Stephanie Wells is the first to admit that she doesn’t like change. But the reasons she has for spending the past twenty years with Fidelity National Financial Inc., a provider of title insurance and settlement services to the real estate and mortgage industries, go far beyond a desire to avoid change.
Wells is now senior vice president and tax director, responsible for overseeing the company’s corporate tax department, and says that solid leadership and constant growth has played a huge role in her long tenure with the company.
“We are always looking for ways to grow and increase value for shareholders,” she says. “That just means we keep acquiring companies and doing complex transactions. It’s never boring. There’s always something new and opportunities to learn.”
She joined the company in 2000, coming from a tax manager role at CKE Restaurants. She got an opportunity to move to Fidelity when the company was moving its headquarters from Orange County, California, to Santa Barbara, where she lived with her husband. Since CKE was a Fidelity investment, management at the company asked her and her team if they wanted to move to the headquarters as well. It was an offer she couldn’t pass up.
“I could see that Fidelity was growing: they built this new office building in Santa Barbara, they were adding to their corporate headquarters,” she says. “They went and bought another big group of companies that were title insurance related, so I could see Fidelity had a really good future. It was kind of a no-brainer.”
Though her first role at Fidelity as a tax manager entailed similar responsibilities to her previous position, Wells had a lot to learn about the business side of things, particularly the procedure related to accounting for Fidelity’s insurance companies. The financial accounting that has to be done for an insurance company is different from other kinds of companies, she says. Learning about that was challenging, but fortunately, she had a lot of support.
“The people who had been in the positions prior left a really good path and good files we could follow,” she says. “We had some great consultants that helped us learn and understand the business. We had to work really hard, but it was a pretty smooth transition because of the path that was provided from the past and the guidance we received.”
Over the next eighteen years, Wells earned a series of promotions into leadership roles; the most recent was in 2019, to her current role as tax director. Those promotions were a result of her bosses feeling confident in her dependability and her commitment to the company, she says. She now oversees a team of twenty-five and, among other duties, reviews their work on federal and state income tax returns.
As a leader, she’s learned the importance of supporting her staff, just as her bosses have supported her. While she isn’t “a loud leader,” she says, she knows how to bring the best out of her staff by empowering each person to grow.
“I like to lead by example and be a good listener to help my team best utilize their strengths,” she says. “I recognize everyone has something different to bring to the group, so I let them try to be their best by listening to their ideas and keeping that level of positivity that everyone can bring something to the table, whether you’ve just started or been here thirty years.”
One of the biggest challenges Wells faces is adapting to changes in tax law that have occurred at the federal level in the past few years. Fidelity operates in all fifty states, many of which have different rules related to taxes. Wells uses various techniques to stay on top of the varied and ever-changing laws.
“We keep up with research software that gives us emails every time tax law changes, and we also have a lot of accounting firms that do webinars and seminars to teach us about anything that’s changing,” she says.
It’s been a busy year for her and her team: they’ve completed over eight hundred tax returns, a big increase from the five hundred they usually complete annually. It’s an accomplishment she’s proud of, especially since her department completed the returns in less than three months with most staff working partly remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Wells and her staff aren’t working to meet their deadlines, they’re working on service projects. They’ve packed food for children in need, held a food drive for a local food bank, and purchased Christmas gifts for a local senior. Wells wanted to take on these kinds of projects with her team when she became tax director because she thought it would promote camaraderie. The projects also help people to “grow in their gratitude for what they have,” she says.
“We’re blessed to be working in this company,” she says. “It’s secure and a really great company, but knowing you can help the community helps everyone better themselves.”