A Conversation With a Latin America Tax Expert
The Expert: Lionel Nobre

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The Ask the Expert column in this issue differs slightly from its usual form. Instead of posing a specific question to a tax expert, we decided to pose a series of questions to someone who has spent nearly his entire career as a tax professional. That expert, Lionel Nobre, has spent more than three decades as a tax expert in Latin America, most of it as an in-house tax professional. He has been the leader of Dell’s Latin America team since 2006 and, in 2018, became the company’s vice president of Latin America tax. He currently is the chapter representative for TEI’s Latin America Chapter. Nobre recently coordinated and wrote a chapter in a Thomson Reuters book, Uncomplicating Tax Management in the Digital Era: An Applied Corporate View. Tax Executive’s senior editor, Michael Levin-Epstein, interviewed Nobre in August.

Michael Levin-Epstein: You’ve been in tax for three decades. I’m wondering what excites you now about the tax profession today.

Lionel Nobre: What most excites me today about the tax profession is that it’s not only about getting the tax right, or about the regulations, or about the law. Today, it’s much more than that. You have to get the business right, you have to understand people, you have to work with technology—especially the technological aspect. That’s something that really excites me, how tax authorities and tax departments are using tax technology, using artificial intelligence and other technological tools in the tax world. For me, I’ve always been a big fan of science fiction, and this is like science fiction at its best. That’s where I see the tax field going, where it’s going to be maybe twenty to thirty percent of tax laws and tax rules, maybe another thirty percent of understanding the business and economy and those kinds of things. And then, lastly, understanding technology and how technology can help you get your taxes right, how technology can make it more efficient, get your compliance in good order—that’s what excites me. And then you have the people aspect that’s all around it, where the change-management aspect comes in and people need to learn, those accountants out there and lawyers that have been doing tax for so long and doing it one way, we have to learn to do it in a different way, and there needs to be a strategy to help people learn these new skills from technical as well as psychological perspectives. It is going to be different, and we need to be prepared. I think that is very exciting.

Levin-Epstein: Let’s look ahead to the future. Are we educating and developing tax professionals to meet the demands and the challenges of tomorrow?

Nobre: I think unfortunately we are not yet there. If you look at the traditional accounting or CPA, chartered accountant, or legal content at most tax programs or schools around the world, including law schools, whether it’s in the US, whether it’s in Canada, whether it’s in Europe, unfortunately, most schools are not yet preparing young professionals for the world they’re going to be living in. There is still very little focus on the technological aspect of tax, there’s very little focus sometimes even on the business aspects of tax in most law schools; you see this more in accounting or business programs. Historically it has been more about the law and understanding the law and disputing the law, arguing the law, getting the law right. The majority of schools are not preparing us for the real tax world. That’s why several companies, some of the consulting firms, and even some of the large multinationals are desperately looking for other ways to upskill and reskill our teams so they are prepared for this brave new world.

Levin-Epstein: You’ve been an in-house tax professional for more than seventeen years, and you’ve been involved with TEI for more than a decade. You have contributed to and coordinated the publication of a book on tax management. Why did you feel the need to produce that book?

Nobre: I think the first thing is when I left consulting and being a tax attorney at large firms and then I moved to in-house, I was at first somewhat shocked, because when you’re in-house, you are an advisor, but not only an advisor but much more than that. The deep technical skill set of a tax advisor/consultant did not prepare me for what is needed when you transition into an in-house tax role. You have to have other skills. You have to learn other things, like how to actually support and enable a business, how to manage conflict, how to influence people. It’s not just, again, about the laws, about the taxes. It’s much more than that. When I started getting involved with TEI, I saw that TEI is the most prominent organization for in-house tax professionals, and I saw that I wasn’t alone in Latin America. TEI is a truly international organization, with more presence in the US and Canada but also very active in Europe and Asia. So, when starting the chapter in Latin America, I said, “Wow, TEI is a place where folks like me, in-house tax professionals, can learn other skills. We can benchmark and share.” As we all know, the pillars of TEI are basically education, networking, and also advocacy, and I saw that we could do that in Latin America as well.

