March 18, 2019
Women in Business Awards 2019

Cool under pressure, Willauer is a 'tax-code encyclopedia'

Photo | J. Fiereck Photography
Photo | J. Fiereck Photography

Lisa (LaSaracina) Willauer

Partner

Fiondella, Milone & LaSaracina LLP

There's a simple explanation for why Lisa (LaSaracina) Willauer decided to join the accounting industry after just one college class.

"They say in accounting either you get it or you don't get it," she explains. "And I got it. So, I said, 'Well I'm going to do that.'"

It makes sense, since clients at Fiondella, Milone & LaSaracina, a mid-sized, Glastonbury-based public accounting firm, rely on her to make complicated tax law understandable.

"She's a walking, talking tax-code encyclopedia," says Ron Perine, the principal, president and CEO of Avon ad agency Mintz + Hoke. "And she has a real knack for translating complex, jargon-filled law into ways that business leaders, like myself, can not only understand, but use to better manage a business."

For Willauer, it comes down to making time to immerse herself in the language of tax laws and keep up with constant changes and additions. There are no shortcuts.

"You have to know the law, and get deep into the codes to understand and come up with your interpretation," she says.

According to Perine, "every business needs a savvy tax expert" and Willauer is that for startup entrepreneurs to C-suite executives of multibillion-dollar, publicly traded companies.

Clients like Mintz + Hoke reference her expertise in transaction services, ranging from buy-side due diligence to sell-side tax planning for both corporations and partnerships or LLCs as well as her significant experience with stock compensation, debt transactions and recapitalizations.

It's not about finding loopholes, Willauer explains, "It's about making choices. And thinking long term."

Willauer, along with business partners Jeff Fiondella and Frank Milone, left Big Four accounting firm Ernst & Young in 2002 to open their own shop. They were young, leaving a known-commodity behind, but wanting to gain more control over their careers and offer their own version of client services.

They immediately faced changes in the industry due to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (the federal law, formed in reaction to major crises and scandals in the accounting industry) and grew their startup by being flexible and specialized. Willauer, in particular, made it her goal to know the new rules inside and out. Now, with nine partners and more than 60 employees, they are training others in their model.

"People believed in us, not a firm name," says Willauer. "We were asking them to join us with no legacy. We pitched ourselves as seasoned professionals with experience. Now, we can pass the legacy down to others."

Cool under pressure

Mintz + Hoke has a 20-year relationship with the accounting firm and Willauer, in part, because she is cool under pressure.

"Her expertise is matched by her confidence and a dry sense of humor — a winning combination," Perine says. "Taxes are complicated, and that can create anxiety for clients. The knowledge and expertise she brings to the conversation is balanced by her even temperament delivering a sense of calmness to the process. Not something that usually comes to mind during tax season."

Willauer credits her days of playing basketball, on a scholarship, at Bentley University.

"It taught me the concept of hard work, teamwork and never putting myself above the team," she says.

Basketball has been a constant throughout her career as she coached her four children (now young adults) while raising them as a single mom. And exercise keeps her centered, as well.

When the kids were young, Willauer, whose maiden name was LaSaracina before recently getting married, kept business and personal life separate.

"When I got home they didn't see me working," she explained. "But then as they got older at some point I wanted them to see me work. I want them to know it takes hard work to be successful in life. Money is not the indicator. It's about accomplishments."

According to Perine, "In terms of success, women are so often portrayed as having to 'choose' between fulfilling aspects of life, or be asked if they truly 'can have it all.' Lisa is a prime example of the importance of making choices, some small and some big, every day. And with those choices, she didn't have to choose between a rich personal life or successful career."

Q&A

What legacy do you want to leave after your career is over?

I want to be known as a crucial business advisor who was able to find value and solutions to complex problems — someone who put her clients first.

As an employer, I hope my employees think of me as a leader who respected their contributions to the firm I helped found, beyond a rote employer-employee transactional relationship.

What are your keys to maintaining business success?

Above all else, integrity and hard work lead to success. Being willing to take risks and seizing opportunities when they're presented have also helped me immensely. But no one succeeds in a vacuum; I have perpetually surrounded myself with driven, talented, and respected individuals. And to that, I work hard to invest in growing the next generation of leaders in our business; continually placing the professional development of others at the forefront of our business model has paid off a hundred times over.

What are your keys to maintaining work/life balance?

I consider it a blend more than a balance; I'm fully engaged in both my home life and my professional life. Of course, there will be some overlap, and I don't disconnect from that. When I'm home, I am present at home. When I'm working, my work is at the forefront.

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