Owners’ Equity

Keeping their firm small and simple has been an asset for accountants Colleen Montgomery and Marcia Merrill of Montgomery & Merrill, PC in Burlington

by Portland Helmich

When they opened Montgomery & Merrill, PC, a certified public accounting firm in downtown Burlington on Jan. 1, 1994, Colleen Montgomery and Marcia Merrill thought they would start small and gradually grow. After all, the two were used to a large-firm environment. Montgomery had worked at Urbach, Kahn & Werlin (which has since closed its Burlington office) for nine years; and Merrill, seven years. By the end of their first year in business, however, their feelings had changed. "We figured out we liked it like this," says Merrill. "We'd had a year of answering our own phones and found out that clients really appreciated it. Something as simple as that was a selling point."

Colleen Montgomery (above, left) says for many people a trip to their accountant is like a visit to their dentist. She and Marcia Merrill (above, right) make sure caring and compassion are parts of the service offered at Montgomery & Merrill, PC in Burlington.

Montgomery and Merrill describe their services as general accounting, but they do break them down into three areas: tax work (Montgomery's area of expertise); financial statement work, such as audits (Merrill's specialty); and small business consultation. Many of their clients are embarking on self-employment for the first time, and it is in this respect the CPAs feel they can be especially helpful, not only regarding accounting matters. "We're also running our own small business," explains Montgomery, "so we can give advice about where to get office supplies or who to use for an Internet provider or a carpet cleaner. It's part of what I enjoy about who we are."

Being small, they are realistic about the kinds of services they can provide. They don't hesitate to make referrals to other accountants or lawyers when clients need to have a Canadian tax return prepared or want to set up estate planning, for example. They spend a lot of time networking with other professionals so they have confidence in the referrals they make. Montgomery says the fact that they don't feel the need to be everything to their clients is an advantage. "It enhances our credibility," she notes. "That way, when we say that we know something, they can trust us."

Trust is one of the main reasons Jeanne Keller has Montgomery and Merrill do her personal and business taxes. "Except for our doctors, our accountants probably know more personal information about us than any other professional," she says. Co-owner of Keller & Fuller, a public relations/ communication strategies consulting firm in Burlington, Keller breathes easily knowing that the information she shares with Montgomery & Merrill is guarded. "Our paperwork doesn't get turned over to a staff person," she explains. "That's the value of dealing with a small, personal business like theirs."

Personal attention is the hallmark of the two-person firm. "We don't have a one-size-fits-all answer to questions," says Montgomery, who is often asked whether buying a house would be useful for tax purposes. "One client even asked me if he should get married for tax purposes," she chuckles. Her initial response to questions with such life-changing implications is much more humanistic than financial. "My first question is, 'What makes sense for your life?' The tax consequences aren't nearly as important as what makes sense for the individual," she stresses.

Montgomery and Merrill's ability to treat clients as individuals might stem not only from their size, but from their backgrounds. In college, Montgomery studied anthropology; Merrill studied psychology. Though neither woman had ever entertained accounting as a profession, their inherent numerical and organizational skills emerged while they were involved in other pursuits.

Merrill was born and brought up in Boone, Iowa. The third of four siblings, she attended the University of Iowa for a year, but dropped out and got married in 1964. When her husband started graduate school in Albany, N.Y., she moved with him and began taking courses at SUNY. After the birth of her first son, Merrill and her husband moved to Geneva, N.Y., where she graduated from William Smith College in 1975 at the age of 31. She was pregnant with her second son at the time.

As a college student and a young mother, she was on the board of her children's day care center and volunteered at the local food co-op, where she found herself naturally gravitating to financial tasks. "I'd help the executive director at the day care center pull the financial information together for the grant applications," she explains, "and I did the co-op's bookkeeping." Merrill isn't quite sure where she obtained such knowledge. "I must have taken a bookkeeping course at some time," she speculates.

When the co-op needed to have financial statement work done and Merrill met the individual who had been hired to do it, the accounting seed was planted. "I wasn't impressed with this guy," she remembers, "and I said to myself, 'I can do that. I should go back to school and get a degree in accounting and be an auditor.'" Though Merrill was thinking of taking courses at the area's junior college, a discussion with William Smith's financial aid director, who had an accounting degree, swayed her. "He said, 'You don't want to go to a junior college. You want to go up to Rochester Institute of Technology and get an M.B.A.,' and I said, 'I do?' And that's what I did, and it was the perfect thing for me," she recalls. For two years, she made the one-hour evening commute, attending part-time the first year and full-time the second after she was offered a full assistantship.

After graduating in 1982, Merrill worked at a Rochester accounting firm for two years; later, she worked part-time at a small accounting firm in Middletown, Conn., when her husband got a new job there. When she moved to Burlington in 1985 because her husband changed jobs again, she came along on one condition. "I always tell him this is my last move," she offers with a smile.

