that members will find valuable and will be willing to pay for.

Q: Let’s talk a little bit about tax.  Are you going to plan to bone up on tax law?  Are you going to treat us as the animals, and you’re the zookeeper?

A: Our members are the experts in tax law.  With only two courses in law school and no experience practicing tax law, I don’t expect to be offering members any competition soon.  But I do hope to learn enough about tax law to better understand our members’ needs.

I smiled at your “zookeeper” metaphor; it implies a level of staff dominance and member submission.  We work for and with the members.  Our job is to understand member needs and to facilitate a clear direction from members and leaders as to the best ways we can work together to make membership in the ABA Tax Section a beneficial experience.