By Kevin Westrick
for Inbusiness

Aaron and Jennifer Dawson have turned Opsahl, Dawson & Company,P.S. into a cutting-edge, “new-age” accounting firm by transforming into a paperless office.

“Paperless works fantastic,” Aaron said. “When a client calls, you can answer the question right there. You don’t have to call back in 15 minutes because you have to go find a file.” In 2009, the Dawsons became second-generation owners of Opsahl, Dawson & Company after buying out firm founder George Opsahl Jr., who remains part of the company.

The company is changing its name to Opsahl Dawson, but Aaron Dawson said he will always keep the name Opsahl for brand recognition out of respect for Opsahl, a family friend who started the firm in 1979.

Opsahl Dawson, located at 959 11th Ave. suite A in Longview, offers accounting services, business development services, estate planning, payroll services, retirement planning, bookkeeping assistance, consulting services and tax planning and preparation.

Going paperless has enabled Opsahl Dawson to saved money for the firm and eliminated hassles for clients, the owners say.

“Once you finish a file, you don’t have to touch it again. You don’t have put the file back. It’s already where it should be,” Dawson said.

The paperless system works through the company website, http// Clients sign in with a secure password into a protected portal system. Clients’ tax returns are posted in a PDF format inside the portal system, where they can be viewed confidentially.

A return will remain on the portal system for a year.

Upon request, clients may also receive printed copies of a tax return. All tax returns are electronically filed, a requirement by the IRS.

“It requires zero ‘admin’ time. They don’t have to process it, print it, staple it or send it with postage in the mail,” Dawson said. “We don’t want to email it because email is not secure. The secure portal is password protected.”

The paperless system makes coordination between Opsahl Dawson’s offices in Longview and Vancouver much smoother, the owners say. After employees in Longview finish a tax return and close the file, employees in Vancouver can immediately open it for review, the Dawsons said.

“When I first came to the firm I was driving my pickup with boxes full of files, carrying them back and forth because we were using different resources in different offices,” Aaron said. “They couldn’t get started on (a file) for two days because I wouldn’t be driving to Vancouver until Wednesday. This way, the two offices work together.”

Transitioning to Longview

The Dawsons graduated from Western Washington University with bachelor’s degrees in accounting. They both began as audit and tax accountants at Clothier and Head before Aaron took a position with Clark Nuber, a huge Seattle firm with a single office housing 150 tax accountants.

“I knew it was the best training I’d ever get, so I’d better use it while I’m there. And I helped the firm go paperless,” he said. “I would rather be involved in making that firm be what I want it to be rather than let someone else do it and be frustrated for the next 10 years. I like being in control of my own destiny.”

At Clark Nuber, Dawson quickly moved up the ladder, reaching the title of tax manager, a position he held for two years.

“My dad always says ‘Don’t leave the big firms until you make manager,’” he said. “Once you make manager you learn how to manage your clients, you learn how to manage the staff below you and then you are ready to start your own firm.”

Aaron Dawson, a Mark Morris High School graduate, followed in his father’s footsteps in the accounting business. Robert Dawson Jr. has been a sole practitioner for more than 30 years in Vancouver.

With a mentor as a father, Dawson said he had an advantage because he could seek advice after hours.

“It was something I just kind of gravitated to, and I liked math,” he said. “I liked being the top advisor. This felt important to me to hold a role that people would look up to and ask me for help. I like helping people.”

Opsahl opened the door for Aaron and Jennifer when he asked them to take over the business in 2009.

“George is a very well respected person, honest person. It’s a great shadow to follow,” Aaron Dawson said. “It was a perfect fit. We had 100 percent client retention. ”

Training clients and employees Aaron brought a new, proactive scheduling system to Opsahl Dawson, which he said allows his clients not to panic when the April 15 tax filing deadline looms.

“Once you get a client to commit and they know when to come in, you are more like a doctor’s office and you schedule out your tax season. You take some of the guess work out of it when are they actually going to come,” he said.

The first thing Dawson said he learned when he took over Opsahl Dawson is how to train clients.

“When I came in here, we were babying our clients. We were not bothering them or telling them what to do when they came in,” Dawson said. “They just brought in a bunch of stuff and said, ‘Here ya go.’”

Dawson came up with a 20-item checklist, which he said helps clients keep organized. Over the past two years, Dawson has also handed out a top 10 list of things to make clients more efficient at tax time.

“It’s worked fantastic,” Dawson said. “We’ve save probably save 400 to 500 overtime hours last season alone.”

Opsahl Dawson has 17 full-time employees (nine CPAs and two enrolled agents) and six seasonal employees during the prime tax prep months.

“We have a very positive work atmosphere here,” Dawson said. “I trust everyone I hire. I hire great people and I spend a lot of time training them.”

Matthew Lee, a CPA with more than 20 years experience, runs the Vancouver office and said the paperless system works great.

“It really saves time,” Lee said.