Giving a
Good Account

Doug Hull guides corporations and fellow accountants with equal zeal

by Cal Workman

Montpelier CPA Doug Hull devotes a good deal of his time to tax and financial planning, peer reviews and business valuations. He says his wife, Cathy, with more than 30 years' experience in accounting, "works so fast she makes the rest of us look like we're not doing anything."

Alove of language, a teacher's sensitivity and a savvy approach to business those are the roots of Doug Hull's accomplish-ments. "I view myself as a management consultant," says the soft-spoken accountant, adding, "CPAs are gentle people. I'm conservative, and I take a practical, common-sense, almost textbook approach to doing things right."

He explains, "There are CPAs who are form-fillers: You bring in the forms and they'll simply fill them in. With my clients I look at the big picture and work hard on educating them so they can make wise, informed decisions."

Hull devotes about half his time to tax planning and preparation for corporations, individuals, trusts, estates and nonprofits. The remaining half is divided among creating financial statements and reports and offering financial planning, peer reviews and business valuations.

Hull serves central Vermont out of his Montpelier office, filing about 500 tax returns a year, 150 of them for area businesses in the service industry, such as resorts, restaurants and retailers, and the remaining returns for individuals.

Although technically a sole practitioner, Hull has a staff of four who enable him to manage an intense workload compression between January 15 and April 15, when most CPAs work a hundred hours a week to make filing deadlines. The rest of the year, Hull exclaims, "I only work 30 hours, and I have to work at getting that!"

His wife, Cathy, is the office administrator who manages the computer software and bookkeeping services. Hull says she's also the most experienced tax preparer. With more than 30 years' experience in accounting, "she works so fast she makes the rest of us look like we're not doing anything," says Hull with genuine admiration.

In January, Hull added LeRoy Young, a CPA from Topsham with six years' experience in accounting for nonprofits and one of only 20 percent of accountants nationwide who aced their CPA exams on the first try (Hull did, as well). Thelma Covey, a licensed accountant, assists with bookkeeping, and Dolly Richardson handles administrative tasks.

The added support means Hull can branch out into his specialty as a personal financial specialist (PFS) in addition to business financial planning and reviews of his CPA peers, management accounting practices and tax practices.

In January, LeRoy Young, a CPA from Topsham with six years' experience in accounting for nonprofits, joined Hull's practice.

As the first and one of only 12 accredited personal financial specialists in the state, Hull can advise clients on meeting financial goals. He offers an objective assessment of investments, insurance, retirement, estate planning and personal budgeting.

"When I'm preparing taxes, that's when people are thinking about retirement and other financial goals. I can offer them a full dimension of services without being a door-to-door salesperson. I review all the elements together and assess where they are, what's possible and what next steps they should take."

Educator Marcy Coon took advantage of Hull's PFS service because she wanted an unbiased perspective on how she was investing her resources.

"I have financial advisers assigned to me from different investment companies, but I wanted to consult with someone not selling a particular product. " she says. "I spent quite a bit of time with Doug, and we generated ideas for the future and systematically tackled each one over the course of many meetings."

She adds, "Doug helped me see how I could be more involved in my own financial future, and that was really useful to me. Now I have a source I can trust and a person with whom I can work over time."

For other CPAs, Hull conducts peer reviews, a self-monitoring practice adopted by the profession in lieu of heavy government supervision. To be selected for this role is a feather in one's cap and an acknowledgment that the reviewer's standards of business practice are of the highest quality.

A Hull review is a thorough one that reveals not only whether the CPA is deficient in meeting any standards, but also whether there are holes in other areas of the business that might be holding it back from being more effective, efficient and competitive.

"I go through a checklist on how our practices differ, and we hash it out as to who has the preferable method," says Hull. I try to help people do a better job at what they're doing, and I give them a lot of information to think about."

Rob Halverson, a CPA from Keene, N.H., is being coached by Hull, and he looks forward to his visits.

"Peer reviews are a tricky nuance kind of thing, to be sure, because you have to be able to look over the shoulder of a highly independent person and offer advice without angering him. Doug is a good mentor and an intrepid guy," says Halverson. "He's also very personable and fun."

Hull made Halverson aware of the importance of language in his reporting practices. Halverson praises Hull's aptitude for both words and numbers, dual qualities not commonly found in CPAs, he says.

"I write any old thing to get the job done quickly, and Doug will gently point out how I could have said something more eloquently. The whole style thing, the grammar, content and diction I was oblivious to it all, but not anymore," he says with a chuckle.

Hull remembers sitting for the grueling and intimidating three-day exam required for certification, and getting up three, four and five times for more paper.

"No one else was getting paper, but I guess I had a lot to say," recalls Hull.

