By the Numbers

Sandra Enman, CPA, CFP and CVA, of Enman & Associates PC in Williston believes good relationships with clients are just as important as numbers proficiency in her business. She credits her early studies in social work for a great deal of her success.

by K.K. Wilder

CPA Sandra Enman of Enman & Associates PC in Williston was nervous when she first left the world of salaried jobs with benefits in 1987. Now that she is in control of her destiny, she believes she has more job security.

Sandra Enman is an accountant a CPA (certified public accountant), CFP (certified financial planner) and CVA (certified valuation analyst) but a more fitting definition for her might be RA, or "renaissance accountant."

Enman runs Enman & Associates PC, which she founded in 1987. After a few years in business, she and her husband, David, decided to build a facility that would house her office as well as his book collection and provide income from offices they rented out.

"It was a red-letter day in 1998 when we moved our businesses to our new building," says Enman. "David deliberately named his bookstore The Book Keeper right next to my accounting firm his sense of humor." Enman stops grinning and remembers back to the moment when, without her having a clue of what lay ahead, her career was launched in a single, independent moment.

"When I was originally in college right after high school, I had no career aspirations and changed majors six or seven times. It was the Vietnam Era, and I really didn't know what I wanted, except to save the world, of course," says Enman, laughing. She graduated with a major in social work.

After college, Enman and David married and had two children, Molly and Eli. One tax season, in the spirit of Women's Liberation, and long before she was an accountant, Enman decided she wanted to do her and her husband's joint tax return herself. "I took an H & R Block tax preparation course and enjoyed it so much," she says, "I began to help part time during tax season for a local accounting firm." Eventually, upon the advice of Ann Livingston, a University of Vermont counselor who suggested she return to college and take courses that could lead to a CPA, Enman did. "Because I also needed two years in public accounting to take the certification test, I started working full time in the firm where I'd worked part time during the previous tax seasons. It would have taken me forever if I had tried to gather the equivalent of two years while actually working just part time."

That is how, long before the movie Mr. Mom was made, David Enman, a teacher at the time, took a year off to care for the children and home while his wife attended college and studied for the CPA exam.

"It would be a difficult and strenuous, two-and-a-half-day exam," Enman says, "and using a calculator was not allowed at that time. I couldn't study during the week, so every Saturday until the exam, I went to the library at 8 a.m. and found a corner where I could study in quiet surroundings until 2 p.m., when most of the students came and the noise began. All parts of the exam had to be completed and passed in order to succeed, and I did it all the first try," she says.

In addition to passing her CPA exam, Enman later studied for and passed a six-part exam for her CFP. "Then, most recently," she says, "I got my CVA. All these exams took little notches out of me, but I wanted to be able to offer a wide variety of services. When you're doing estate returns and you have to do valuations, the IRS likes to know you have such credentials, and if you have to testify in divorce court, the judges appreciate CVAs."

Although Enman used her quiet library hideaway to study for her exams, she was far from being a recluse when she went back to college. "I had graduated from the University of Illinois in 1972," she says, and now that I was back in school as an adult, I could focus. There were many older women going back to school at the time and the young students wanted to talk to us because we had work and life experience. I hadn't even known accounting was a profession when I originally went to college."

When Enman opened her office, she had only one employee, Patricia Waite, the office manager. Now, there are six full-time employees and three who come in to help out during tax season.

The logo for Sleepy Hollow Inn Ski & Bike Center, which Enman also owns, provides a cheerful backdrop for Cheryl LaClair (seated, left), receptionist and Sandra Enman. Sherry Dempsey (left foreground) works on trust and estate projects and financial planning, while Patricia Waite manages the office and prepares tax returns.

"Tom Mahar is part owner in the company," says Enman. "He's a CPA as is Beth Newman-Place. They focus on small business and computer consulting. Beth and I do business valuations together. We all try to divide the office into little niches.

"CPA Sherry Dempsey works with me on trust and estate projects along with financial planning. Patricia serves in a lot of roles, including being office manager and preparing lots of tax returns. She enjoys going to the homes of elderly clients to help them pay bills and balance checkbooks; she does pickups and deliveries and goes through their paperwork with them if they need help. Finally, Cheryl Laclair is our receptionist. A 1999 graduate from the University of Vermont, she has really moved up and is now doing tax preparation and accounting. She also serves as receptionist for the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing located in our building. She speaks sign language and operates TTYU."

