In this interview, Rafael De Rojas, RSM Puerto Rico Tax Partner and Division Director, talks about the importance of leaders being present for employees, career growth opportunities in the firm, and the era of becoming tax advisors.
Could you start by telling us a little bit more about yourself?
I was born in Cuba and came to Puerto Rico as a two-year old. I’m a husband and father of two wonderful sons of 14 and 16. I met my wife during an accounting internship in Washington DC, and now we have been married for over 20 years.
Since I was a child, I knew that I wanted to be an accountant. I always knew. My mom was an engineer and my dad was a businessman. There were no summer camps in my family (laughs). Since I worked in my family’s businesses from a young age, I guess that’s why I became interested in business administration, numbers, finances, accounting, and such. We still have a family business, a hardware store called Ferretería San Antonio.
-How about law? When did that become an interest of yours?
After I finished my CPA studies. I studied law at night, while working here (at RSM). I graduated and passed the bar.
Tell us the story of how you came to work in the firm and your career path to partnership.
I started my career at Arthur Andersen, as a Staff. Later on, for known reasons, the firm had to close their offices worldwide, the San Juan office among them. Therefore, everyone from Arthur Andersen was looking for a job at the same time. A former colleague had started working at RSM and referred me, so I got an interview and got the job. It was 2003 and I started working at RSM as a Senior. Over the years, I continued working hard and climbing up the ranks. In 2010, former Tax Partner Rosa Vélez, nominated me to succeed her as Tax Partner in the firm. I went through the internal process and, at 31, became the firm’s youngest person to be named partner in RSM Puerto Rico’s history.
In the past few years, RSM Puerto Rico has managed to overcome three natural disasters, two hurricanes (María and Fiona) and an earthquake—all of which devastated the island—and a pandemic that changed the way business is done. What has been your strategy to lead your team through such challenging times?
For me, it’s important to be empathic in these situations and to know your people, your employees. Take the time to learn their individual needs because each of us has a different reality. The most recent example I can name is Hurricane Fiona. This hurricane hit the west area of the island particularly hard. We have employees who live in that area, and we couldn’t expect them to reincorporate to their duties as quickly as those living in San Juan could. So, I think that the strategy is to be empathic and to be present for your employees, available to them. This is particularly true for this new generation of workers, who like having that direct contact with their partners, not partners who are distant and never talk to you. I think that we have been successful at that, at being accessible, human partners who are there for our employees.
What do you uniquely contribute to the team of partners?
Plenty! (laughs) I am still the youngest partner in the firm. Therefore, I bring new trends, fresh ideas, modern perspectives…I think the main contribution is creating that generational balance amongst the partners. For example, being empathic with Millennials and Generation Z, comes more natural to me than it does to other partners in the firm. That balance and that fresh, new way of seeing our profession have brought growth into the Tax Division and it’s evident. There were five people in the team when I started, and now we’re over 40. The firm has evolved over time for the better, as it should, yet the road ahead is still full of opportunities.
How are things changing in the practice of your specialization that is reshaping businesses?
Our role is shifting. Preparing and filing income taxes is becoming secondary to us. Our vision, our focus is on becoming tax advisors for our clients, which means that we support their needs all year long, not only during tax season. Nowadays, our clients are better informed; they are more sophisticated and demand a person who can guide them in all tax-related matters. They are looking for an expert with extensive knowledge who can help them structure their entity, their company, in the way that makes the most sense tax-wise. That is the most fundamental change we are currently seeing, and it’s a trend that grows stronger each year.
How do you envision the future of the firm?
Brilliantly! A busy, productive future full of opportunities. As a firm, we have been blessed with spectacular clients who have been loyal to us for many years and that is something we want to continue fostering. On the other hand, we have very talented people with lots of potential to continue growing with the firm. This is a firm that encourages career growth. It’s a firm that supports the employee and provides them with all the tools they may need to grow as professionals. I am an example of that, starting as a senior and growing into partnership fairly quickly, because I wanted it, I was hungry for it and worked hard to get it.
And what about you as a person outside of work – what do you like to do in your free time?
I am very family oriented. I very much enjoy spending time with my wife and kids, going to the beach, to a good restaurant, to basketball games…and traveling! Traveling is my main hobby and the one I enjoy most. My favorite destination so far has been Spain, but I also really liked Croatia, Italy and Greece.
This is the third delivery in a series of interviews to our partners and leadership, in lieu of the firm’s 45th anniversary celebration and inspired by an internal communication initiative by RSM International.