Montgomery's transition into accounting also occurred a bit by chance. Born in Brooklyn, she moved to Burlington before first grade and lives in the same house where she grew up. The eldest of four children, Montgomery attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where she graduated the week she got married in 1972. Her husband was a student at UVM at the time, so she returned to Burlington and got a job at the Fleming Museum as a registrar. "They'd never had one before," says Montgomery, who established a numbering system for all the items in the collection. "It was a wonderful job and enabled me to continue with my interest in other cultures," she explains.

After her second daughter was born, she took a leave of absence. Intending to return, she was eventually overcome with pragmatism. "I had two children, and funding in the arts was rocky at the time. Part of my salary was made up of grant money, and it just felt like it wasn't a sure enough thing," she says. At a dinner party one evening, a neighbor who worked at Champlain College suggested she take an accounting course, and she followed his advice. "I loved it," she says, and so began her new pursuit. In order to obtain the course work necessary to sit for the CPA exam, Montgomery attended the University of Vermont as a part-time, non-degree student for two years. In 1984, she took the exam and shortly thereafter began working at Urbach, Kahn, & Werlin.

Both women enjoy the detective element of their work. "The neat thing about accounting isn't the numbers -- it's solving the mysteries. When a client calls up and says, 'I can't figure out why this isn't working,' we get excited," Merrill gleefully explains.

Keller believes Montgomery and Merrill are ideally suited to their work. "Their minds work differently," she says, offering an instance when she worked with the two on a community volunteer project. "We had to rake some property and wash some windows, and they were so methodical in their approach to even that kind of activity," she recalls with a laugh.

Montgomery and Merrill not only enjoy their work, they enjoy each other. "We have fun; we laugh a lot," Merrill says. "In all the years that we've worked together, I don't think we've had one disagreement."

Montgomery adds humorously, "There was just that one tense time for about 10 minutes one day." In addition to their affection for each other, there is great respect. "Marcia is a better teacher than I am," Montgomery says, "I'm in awe of what she knows."

Without missing a beat, Merrill chimes in, "Now that's funny because I would say the same thing about you."

In addition to tax and financial statement work, Montgomery & Merrill offers consulting services for small businesses. The partners draw on their own experiences of owning a small business. They believe a glass ceiling still exists for women in the accounting field. Marcia Merrill says women have a better chance at success in small firms or starting their own businesses.

In addition to striving to provide high-quality service to their customers, Montgomery and Merrill believe they are providing women with professional role models. During tax season and other big projects, the Main Street partners have used several interns (most of them female) from Trinity and Champlain colleges. "We feel like we can show them one way an accounting firm can be run," says Merrill. "It can be a large place with a lot of cubbies, or it can be a more personal practice like we're running now."

Both women admit their field is still dominated by men. Though there are many female accountants, there are still very few at the top of the profession. "There's still a big glass ceiling in the field," says Merrill, who believes women have a better chance of success in small accounting firms or in their own businesses.

"Women," adds Montgomery, "tend to drop out along the way to the higher ranks of large public accounting firms. It seems that before getting to the upper levels, many women choose other routes such as private or governmental accounting, or they teach." Montgomery attributes the attrition to the fact that many women with children need more flexible schedules or don't want to travel. "If you're an auditor in public accounting, you do a lot of traveling," she explains.

Merrill says it also comes down to the simple fact that some men are still not comfortable working with women and don't, therefore, make them partners. "Men have great strengths in the business world," she says, "but so do women -- they're just different strengths."

She offers multi-tasking as an example. "Women are great at that," she goes on to say, "because they're mothers. They can answer the phone, cook dinner, and take out the garbage at the same time." Another difference she notices between men and women in the workplace centers around networking.

"Aggressive marketing is a philosophy in some firms, but some women don't feel comfortable with that," she notes. At Montgomery & Merrill, there are no elaborate marketing strategies; the partners rely on referrals and word-of-mouth. "If you're good at what you do," Merrill remarks, "people will come to you."

And come they have. Over the last 6 1/2 years, Montgomery & Merrill's client base has grown 25 to 30 percent a year. Originally, the partners thought most of their clients would be women, but that has not turned out to be the case.

Montgomery says many of their male clients appreciate them because they never feel their questions are stupid. "It's important to be able to answer questions in a way people understand," she stresses. "There's no point in going somewhere, having someone impress you with a lot of jargon, and walking out still in the dark."

According to Montgomery, anything connected with taxes and the Internal Revenue Service makes people edgy, so her job is to inject a sense of calm into their anxiety. "Rarely does someone wake up in the morning and say, 'Oh, I think I'll treat myself to a session with my accountant today,'" she quips. "It's not like going to a massage therapist; it's more like going to the dentist. So our major purpose is to help clients get through whatever their problem is and leave here with a sense of not being in it alone."

As their business steadily grows, Montgomery and Merrill realize they might need to take on one or two more staff accountants at some point. "In five years, I see us with some permanent accounting staff -- not in the next year, but soon. We can still give personal attention with three or four people," says Merrill with reassurance.

Keller hopes so. "I don't want them to get too big because they're both so people-oriented, and that's very satisfying to their clients. They throw a party every year on April 15th," she says. "Now how many other accountants do that?"

Portland Helmich is a free-lance writer and television producer who hosts "Rural Free Delivery" on Vermont Public Television.