At first, Enman says, she felt insecure about leaving the paying jobs with benefits she'd had with other businesses from 1979 to 1987. "Truthfully, I probably have more job security now," she says. "One of the advantages of working for yourself is that you really do have more control of your destiny."

Today people ask Enman if she was a brainy student when she was a kid. They want to know if there were signs she'd end up working with numbers in a firm of her own.

"Well," she says, "I tell them I was a treasurer in Junior High, but I was also a tomboy who liked to build tree forts instead of staying inside with my Betsy McCall dolls. I grew up where the Illinois and Fox rivers meet and spent my time water-skiing and swimming across the river to get to an island lake. We'd start upstream and go with the current. I also rode bareback at our relatives' farm."

She admits she always enjoyed math, even though she doesn't feel math levels need to be very high for accounting.

"There's a misconception that you have to be highly skilled in math to be an accountant, but really you just have to be comfortable working with numbers."

Enman believes good relationships with clients are just as important as numbers proficiency and that her early studies in social work add a great deal to her success. Client Jeff Haig agrees. "Sandy was referred to me by the Merchants Trust," he says, "back when she first started in 1987. She takes care of my personal accounting needs. She's always very friendly, personable, and we chat most of the time along with getting down to business. I didn't know she once studied social work, but then I'm always hearing new things about her from friends. It's great to see any business grow, but Sandy's is very professional without being cold."

Haig says Enman is "doing new things all the time and has a busy and interesting life. I have absolute trust in her. She knows when there's any change in the tax laws that I need to know about. I could simply go to a tax service, but I appreciate having this long-term relationship with her firm and feel fortunate having her as my personal accountant."

"One of the bests parts of my work," says Enman, "is that I learn something new every day. Business tax laws, for example, change so constantly we need to notify our clients when anything new in the business end could affect their personal financial lives."

Another client, Paul Mergens, president of Advance Electric, attests to having benefited from Enman and her firm, both in his personal and business accounting. "First, she did my personal taxes," he says. "Then, in 1989, I started Advance Electric Company and she helped us get a business plan together, set up our accounting, and handled the corporate tax return for the new company. She's been doing that same kind of thing all along. She helped us set up the limited liability company that manages properties in South Burlington and has helped us do the corporate tax returns for the LLC."

Mergens says Enman looks at the big picture regarding tax issues. "What happens business-wise," he says, "affects me personally. Sandy's able to step back and look at a wider view. She helps us make decisions regarding estate planning and corporate planning for the partnership and Advance Electric. She and her practice are like having one-stop shopping."

Obviously, Enman's work is appreciated by Mergens, but, he adds, "the main thing I like about Sandy and her entire office of tax, estate and planning people is the personal approach."

Enman brings her personal approach to whatever she does. Besides her business, she has served on the board of the Vermont Children's Trust Foundation and the Champlain College Planned Giving Committee.

Evidently all her family members wear many hats. Besides David's having been a teacher and now running his used book store, "The Book Keeper," he occasionally activates another business, David Enman and Friends Construction, Ltd. "He's not doing outside building right now," says Enman, "because he's doing some renovations and construction on our lodge."

Lodge? Yes, the Enmans have yet another business, an eight-room bed and breakfast called Sleepy Hollow Inn Ski & Bike Center, located on a mountaintop in Huntington.

Tom Mahar has a lively chat with Beth Newman Place, also a CPA with the firm. Mahar is part owner of Enman and Associates.

"It's managed by our son, Eli," says Enman, "and it's a wonderfully relaxing place to be. Our guests cross-country ski, hike, run and go mountain biking. Eli loves managing the place and being able to still do his sports. Like his sister Molly, he's so good at running and skiing, he was able to compete to be in the Olympics."

Someday, the Enmans hope Molly will return from Utah and get a chance to coach once again at Middlebury. Enman, like her children, enjoys cross-country skiing and other outdoor activities, such as hiking and running.

Enman says she also values her friendships and plans to keep them for life. She hopes to eventually travel more. "The family just took two weeks off and went to Maui," she says. "It was great. We'd really forgotten what it was like for all of us to take time off to be together."

People ask jokingly what she does in her spare time, and Enman is ready with a serious answer. "Well, remember the Vermont woman named Kathy who was on the last "Survivor" show?" she asks. "She's in her 50s, same as me. I might like to learn more about her plans to help women who are setting up businesses. I had a very supportive family and would like to pass that support on to other women." •

Originally published in July 2002 Business People-Vermont