Our Spotlight series highlights the careers and lives of tax professionals around the world. This week’s Spotlight is on Van Carlson, the founder and CEO of SRA 831(b) Admin, a strategic risk alternatives company in Idaho that administers 831(b) plans, which allows businesses to set aside tax-deferred funds for risks that are uninsured or underinsured.
Carlson has worked in the risk management industry for more than 25 years, starting as an agent with Farmers Insurance Group. He started SRA in 2011 after seeing that businesses using tax code Section 831(b) were thriving during the recession.
In his spare time, Carlson enjoys listening to audiobooks, hitting the road in his RV, and enjoying the outdoors.
What’s your official title and what does it mean? My official title is founder and CEO, which really means my work day is never done. My primary goal is to continue the upward growth of SRA 831(b) Admin—to think big picture. I rely heavily on my team to execute new strategies and run the day-to-day of the business while I develop new products to bring to market.
Free time: book, audiobook, or podcast? I used to read a lot of regular books, but nowadays, I prefer audiobooks. I have an RV, so my wife and I tend to do a lot of driving and listening. I prefer audiobooks from other CEOs and those in the self-help or business category. I feel strongly about learning from others’ experiences (and mistakes). Two of my top recent reads/listens are “The Power of Risk: How Intelligent Choices Will Make You More Successful” by Jim McCormick and “Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time” by Susan Scott.
Tax is a huge subject. What’s your area of special interest? I started my career as an insurance agent, so I know all about risk mitigation. During the recession in 2008, I saw a lot of companies—myself included—struggle. But I also saw certain businesses thrive—they were holding strong and even buying up things. How? They had put processes in place to prepare for the “what-ifs.” I did some more research and found many of them were utilizing an 831(b) plan. I wanted to help my clients do the same. From there, SRA was created and I’ve been an expert on mitigating risk through 831(b) ever since.
What’s the last movie or show that you watched and loved (DVD, Netflix, or in the theater)? “1923" is at the top of my favorite list right now. I’m an outdoorsman, and that show sparks my sense of adventure and ruggedness. Times were simpler then, but definitely not as easy. I like to think about how times have changed in just 100 years and what might be 100 years from now.
What college did you attend and what did you study? I went to Boise State University and graduated with a bachelor degree in political science, with the idea of eventually going to law school and becoming an attorney. Obviously, that didn’t happen—the insurance business got a hold of me and, I have to admit, I’m really glad I did that instead.
Go-to pick-me-up: Coffee or tea? Coffee—lots and lots of coffee. I like it simple and black. Caffeine is a NEED, not a want. I wake up at 4:30 a.m. every morning, and coffee is my ritual to getting the day going.
What’s the best tax or financial advice that anyone ever gave you? There was a saying I heard a long time ago: “They write the rules, you play the game,” and it’s been a motto of mine ever since. Like any game, whoever plays it the best, and by the rules, will win.
If you weren’t working in the tax profession, what would your dream job be? I know it’s semantics, but I believe in saying you have a career over saying you have a job. To me, job stands for “Just Over Broke.” I think everyone should enjoy what they do to make a living, which makes it so much more than a job. But I also believe that how you make your living should not define who you are. That being said, if I weren’t an 831(b) plan administrator, I would like to make a career out of being a football coach at the college level. The camaraderie in the game of football is like no other in helping boys become men.
If you had the opportunity to make one change in the tax world—an extra credit, a disallowed deduction, whatever—what would it be? Having the IRS communicate clearer guidelines to the taxpayer instead of using intimidation. The IRS has a hard job; they’re often perceived as the villain because they enforce the law. I think they could break out of this stereotype by providing clearer guidelines instead of using fear tactics, allowing the agency and taxpayers to work hand-in-hand to improve laws and guidelines that truly benefit businesses and achieve the goals they want.
Favorite food, snack, or candy during tax season or other busy time? The busy season for us is in Q4, right during the holidays, so we are bombarded with candy, alcohol, baked goods, and big dinners—all of which I would consider my favorites. I guess it works out pretty well.
What tax news or move made the most impact on your practice or clients this past year? The IRS conceded a case against an 831(b) plan owner in 2022. This was a big win for captive insurance and instilled greater confidence in business owners to begin their own 831(b) plan. We used this ruling to confirm our guidelines, and we’re hopeful that more cases like this will provide greater insight and oversight on the tax code as it becomes standard business practice.
If you received a big tax refund check right now, what would you do with it? I would put it in fixed income and hang out. I foresee a lot of opportunities on the horizon.
You can learn more about Carlson on LinkedIn.
You can learn more about Van Carlson’s company, SRA 831(b) Admin, on Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube.
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