Attorney at Law mini preview — Sandy Abalos
Sandra Abalos has never wanted anything to come easy. She believes struggle builds enormous character and her ambition has helped build one of the most respected accounting firms in the Valley.
“You’ll never make it,” were the last four words she heard before heading out to Arizona State University, becoming the first person in her family to attend college.
“Watch me,” was the only reply Abalos could think of. Today, she runs a successful accounting firm, Abalos & Associates, but never forgets the challenges that kept her going along the way.
“I think I started at ASU with $200 to my name,” Abalos said. “I will tell you putting myself through four years of college was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, but it’s the one thing I’m most proud of.”
While Abalos was still in college she applied for several positions in what was largely a male-dominated field in the late 1970s. The persistence paid off, and set her on track toward a rewarding career when she landed a part time position as a secretary and bookkeeper for Phoenix CPA David Schwarz. Abalos worked with Schwarz through her last year in college and after graduation, pitched him on full-time employment in a decidedly unconventional way.
“I just graduated and I was in my early 20s,” Abalos said. “I said, I’ll work for you, but I need four things. I want to bring my kids to work. When I get my CPA, I want to become partner. When you retire, I want to buy out your share of the practice and I don’t want to work with your son.”
While the proposition could have just as easily landed her on the doorstep, Schwarz bit. The pair shook on the agreement and Abalos became a partner in 1981.
“One thing that was very cool about David is the fact that he was way ahead of his years when it came to women in the workplace,” Abalos said. “He was a great man to grow up in business with. He provided me with the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Abalos was a 50/50 partner when Schwarz retired in 1988. She would keep moving forward as the sole owner of the firm for more than 10 years before bringing on another partner.
“I was hesitant to bring on a partner at first because I had such a great relationship from the very beginning,” Abalos said. “It has to be the right person with the right values.”
About eight years ago, Abalos found the partner she was looking for in Barry Friefield. Soon after, Cheryl Folkerth became the third partner at Abalos & Associates.
Abalos describes the firm’s growth as organic. While she never sought out growth, the firm has always put an emphasis on adapting to changes in the market. That philosophy has helped Abalos & Associates develop a diverse and dedicated clientele.
Before the recession, Abalos & Associates provided a lot of real estate strategies and transactional work. When that started slowing down, the firm started doing cancellation of debt strategies and foreclosure work.
Other clients include professionals from the biotech, medical and even solar companies, to name a few. Abalos says she has always felt particularly close to entrepreneurs and small businesses.
“When you work with entrepreneurs, you are working with some of the best people in the world,” Abalos said. “They work so hard and put everything into it, create jobs and get paid whatever is left over. If their business goes down they are coming along with it and I don’t want to see that happen. Working with entrepreneurs is what keeps me going.”
A Civic Minded Leader
Abalos says her venture into the civic realm came at a turning point in her life in 1995. To her, the federal tax policies being put into place in Washington, DC were out of touch with the needs of small businesses across the country.
“I remember sitting at my desk working on taxes and just feeling like a dentist who was filling cavities rather than preventing them,” Abalos said. “It was frustrating to me, the tax laws being passed in Congress and their attitude toward entrepreneurs and small business. They didn’t understand.”
Around that time, Abalos became a member of the National Association of Women Business Owners and sharpened her public speaking and advocacy skills.
“Before that I was very shy and nervous and fearful of public speaking,” Abalos remembers. “I would rather set my hair on fire than speak in public.”
When she had the opportunity to testify before Congress on behalf of small business owners, Abalos says she realized that one person really could make a difference. In 1996 she met President Clinton and was honored as the National Accountant Advocate of the Year.
Soon after, Abalos was tapped to become one of the ten tax chairs to advise Congress on tax issues that impact small business. To this day, much of her community involvement is a result of those ventures in the public arena.
“So many times in my life I thought: what am I doing here?” Abalos said. “I’m just Sandy Abalos. I’m a CPA from Phoenix, Arizona.”
Pursuing a Lifelong Dream
Not everyone can keep a goal in the crosshairs for years, even decades. Abalos knew she wanted to become an accountant in 8th grade and never strayed from that goal.
She was the oldest of five children and her parents moved her to Arizona at a young age, leaving behind their farm communities, but not the work ethic.
“I learned young in life that if you wanted something, you had to earn it,” Abalos remembers. “That philosophy really defines our roots as a family. If you want something you have to work, earn it and pay cash.”
Her father still boasts that he never had to pay a dime in credit card debt. In high school, Abalos took to her accounting classes with vigor.
“Accounting was like algebra on steroids,” Abalos said. “You could use the concepts of algebra and it was even expansive and applicable.”
Although the conventional wisdom at the time said she should graduate high school, get married and settle down, that path never appealed to Abalos. She wanted to make her own way and never become financially dependent on anyone else.
Today, she has surpassed that goal and looks forward to the new experiences and challenges on the way.
Outside of work, Abalos enjoys cycling, hiking and skiing. She met her husband based on their shared love of cycling.
“These bikes are my identity,” Abalos said. “If I have a frustrating day I just take it out on my bike.”
Abalos also spends as much time as possible with her three daughters and three grandchildren, all of whom live in Arizona.