Advisor and Small-Town Mayor, 67, Blends Tax Service with Public Service

He’s eager to explore the Blue Ridge Mountains at his doorstep, but he isn’t ready to retire yet.

By Eleanor O'Sullivan

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series Rethinking65 is doing on older advisors who are continuing to work. You may also be interested in reading our articles on Don Rembert and Dick Wendin (both 82), David Demming (74) and Minoti Rajput (70). Want to suggest an advisor for the series? Contact Editorial Director Jerilyn Klein.

At 67, Larry B. Harris has more than entertained the idea of retiring — he has children and grandchildren he’d like to spend more time with; he has a busy job as mayor of his hometown, Black Mountain, N.C.; and he and his wife, Susan, are eager to explore the great outdoors of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“When Parsec bought our firm (Burlingham & Harris) in 2018, the leadership wanted to know how long I intended to work. I set that at age 68 and I was 63 at the time but turned 64 in March of that year. The firm was very gracious and told me to work as long as I want,’’ said Harris, a CFP and CPA.

Parsec, a fee-only RIA with $3.9 billion AUM as of June 30, 2021, has six locations in North Carolina, including Harris’s office in South Asheville.

With his partner of 20 years, Brad Burlingham, Harris owned the public accounting firm, Burlingham & Harris, until they were bought by Parsec and became shareholders in 2018. Harris began his accounting career in 1983 with Peat Marwick Mitchell (now KPMG) in Greensboro, and later worked at Bank of America (Private Bank) in Asheville.

He said he most enjoys the give and take of office meetings with clients, but during the COVID pandemic, most clients have met with him by Zoom. There are the holdouts, he said, the older clients who still prefer in-person confabs.

“I’m not sure I will go back to the office as in the old days. I might mix it up, and just go back for meetings. The firm has hired a younger person with 10 years’ experience. He will be able to follow me, to pick up my client base, the tax clients. We are working through that now. We also are planning on bringing in another person of similar experience to start working with my former public accounting partner (Burlingham), who is five years younger than I,’’ Harris said.

Multiple Specialties

Harris’s specialties have been taxation planning, consulting and compliance.

“I worked pretty hard at tax accounting over the decades, and I needed a good bit of continuing ed each year. I was always focused on the new taxation issues over the years,’’ he said.

Harris and Burlingham both hold the title of director of tax services at the re-configured South Asheville Parsec office.

“The leadership felt that adding a tax service would enhance the delivery of financial services to our wealth management clients and it has done just that. It solidifies the relationship with advisors who handle the money and brings it all in house.

“It takes the interaction away where clients see the meter running at every telephone call, and turns it into a more consultative relationship; clients like that,’’ Harris said.
Aside from Harris’s happy memories of long, productive work years, he remembers his most important mentor, from his Bank of America years, with particular fondness.

“Charlie Nesbitt! Charlie was the guy I worked for at BOA. He ran our trust department at the private bank in Asheville and he influenced me greatly, especially in the manner he serviced people.

“We hit it off and became very good friends, his wife and my wife are very good friends. Charlie knew how to talk to people; he had great manners, insight; and he knew how to listen.

“He used to say, “You know, the bank is just this big unwieldy organization and it is our job to do battle with it on behalf of the clients, if the bureaucracy gets in the way.’’’

That same attention to the clients’ welfare that his mentor practiced at Bank of America “carried over to my public accounting. It’s how I like to deal with a client. I really try to think about what I can do. It’s not always a pleasant thing, dealing with estate, gift or income tax; most people don’t really enjoy that. So you try to make it as simple and be as helpful as possible in the process. That was what Charlie taught me.’’

Public Service Pursuits

Aside from his work as a tax accountant and financial planner, Harris has been unusually active in public service. He has volunteered for the YMCA, public radio, hospital boards and hospital foundation boards, as well as for a continuing care retirement community board.

And he is mayor of Black Mountain, a town of about 10,000 residents that’s 15 miles northeast of Asheville and at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. During the COVID pandemic, public meetings have been held on video. Harris served on the town council and was appointed mayor when the sitting mayor retired early. Harris will serve out that term, which ends in November 2022.

“The biggest issue in Black Mountain is zoning. Our property values have skyrocketed. People are moving from larger metropolitan areas to here since the pandemic started and new houses are being built at a tremendous rate. It’s a destination now.

“So, there’s a lot pressure from the zoning issues. People want more value to their land but they don’t want density, so it’s a conflict.’’

Harris said service in public and business pursuits has been a mantra of his.

“All my working career I have served the community in some fashion and I like the idea of also serving clients, helping them professionally. It’s obviously work, but in the end what keeps you going is that what you do for a living is helpful, it provides a needed service. It’s pretty special to grow older with many of your clients; clients that I have worked with for decades. That is a great blessing,’’ Harris said.

Social Security Advice

As he and his clients grow older, Harris is now servicing their children and even their grandchildren. One nugget of advice that Harris imparts to clients who are nearing retirement age is to avoid taking Social Security benefits early, when possible.

“I think waiting until full retirement age is a good idea. I am holding off on Social Security until I no longer work. Growing your benefits by 8% each year until 70, I believe, is prudent if one is fortunate enough to have that option. Certainly, you may lose out if you die before you recover those years you have delayed benefits, but if your spouse survives you it is still an attractive planning tool.’’

About upcoming tax law changes and their effect on seniors, Harris is reassuring.

“Our senior citizens have been through tax increases and decreases more than once! For most clients they look for their financial planners, investment managers, tax accountants and attorneys to help them move through the changes, when they come.’’

Power Walks, Rain or Shine

Harris said he has reduced his work time to about 50 hours a week, but with the filing date for 2020 tax returns extended to May, due to COVID-19 pandemic disruptions, his tax season is longer this year.

“I work on weekends, probably more on weekends than before. It’s a little less intense working from home but I miss the interaction with folks.

“I try to stop at 4 or 5 p.m. and I get outside and take a power walk. I pretty much have done that every day, rain or shine. It’s made for a good schedule, because it puts a period at the end of the day and you need that when you are working at home,’’ he said.
An orderly transition is underway at Parsec for Harris’s retirement, if all the elements fall into place.

“Just the other day we were talking about what 2022 would look like; I’ll be 68. I am sort of working it through in my mind. It’s up to me to decide what I want to do; some of that will depend on the person who is planning on stepping into my shoes, how much they are ready for it.

“I think it would be wise to set some sort of a target — ‘This is what I would like to do’ — and we will see if it works. I have a great deal of loyalty toward Parsec Financial, and I want to be sensitive. I don’t want to leave them in a bad situation.’’

When Harris does finally retire, he will be leaving an industry that has changed in dramatic ways.

“It has changed but certainly not for the worse. The changes have primarily been in technology and the workforce. Everything is paperless now.

“The workforce is full of sophisticated and smart young people who work hard but they have a different perspective than I had when I entered the workforce 38 years ago. Back then, it was a badge of honor to work a ton, 80 hours a week. That is not what the young people are doing these days. They’re interested in a little more balanced life.

Additional Reading: Keeping Clients First As You Grow Your Practice

“I think financial services, be it taxation, asset management, financial planning or insurance services is a great way to make friends and serve folks, and that has not changed at all.’’

In a four-decade career in journalism, Eleanor O’Sullivan has reviewed many books on best practices for financial advisors, has written for Financial Advisor and the USA Today network, and was movie critic for the Asbury Park Press.

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