The Sharpe family has been helping area residents with their taxes for over half a century.
Taxes. Accounting. Payroll. To some, these words are cringe-worthy, evoking memories of a time of year dreaded by many Americans. To others, feelings of anxiety or boredom may arise. But first-time callers to the offices at the Sharpe Family Companies may begin feeling differently about the tax season.
No Ordinary Firm
In the doorway, a life-sized cutout image of Bill Sharpe greets visitors upon entering. A photograph of the colorful CEO at a company party, dressed up like a member of the rock band KISS, and a storyboard of newspaper clippings honoring Joe Sharpe’s military service are on display in the waiting area. A yellow and blue toy parrot hangs from the ceiling.
Walking further into the eclectic space, one is struck by the vibrant artwork gracing the walls. This is no ordinary tax or accounting firm. “We live here during tax season,” explained William Sharpe, “so we want to make it nice.”
But the colorful decorations are not just for their own benefit. “We want all our customers to feel comfortable here,” added Bill Sharpe.
The three Sharpes—Bill, William and Joe—work alongside each other in their offices at 1425 West Forrest Hill Avenue in Peoria, which house both of the Sharpe Family Companies. William heads up the tax side as president of Total Income Tax; Joe is president of Sharp Payroll; and Bill, “The Dean of Tax Preparation,” oversees it all as chief executive officer. Codie Epkins leads the accounting department at Total Income Tax, and while not technically family, she is regarded as such.
Meanwhile, Bill’s wife, Deborah, also plays a major role in the business, specializing in tax returns, payroll processing and bookkeeping. Despite no formal degree in the field, she’s been working for the family company for nearly three decades. “She came in with no knowledge,” said William, “and she does more tax returns than anybody else.”
While Deborah works mostly from home, Bill, William and Joe are around each other in the office constantly. For some, that could be a recipe for disaster, but it doesn’t seem to phase them. In fact, said Joe, “it’s the reason I like coming to work every day.”
The three Sharpes stay close outside of the office as well. “[Joe and I are like] brothers and best friends,” said William. “It’s not like Friday comes, and it’s, ‘Man, I don’t want to see his face until Monday.’ We’ll go out to dinner here and there and hang out. We’re pretty lucky.”
Though close in age, the two aren’t technically brothers—Joe is Bill’s son, and William is his grandson. They all agree that working together has brought them closer, despite its stresses. “It’s not a cakewalk every day, but the pros far, far outnumber the cons,” said William.
Starting It Up
Bill Sharpe got an early start in the tax business. Before founding Sharp Income Tax in 1969, he prepared tax returns for friends, family and coworkers while working the third shift at Caterpillar and earning an accounting degree at Bradley University.
Bill made good money at Cat, but he always knew that he wanted to be in business for himself. A self-starter from a young age, he worked paper routes, mowed lawns and shoveled snow to earn extra money. As he got older, the entrepreneurial drive only became stronger. After college, he owned a men’s suit shop for a time, and then got into the restaurant business, running the Sterling Family Restaurant and later, Uncle Bill’s Smokehouse.
After starting up Sharp Income Tax, he began branching out into related markets, first with Sharp Accounting, now a part of Total Income Tax, and later with Sharp Payroll. He sold Sharp Income Tax to Jackson Hewitt in 2002, not knowing at the time that William or Joe would one day join the family business. “Otherwise, I don’t think I would’ve ever sold,” Bill explained.
Paths Back to Family
At the time Bill sold the business, William was finishing school in Colorado. “I was the last one he told,” he said. Prior to then, they had never actually talked about William joining the family business, but now, the desire was out in the open. A year later, he graduated from Colorado State and returned to Peoria to work with his grandfather full time.
On September 11, 2001, Joe Sharpe was at the federal building in St. Louis, swearing into the U.S. Marine Corps, when the planes hit the twin towers in New York. After boot camp, he was deployed to Kuwait for the initial invasion of Baghdad. On his second tour, he was part of the siege on Fallujah, where he received a combat meritorious promotion. He was also awarded the Purple Heart after being involved in a roadside explosion while on patrol.
Like many veterans, Joe takes great pride in his accomplishments, but he doesn’t talk about them much. Despite little history of military service in the family, it was always in his mind to serve his country. “I don’t know if I saw too many war movies when I was a kid,” he said, “but I always thought there was great honor in it.”
After serving in the Marines for four years, Joe returned to Peoria and earned his master’s degree in accounting from Bradley in 2008. He then joined PricewaterhouseCoopers, where he worked for a few years. It wasn’t until 2010 that he started working full-time with Bill and William. “I knew I wanted to be part of the family business, but the timing wasn’t right when I got out of school,” he explained.
After Sharp Income Tax was sold in 2002, Bill and William worked at Jackson Hewitt for a few years, but the entrepreneurial itch remained in their blood. “We knew that we were still going to be entrepreneurs,” explained William. “We were not going to work for someone else; that’s not us.”
And so, in 2005, they started up Total Income Tax, first in Joliet and Pontiac, and later in Peoria. In 2010, Joe left PwC to work for the family business. For the first time, the three Sharpes were all working together.
Putting It All Together
While Bill has been in the tax business for decades, that doesn’t stop him from evolving and changing with the times. Fifty years in, he is constantly working to improve its ways of doing business.
As in most industries, the rapid evolution of technology has been the biggest change he’s seen over the years. Faster, more powerful computers allow them to do many more times the work than ever before. But while they utilize technology to their advantage, there are still areas of the business where they stick with tradition. “We still do the majority of our tax returns face to face,” he said.
The Sharpes also use technology as a way to add value to their services. Joe Sharpe notes that while most people think of payroll as simply writing checks, he’s thinking of how to save his clients money. He points to a software program that helps restaurants and other small businesses deal with scheduling issues. Noting that many companies spend hours each week creating schedules, he saw that wasted time as an opportunity to do something extra for his clients.
“Other companies don’t look at the total package,” added Bill. “A lot of companies—they’ve got the tax experts…but they don’t put it together all the time.”
Small Company, Big Love
Besides offering extra services to help their clients save money and run their businesses more effectively, the Sharpes pride themselves on being readily available. They will often meet on weekends with clients who are too busy to meet any other time, and they personally handle after-hour calls on their cell phones.
“I get phone calls, probably six a week…after hours, on the weekends,” said William. “That’s just part of my role—I’m here to serve people. If they think they need to talk to me on Saturday, then they need to.”
Uniquely, the Sharpes don’t use voicemail in the office. “We’re not going to go to voicemail as long as I’m alive,” exclaimed Bill. “I hate it.”
“People hide behind voicemail,” added Joe, explaining that clients who call the office will get in touch with who they need, when they need it. Calls after hours are transferred to one of their cell phones.
The Sharpes’ enthusiasm for what they do is evident to anyone who works with them. “We’re very passionate about what we do,” said Joe. “We love coming to work every day.”
“We want everyone that works with us to make money, do well and have a productive, good life,” added Bill. “To save money for the future and pay off their debts…we strive to help them do that.” iBi