Beyond the Calculator at Urban Outfitters

Supportive relationships and interesting challenges are constants for Urban Outfitters chief tax officer Kirsten Comley’s career

Kirsten Comley spent the first seven years of her career falling in love with public accounting. The variety of issues and clients kept her constantly challenged and curious, but eventually, she was ready to take on a new goal. While browsing job listings one evening, Comley came across an opportunity for a generalist tax manager at URBN, the umbrella company for the Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Free People, BHLDN, Terrain, and Vetri Family brands. At the time, URBN didn’t have its own tax department but was hoping to cultivate one, and Comley wanted to know if she had what it took. She applied, and in September 2000, she was offered a position on URBN’s finance team.

When Comley first joined URBN, Urban Outfitters had forty stores, Anthropologie had twenty-four, and the Free People brand didn’t yet exist. She was the only tax expert on staff. But the company was poised for growth, and Comley knew the tax team was going to need to grow along with it. “We had to find people who wanted to work in an exciting company and be challenged every day,” says Comley, who expanded the tax team to five members by 2010 and was promoted to chief tax officer in 2015.

In the ensuing years, yet another layer of complexity was added with technology, mobility, and regulations coming from both the IRS and foreign jurisdictions. These additional issues prompted Comley to hire experts in subject matters such as transfer pricing, state and local tax, and accounting for income taxes in financial statements.

Today, URBN’s tax team has expanded to thirteen (including Comley), the company has stores in nearly a dozen different countries, and Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie have more than 200 stores each.

Comley’s primary role remains overseeing the responsibilities of the tax team—everything from transactions to planning to reporting to compliance—and business licensing. She also manages their time and workload, as well as the expectations of the business partners they’re serving.

Another of Comley’s key functions is in serving as advisor to URBN’s executive leadership and, in particular, its CFO, to whom she brings her global tax perspective to new ideas and business ventures. It’s a demanding job, especially considering the highly volatile global tax situation, intense demands for corporate tax transparency (particularly in Europe, where most of URBN’s international business is located), and a renewed focus on United States tax reform. “I track everything that’s happening from Capitol Hill to the rest of the world,” she says. “And it’s my job to assess how all of that will impact what the business wants to do.”

Beyond taxes and tax law, Comley’s next objective is to partner with the business any way she can. This means never saying “no” to a business idea without asking all the right questions and assessing the possibilities from every angle. “We investigate to keep us from having tax tunnel vision,” she says. “We consider all aspects of the business, we always stay on the side of legal and compliance, but we also don’t believe that there’s only one answer.”

This open-minded, team-oriented approach to leading at the executive level has proven successful for Comley in many ways. As one of several direct reports to the CFO, she values her position as a leader of URBN’s finance organization as a whole. She works closely with the global controller and other leaders of URBN’s various finance groups to develop seamless communication across the organization. “Our aim is constant improvement in our groups, and we depend on each other for that,” she says. “Relationships are key as we share information and function as one large finance organization.”

Relationships are also essential as Comley leads her tax team; everything revolves around communication. Clarifying expectations among team members is crucial—as is clarifying her own expectations for top-quality work. “I am very passionate about taxes, and I can say the same for everyone on our tax team,” Comley says. “That shared passion puts us on an equal playing field because we all want to find the best answer.”

Of course, finding the best answer requires the tools necessary to do so, which Comley provides by way of access to people within the business, as well as technical development opportunities outside the company. And like any leader who demands excellence from her team, Comley insists on the same level of quality for herself.

“I like to push people outside their professional tax comfort zone to get them out into the business to learn as much as they can about different areas,” she explains. This diverse exposure has developed a tax team of well-rounded businesspeople who have a continuous desire to learn.

It has also culminated into a strong, supportive team environment—and on top of that, they like each other. “We invest in bonding and team building experiences,” she says. “Everything from lunches to happy hours to special outings are opportunities for us to get to know each other better and learn to work more effectively together.”

As a tax professional, Comley has the unique experience of having worked in an industry that is constantly evolving all the time. “URBN brands are accustomed to constant change in technology, customer preference and expectations, and fashion itself,” she says. “And because the people managing our brands pivot on a daily basis, we have to do the same.”

Sometimes this can mean getting a call about launching a new project in one country and, three days later, getting another call to cancel that project and start a new one in a different country. “It’s a lot of picking up and putting down, and there’s a lot of risk involved,” she says. “But it’s amazing.”

Early on in her career at URBN, Comley noticed that risks were a normal function of work at the company because everyone acted as their own entrepreneur. When she realized that her background had perfectly prepared her to take those kinds of risks, it gave her confidence and solidified her passion for the organization. Not only that, creativity was—and is—paramount and a highly valued and protected entity at the company. There is no limit to ways in which a team member might contribute.

The combination of all these factors has created the infectious, inspirational energy that not only defines everything that URBN does, but is also the root of Comley’s passion. It’s this same passion that continues to drive Comley’s work and leadership and continues to grow alongside the enterprise, the team, and the endless list of opportunities along the way.