Sara Trapp Finds the Reward in the Risks

A career filled with turning points and big decisions brought Sara Trapp to the top tax spot at United Airlines

Adventure is part of Sara Trapp’s DNA. The tax pro and working mom loves hiking, skiing, and any other activity that gives her an excuse to explore the great outdoors with her family. Trapp, who pushes her kids and herself to learn new skills, attacks her career in the same way. She’s made a series of calculated risks that have taken her to a top seat in one of the nation’s largest and most iconic companies.

Sara Trapp United Airlines
Sara Trapp, United AirlinesPhoto by David Schmidt (211 Photograph)

In early 2020, Trapp stepped in as United Airlineschief tax officer. Her journey to the corporate headquarters in Chicago is one filled with career-defining turning points. At each turn, Trapp made the decision she thought would take her to the next level. “I’ve always had a drive to improve and master something new, and I’m always up for a challenge,” she explains. “Growth happens best when you’re willing to stretch yourself or put yourself in a new environment.”

The Michigan native started her career at BDO USA in Grand Rapids. She built relationships with several mentors and was struck at how purposefully each one managed their own career. “My mentors had training in different areas of taxation, and I saw how their wide expertise was an undeniable asset,” Trapp says. She then decided to diversify and acquire new professional skills.

That decision led Trapp to research opportunities. She ultimately found an opening at KPMG. Joining one of the Big Four professional services firms would afford Trapp the opportunity to add corporate tax accounting, compliance, and planning to her toolkit. But the job was in Denver. To accept, she would have to leave her hometown, exit her job of ten years, and say goodbye to her extended family. It was a hard decision, but one Trapp’s husband encouraged her to make. In 2014, they left their beloved home state for Colorado.

Trapp knew that personal and professional success would depend on her ability to build new relationships. At work, she volunteered to assist on projects and learned the key players in town. At home, she took extra carpool shifts and engaged with teachers and coaches. Soon, with her family well acclimated, Trapp was rebuilding her professional network and applying her experience from BDO in new ways by working for public companies and a larger corporate network.

“Growth happens best when you’re willing to stretch yourself or put yourself in a new environment.”

After three years, Trapp was working on bigger and more complex issues as a managing director. When a Denver airline needed tax planning strategies, she volunteered to take the account. She organized a team to help drive down the company’s effective tax rate and reduce cash taxes. Trapp didn’t let the fact that she had never worked in excise tax stop her—she sought out KPMG’s internal experts, who agreed to help provide the necessary training. The airline company became one of Trapp’s larger clients as she mastered industry codes, instructions, and case law.

Additionally, Trapp led the region’s accounting methods and credit services group and was included in the Denver Business Journal’s 2019 Who’s Who in Accounting report. Six years after leaving the safety and security of her ten-year job in Michigan, Trapp had built a new client base and a professional network in a new city.

One day, Trapp received an email that set her on a new path. A lead tax partner in Chicago sent a note to a small group of people: the chief tax officer role at United was available—did anyone know a good candidate? Trapp suggested someone—herself.

It was a bold move. Trapp was up for partner at KPMG, and chief tax officer was a big step up. But she had become passionate about the airline industry. Furthermore, the successful move to Denver and the experiences that followed had given her the background and the confidence to raise her hand and ask for a chance to interview for the rare United opening.

She asked her colleague to pass her name and résumé to the leadership team at United. Trapp landed the job and now leads the company’s entire tax department.

“My mentors had training in different areas of taxation, and I saw how their wide expertise was an undeniable asset.”

In her first ninety days, Trapp devised a plan to streamline United’s tax compliance process. “My main objective is to build the right tax strategy that will mitigate risk in a nuanced and high-volume industry,” she says. It’s no simple task. Every sale creates a complex transaction in which taxes are imposed on different parties at different rates. Dealing with air transportation tax requires the right people and the right technology.

Thus, Trapp dedicated a portion of her first quarter in the role to completing an evaluative process designed to help her understand what skills and human resources were already in place. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, she expects United to spend less money on tax consultants and asks her team to perform additional duties. In response, she plans to provide cross-functional training so no one person is the exclusive holder of all knowledge.

“Sara adds immense value to United Airlines,” says Damon Chronis, president of US operations at Ryan LLC. “Her approach showcases the strategic role that a tax function can deliver for any company, extending well beyond the compliance function. Ryan is honored to partner with Sara and her team.”

Trapp is also working to make sure her family is thriving after its move back east. Her children, like their parents, have learned that taking risks can yield dramatic results. While in Colorado, the Trapp family completed an eight-mile hike to Grays and Torreys Peak. It requires ample preparation and a lot of hard work—but the view from the top makes the effort worthwhile.