Josh Graham, CPA, is a senior manager in the Chicago office of Wipfli. He works in the firm’s construction and real estate and private equity practices, with a specific focus on Qualified Opportunity Zones.
Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up, where did you go to school?
I was born and raised in Leawood, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City. It was a very nice Midwest city to grow up in, but I always dreamed of living in the biggest city in the Midwest. I went to a Jewish day school called the HBHA, which was small enough that I got to play varsity basketball, baseball and soccer. My parents taught me to work hard so I constantly had at least one job (sometimes more) starting at the age of 14. I worked at the local sandwich shop Mr. Goodcents, a local bakery, as a camp counselor and as a server at a country club. For college, I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and never considered going to another school. It was the only school I applied to. I love Madison and the Badgers!
When you were young, what did you aspire to be?
I always dreamed of being a professional baseball player. I would spend hours on the driveway throwing balls off the garage to myself, making spectacular plays in the field or throwing a no hitter. I dreamed about taking the non-existent Badgers baseball team to the college world series and then being an all-star short stop in the majors. Those dreams ended sometime before high school and so I made sure to always focus on my academics.
How did you get your start in the industry?
I interned for a commercial real estate brokerage company in Chicago after my junior year of college. It was a great experience, but I decided to continue pursuing opportunities within my dual accounting and finance majors. I ended up starting my post college career at Deloitte in their real estate tax practice. I worked on some very large REITs, and it was there where I built my real estate and partnership tax background. We were a very consultative practice, so I got to help structure and review a lot of deals. I now help lead our construction and real estate tax practice in Chicago at Wipfli, and my background definitely helps me thrive in this position.
Did you have a mentor who helped you get on your feet, or is there someone you turn to now for support?
I put in a lot of my own hard work to get to the position where I am today, and my parents definitely helped guide me along the way. At Wipfli, I have found two mentors that I owe a lot to for my recent success. Brad Werner leads our construction and real estate practice in Chicago and he helps guide me every day. I also lean heavily on Jim Lockhart, who is one of our national construction and real estate tax leaders. I wouldn’t be where I am now without the support and mentorship of those two.
What does a day in the life of Josh Graham look like?
I love my job because my days are always different. At Wipfli, we’re a growing top-20 national public accounting firm, and I wear a lot of different hats. I’m very client-service-oriented so a decent amount of my time is spent consulting with clients, reviewing general tax compliance, thinking about ways to help save my clients money and other ways we can act as their trusted business advisor. I’m also a very technical tax professional so I spend time studying the tax law and learning about the constant law changes and how they impact the construction and real estate industry. I’ve focused a lot of time on opportunity zones and view myself as a thought leader in the space. I’ve spoken at numerous conferences, written several pieces and continue to help clients and prospects set up their funds and understand the complicated tax rules. I’m also a leader at my firm, both locally and nationally. I help lead and support our construction and real estate practice and tax department in Chicago. I spend a lot of time coaching our younger people and am the formal performance coach for several of our associates.
What do you like most about your job?
Interacting with clients, prospects and professionals within my firm. I feel like public accounting gets a bad reputation for the type of people in the industry. In reality, having good communication and people skills is crucial to being successful in our industry. I enjoy learning about complex tax issues and strategies and breaking them down into an easy to understand way for my clients and prospects. I also enjoy learning about our clients’ businesses and some of their pain points so I can help figure out ways to help their businesses thrive.
Looking to the future, what do you hope to achieve/work on that you haven’t already?
Wipfli entered the Chicago market about seven years ago but is still working on building its brand and reputation compared to some of our competitors. I’d like to help build us into a Chicago powerhouse where we’re viewed as the premier public accounting and advisory firm for those in the construction and real estate world.
How do you spend your time away from the office?
My wife and I had our first child almost two months ago, so all my free time just went out the window. It’s a blessing to have a healthy newborn son. I now spend the majority of my time changing diapers, feeding bottles and singing made up songs. I still find time to root on the Badgers, Jayhawks and Chiefs. With the limited free time I still have, I’m a big fan of live music and checking out new restaurants throughout the city.
What is your favorite place that you have traveled to? Where do you hope to go next?
Southeast Asia. We went to Thailand and Laos on our honeymoon and I constantly wish we could go back. It was the perfect combination of cultural experiences and relaxing on the beaches. The people are so friendly, and they have amazing food. In the not too distant future, I hope to be able to visit Australia and New Zealand.
Who would you like to see answer these questions?
In the Chicago real estate world, I’d go with Andy Gloor from Sterling Bay and Curt Bailey from Related Midwest. I’d love to learn more about some of their experiences and how they rose to the top.