On the education side, together with several decades-long friends of mine—we go back to our Arthur Andersen days in Brazil, over maybe thirty years ago—today, we are all placed at different companies as in-house tax professionals. We thought, “Why don’t we put together a book on tax management for the in-house tax professional?” This was a book that we published in Brazil together with Thomson Reuters. I was the co-coordinator of the book together with Giselle Bossa, a colleague of mine who, at the time, was a judge for the administrative tax court in Brazil. We both worked several months on the book, with over seventeen authors from seventeen different companies. I contributed one of the first chapters of the book, which was about the history of the tax profession, about tax management in Brazil, back to the 1500s, 1600s to today, culminating in TEI. TEI is where everything converges. The reason that we put this book together was because there’s not a lot of literature out there on tax management. And when I say tax management, I mean how to set up, organize, and manage a tax team, how to recruit and retain tax talent, how to manage tax people remotely, how to explain tax in business terms, what are the main KPIs of a tax department, among other topics, including diversity and inclusion in tax and how to manage tax controversies from an in-house perspective. The book is a management book, but from an in-house tax professional’s perspective. There’s no book, as far as I know, out there in the market anywhere in the world that took the same approach we did. We have [authors from] French companies, we have English companies, we have companies from the US, we have Chinese companies. We have everybody from all different industries. It took over a year to put together, but it was I think a great achievement of a village to put this book together about tax management. The only thing that I would say is that at this time the book is in Portuguese, and it’s for the Brazilian market, but I would say that over ninety percent that’s in the book applies to any in-house tax professional anywhere. Now, together with TEI, which was one of the sponsors and supporters for this book, the Latin America Chapter, we’re trying to get a version in English and also in Spanish so we can share with other in-house tax professionals around the world.

Levin-Epstein: So, English and Spanish versions don’t exist yet?

Nobre: Right. English and Spanish are still pending. At this point in time, we are working with interested editors and Thomson Reuters.

Levin-Epstein: Are you optimistic about getting the book published in English and in Spanish?

Nobre: I’m very optimistic. I think the most difficult part, Michael, is getting the authors. I’ve been able to align a group of authors from all over the world. I think I really have twelve people—people in Europe, people in APJ [the Asia Pacific and Japan region], people in the US—that want to contribute. Obviously, some of the folks have contributed to the Brazil book. The most difficult part I think—I’ve done it before, I know how to do it—the topics, we know what they are. We have the author volunteers that are very excited to contribute. This will be a very unique book. The material is not necessarily new, but the approach is. We are starting something from scratch, which usually is more difficult. But I am very optimistic. The odds are high. There’s something that I’ve learned over the years: I do not give up. I’m relentless when it comes to these things. The hope is that this book, once published in Spanish and English, will be adopted by in-house tax professionals but also by universities and tax programs around the world. And also for advisors, I mean, it’s great for them to read it, because they’re not used to seeing tax from this perspective. I am optimistic.

Levin-Epstein: What has changed with TEI’s Latin America Chapter since its establishment in 2015?

Nobre: I think the chapter, we kicked it off in the back end of 2015 in Brazil. We were in two cities in Brazil, São Paulo and Rio. Then we were in Buenos Aires, Argentina, as well, then we inaugurated those two countries—that was throughout 2015 and 2017. So, it was just putting our feet on the ground and sharing with people what TEI is all about. We had some very successful meetings. We participate on a regular basis in an event every June in Miami where we get together and we talk about things. But then, obviously, this is a volunteer organization. The first steps of a chapter, I’m sure that my colleagues in EMEA and my colleagues in APJ, they know how challenging it is to do it outside of the US, to get people engaged. One of the challenges we have with the chapter in Latin America is that the common language is not English; the common language is either Portuguese or Spanish. So, we’ve got to pivot, we have to work in three languages at the same time, and that can be challenging.

Then, obviously, between 2016, ’17, and now, we had COVID in the middle. We took a backseat in our initiatives with TEI in the Latin America Chapter. But since then, we’ve had a couple of very successful meetings. We have this book, which was a way for us to reverberate and rekindle the relationship and networking between the TEI members that we have. We have a pretty large presence in Brazil; we’re growing in Argentina, and we’re looking to expand into Mexico and Central America over the next couple of years. It takes one person at a time. We’re very optimistic now for the annual conference, which will be in New York in October, that we will have a small contingent of folks from Latin America representing the Latin America Chapter. That’s how we see it. The good thing is now we can do a lot virtually, which before it was all face-to-face. We have embraced the virtual. We’ve had many events virtually since then. So, it’s going well. As one of the leaders for the chapter, I wish we had more people, but today there are a lot of competing interests for people. But we have a large number of tax professionals in Brazil especially that are interested in contributing to TEI, so I expect good things from the chapter going forward.

Levin-Epstein: Thank you.

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