Five Minutes with Nkiambi Jean Lema of N.J. Lema & Co.

Five Minutes with Nkiambi Jean Lema of N.J. Lema & Co.
Nkiambi Jean Lema, owner of N.J. Lema & Co., prepares tax returns from his East 25th Street office in Baltimore. (Lorraine Mirabella)

As the tax filing deadline approached last week, Nkiambi Jean Lema sat in his high-ceilinged office in a Charles Village rowhouse surrounded by tax documents stacked on his desk and in boxes nearby. But unlike years past, thanks to electronic filing, no lines stretched out the door.

"You are super busy, but nobody sees that you are super busy," said Lema, who opened his accounting and tax business, N.J. Lema & Co., in the Baltimore neighborhood in 1989.


The most recent tax season brought the usual procrastinators, who added to the last-minute pressure to file by midnight Tuesday. Lema and assistant accountant Claudia Utria were fielding calls Tuesday morning from people requesting last-minute help, none of whom could be squeezed into an already full day of previously scheduled appointments. (The IRS ended up giving taxpayers an extra day, through midnight Wednesday, after the agency's website crashed.)

But the late-filers only added to a time crunch that this year was worse than any Lema can remember in his years of completing returns for his business and individual clients, many of whom return year after year. That's because the IRS delayed the opening of its site for electronic filing, which typically starts around mid-January, to the end of that month.

"In the tax business, if you start two weeks late, you will never be able to catch up," said Lema, who had to work extra long hours to make up for lost time. "Usually when we start around the 15th things are quite smooth, but this year… you have so much work and try to clear it. It became almost impossible."

When Lema came to the United States in 1980 at age 22 from Kinshasa, the capital of the Congo where he had studied math and physics, he thought he would pursue a career in cooking, a lifelong passion. After taking classes to learn English, he enrolled at the University of Baltimore.

Lema told his adviser he wanted to become a chef, but "my adviser advised me that was the wrong thing to do," instead showing him a newspaper full of help-wanted ads seeking accountants. He took the advice, and after college worked as an accountant at two different firms before deciding to open a business.

He started it across the street from his current location om East 25th Street, in a building he has owned along with the one next door for the past dozen years. He drummed up business for his fledgling company by leaving leaflets advertising his tax and accounting services on cars in the neighborhood.

He turned to technology to get an edge on competitors. At a time when most tax returns were written by hand and sent to the IRS, Lema invested in a computer, printer and modem and filed tax returns electronically. He also began selling tax preparation software to other firms, but often found resistance to the new idea.

"I wanted to have a competitive advantage," Lema said. "Some of the people in the neighborhood were shocked that they got their tax refunds extremely quick."

Nkiambi Jean Lema

Owner of N.J. Lema & Co.

Residence: Barclay, Baltimore city

Birthplace: Kinshasa, the Congo

Education: University of Baltimore, accounting degree

Family: One adult son, two adult daughters