Learning that, it's an easy step to understanding that Hull considered a career in education. While he admits his studies didn't prepare him for anything specific, he concedes that it gave him a good general education.

Hull was awarded a one-year scholarship to Northeastern University and worked his way through school, earning a degree in English literature in 1964. In 1959, he had joined the ROTC, so upon graduation he fulfilled his two-year obligation to serve by taking a commission as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Vietnam, assigned the job of setting up communications.

"I say jokingly that I set up the telephone system in Cam Ranh Bay, which the Russians use today," says Hull.

He finished his service in 1967, the year he married Catherine Reed, the sister of his high school buddy from White River Junction. He briefly taught English literature at Bradford Academy and then shifted gears and entered the world of banking where, he says, "I quickly caught on that accounting was the name of the game."

Although technically a sole practitioner, Hull has a staff of four who enable him to manage an intense workload between Jan. 15 and April 15, when most CPAs work a hundred hours a week to meet filing deadlines. Thelma Corey is a staff accountant.

He stuck with banking for three years while he took advanced classes in accounting at the University of Vermont. In 1970, his wife persuaded him to join the CPA firm Darling, Kelly & Co. in Barre, where she worked as an accountant. He stayed with the firm for two years. After passing the CPA exam in 1973, he left to open his own practice with Cathy.

The fact that Hull attended college at all is a testament to his determination and persistence. Although Hull was a good student, he came from a family of modest means.

"We were a family of five children being raised on $5,000 a year," says Hull. His father, a skilled machinist, worked most of his life at Cone Automatic Machine Co. in Windsor. In 1957, his father purchased a house and barn on 65 acres in White River Junction for $3,000. Hull describes his family as "Sunday farmers," who grew vegetables and raised cattle, goats, sheep and chickens to help support the family.

Hull and his four younger siblings settled in central Vermont. His brother Steve is an independent carpenter and builder; and his sister, Linda, is a business manager for Vermont Castings. Hull's brother Bill is an accountant at Fothergill, Segale & Valley, formerly Hull, Fothergille & Segale, a firm formed in 1985 and presided over by Doug Hull until he left in 1990 to pursue his special interest as a personal financial specialist. Brother Marc is the head of the Department of Education federal grants program. The former commissioner of education for the state, Marc resigned his post in 1999 after an inner ear injury suffered from a bad fall made it "nearly impossible for him to walk up to a podium without falling," says Hull sadly.

Hull's River Street office is warm and inviting. The walls aren't lined with framed certificates and degrees but with Modigliani prints and original watercolors, including one by Marjorie Davis, the wife of the late Gov. Deane C. Davis, and another by famed Vermont folk artist Lee Hull, Doug Hull's great-uncle.

Maps of Vermont and historic black-and-white photographs are displayed alongside family pictures and colorful quilts made by Cathy, who serves as treasurer for the Champlain Valley Quilters Guild.

The Hulls' love of antiques is evident in a collection of more than 20 turn-of-the-century clocks and ink wells handsomely displayed on special wall mounts or in antique highboys. The workings of a group of antique pencil sharpeners intrigue visitors.

Hull's interests go far beyond art and antiques, however. He delights in the novels of Dickens, the poetry of Wordsworth, Longfellow and Frost. He pens his own verse as a member of the Worcester Writing Club and has aspirations to write a book about debt in America.

The Hulls travel extensively, particularly through Asia, where their two children, Lyn Soon, age 30, and Yang, 28, were born. The couple adopted them in '73 and '75.

"Kids are kids and it doesn't matter where they're from," says Hull. "Vermont is wonderful state. It's a very accepting, non- discriminating place."

The Hulls are preparing to embark on a trip to Thailand where their son, Yang, tutors English and where a former exchange student they hosted resides. Their daughter, Lyn Soon, works at the Hunger Mountain Co-op and operates a side business wholesaling her fresh-baked oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies.

Hull believes in giving of himself outside of business, as well. He serves on the board of the North Country Federal Credit Union and the Friends of Morrill Homestead, and is chairman of the Cultivation Committee for the Worcester United Methodist Church. He is active in the Worcester Historical Society, the Central Vermont Small Business Development Corp. and the Kiwanis Club.

Perhaps Mark Pendergrast, a Colchester scholar and author of several books, including Uncommon Grounds and For God, Country and Coca-Cola, captures Hull best when he describes his relationship with Hull as going beyond accounting services.

"We discuss book ideas, writing and social issues," says Pendergrast. "As an accountant, he is professional and well-informed, but he is also interested in a wide range of subjects, has a good sense of humor and takes the sting out of dealing with something so stressful as Uncle Sam's grasping fingers."

Originally published in April 2003 Business People-Vermont