‘Average’ student helps draft plan to tax Web sales

By Doug Snover

When Stephen Schembri headed off to North Carolina and New York City to start his first job a few weeks ago, his mother, Tammy Billington, had every confidence that her son would change the world.

When Stephen left high school at Corona del Sol in 2000 to attend Arizona State University, his mom just hoped he’d change himself.

An admitted average student in high school, Stephen “turned it around” in college and leaves for that all-important first job with honors on his resume and an award for his work on a team of ASU students who tackled the tough question of how Internet retail sales should be taxed.

Schembri’s team placed first among the eight ASU teams competing in the PricewaterhouseCoopers-sponsored xTAX Competition, held in the fall on various campuses across the nation.

Student teams have two weeks to research a difficult tax issue. There is no single correct answer; teams are forced to pick a position they think is best and prepare a presentation to convince experts their solution is the best one.

Say the sponsors, it’s a process that’s both challenging and exciting, thus the xTAX moniker.

Schembri was part of a team that included Aaron Banda, Jennifer Szkatulski, Robert Humberstone and Ross Meyer. “We said they (Internet sales) should be taxed,” Schembri said of his team’s strategy.

As part of their reward for winning the ASU competition, the team was feted by PricewaterhouseCoopers in a full-page advertisement in the ASU State Press as five students who already have changed the world.

According to the sponsoring firm’s website, there are three main categories that judges use to decide the xTAX winners in both the campus and national competitions.

Critical Thinking. Critical thinking is defined for the xTAX competition as “reasoning in an open-ended manner, with an unlimited number of solutions.” There will be a wide variety of potential solutions. Winning teams must demonstrate effective interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference and reflection skills. They will embrace the ambiguity inherent in the situation and create persuasive arguments for their solutions.

Presentation Quality. Successful presentations must address concerns and present supporting evidence for the conclusions they draw. All presenters should be professional, energetic and enthusiastic, reflecting a positive attitude toward both their work and their audience. They should illustrate their main arguments with significant examples, carefully linking them to case. They will address alternative positions and opposing points of view.

Teamwork. The definition of teamwork is work done by several associates with each doing a part but all subordinating their personal prominence to the efficiency of the whole. Successful xTAX teams must show trust in each other, share knowledge, ask questions, consult with each other, bring a range of individual skills, network with the appropriate resources and put their heads together to solve the task at hand.

The winning team on each campus receives $1,000 and consideration for the national finals. Five teams are chosen as finalists and awarded $10,000 per team and a trip to Washington, D.C. There each team gets a chance to join with experts from PwC's Washington National Tax Service to learn about how national and international tax policies are developed. The faculty advisors, of the winning teams, also receive prizes.

One of the toughest parts of the xTAX competition is the presentation before a panel of outside professionals, according to Colleen Kelly, the local PricewaterhouseCoopers representative who helped coordinate the competition at ASU.

“It’s not so much getting the right answer” as being creative and professional, she said.  “The students were required to think on their feet. They were grilled a little bit” by the judge, she said.

Schembri’s team shone, Kelley said. “Their solution was pretty well thought out.  Very coherent,” she said.

“They (the judges) were all very positive about it.  They liked the strategy,” Schembri added.

The presentations were videotaped and sent to Washington D.C. where five teams from colleges across the country were selected for the national finals.

Schembri’s team did not qualify for the finals, but the xTAX experience capped a turnaround that brought him from Corona del Sol, where his main interest probably was playing golf, to the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University.

“In high school, I wasn’t exactly the most stellar student in the world. I think my GPA was about 2.9,” Schembri admits.

He blossomed in college, especially in the Barrett Honors College, however.

“In college, I just sort of turned it around.  The honors program looked appealing to me.  I shot for that initially. It was the really outstanding people that I met—both teachers and students – who really pushed me.  I found where I wanted to be.”

His graduating GPA at ASU is something over 3.70.

With graduation now behind him, Schembri packed up his newly minted BS degree and moved to North Carolina to begin working in corporate and investment banking for Wachovia Securities in Charlotte. After training in North Carolina, he will spend part of his workweek in New York City.

His mother said she sent him off with obvious pride.

“Oh, gosh, I am proud. I’m beaming,” Tammy Billington said. “He was just an average student (at Corona).  Nothing outstanding.  He was just a great kid, though.  Just a good, clean basic kid.”

“When he got to ASU, something just triggered in him and he went straight to the top.”

Billington credits the ASU business program, especially the Honors College. “ASU has an awesome program. If a kid really wants to succeed, they will take him under their wing and help him,” she said.

“The right teachers have just taken him to new heights. The took a great kid and gave him focus.”