Many happy returns

Cindy Rooks

Easy(going) rider

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Don’t let Cindy Rooks’ mild manner deceive you. Yes, she’s a grandmother and Sunday school teacher. And yes, she loves reading and spending time with her family. But as Senior Director of Tax for Harley-Davidson, this EY tax alumna is passionate about helping to drive one of the oldest, most successful and most iconic brands in US history.

Rooks started her career as a high school business teacher. She soon realized she “really wanted that accounting degree” and went back to school to get her MBA in Finance, Master’s in Tax and CPA license.

In 1987, she joined the Ernst & Young LLP tax practice in Milwaukee. Four years later, she joined her client Harley-Davidson as the company’s first tax manager and one of its first women executives in finance.

As Rooks explains, Harley-Davidson had just come through a tumultuous period, including a management buyout in 1981, and was becoming profitable again — and that meant paying taxes. She was tasked with building an internal tax department.

Solving the puzzle

Rooks’ attraction to taxes started early in her life, preparing her personal returns. “I really liked accounting but was fascinated with tax,” she says. “To me, it was a challenge, a puzzle, something that’s always changing.” One of the things that Rooks likes most about tax is that it’s “not always black and white.”

One of her greatest tax challenges these days is dealing with the increasingly “extreme positions” taken by some governments and taxing agencies. She notes that in her first 20 years with Harley-Davidson, the company was not involved in a single case of income tax litigation.

Now, she points out, it’s not uncommon to be involved in a half-dozen suits. And audits are getting more difficult to win.

“It used to be if a taxing body made an assertion, we could eventually get to a win-win situation; that’s not always the case anymore,” she says. For Rooks, it’s just another piece of solving the ever-evolving tax puzzle.

Hit the road, pal

While Rooks has her motorcycle license, she stresses that it is not necessary to be a Harley-Davidson motorcycle owner or rider to get caught up in the company culture, which she describes as “infectious.” For Rooks, Harley-Davidson is all about the experience.

“Whether it’s participating in a riding course or attending one of our annual bike weeks — even if just to look at all the Harleys from years ago — Harley-Davidson is all about fulfilling dreams,” she says. “If all we did was sell motorcycles, we wouldn’t be any different from anyone else.”

And Harley-Davidson sells a lot of motorcycles. This year, the company expects to ship more than 279,000 bikes around the world, up more than 7% from 2013. It is the market leader in the US, Australia and even in Japan, “our competitor’s backyard,” as Rooks describes it.

Reaching new riders

In her early years at Harley-Davidson, Rooks says it wasn’t uncommon to get a raised eyebrow when she told someone where she worked. She didn’t exactly fit the “biker image” of the early ’90s.

But a lot has changed in 20 years. Today, most Harley buyers are college-educated professionals and the group is increasingly diverse. Last year, for the first time, the motorcycle manufacturer’s sales to “outreach customers” in the US — young adults aged 18–34, females, African Americans and Hispanics — grew faster than sales to its core customers. Today, Harley-Davidson is the US market share leader among these demographic segments.

Taking it to the street

For Rooks, being a tax professional means being well-connected and well-rounded. “It’s not just about what I do at Harley-Davidson,” she remarks. “It’s also about what I can do to be involved with and help the profession.”

She’s been active in Tax Executives Institute (TEI), the Manufacturers Alliance (Tax Committee) and the Tax Committee of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC). And she remains in contact with fellow EY alumni such as Dave Moskel, Ruth Kallio-Mielke and John Haertel, with whom she has been able to “learn and share and grow” together.

Rooks is proud of her EY tax background. She says it gave her an opportunity to work with exceptional people and great clients. You might even say it helped kick-start her highly successful career. Rooks’ husband, Rich, is a retired production artist and “Austin-Healey car fanatic.” They have two adult children and two grandchildren.