Vermont Certified

This Vermont native built his thriving business on his St. Albans roots

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Occupying the rambling, maze-like interior of a gorgeous old house on Main Street in St. Albans is a $3 million-a-year CPA firm doing business throughout New England. To the casual observer, it might appear that the firm calls St. Albans home because of the ease of electronic communication; and with another company, this might be the case. For Dana Kittell, however, Kittell Branagan & Sargent calls St. Albans home because ... well, because St. Albans is home.

Dana Kittell, managing partner of the St. Albans accounting firm Kittell Branagan & Sargent, chose public accounting because he was bored working for only one company. He wonders "why anybody would spend a third of their life doing something they don't want to do."

Kittell is a hometown boy through and through. His father worked for the Central Vermont Railway; his mother was a housewife who, after Kittell and his five sisters were grown, worked at the Howard Bank in Enosburg. He married Judith Kennison, a high school friend. His parents still live in the house where he grew up.

Kittell is managing partner of the firm he founded in 1986 with Christopher Branagan and Gregory Sargent, another St. Albans native.

Kittell confesses he didn't always want to be an accountant; he didn't know what he wanted to do, even when he entered Champlain College. "I am sort of a different story when it comes to public accounting," he says." The only reason I went to Champlain was that I liked numbers and thought accounting was numbers. I was a kid who, in high school, the only subjects I really concentrated on were baseball, basketball and soccer." High school was Brigham Academy in Bakersfield his freshman year and, after it closed, Enosburg Falls High School.

He graduated from Champlain in 1971 and went to work for Richmond Farm Supply in Richmond. "I left there and went to work for International Structures Incorporated," he says, "then left and went to work for the St. Johnsbury & Lamoille County Railroad. In about 18 months, I had three jobs."

The problem was that Kittell was bored. He decided to make one more try, this time as a public accountant, and if that didn't work, he vowed to change careers. He joined Briggs Keyes, a Burlington CPA firm with offices in St. Albans, in December 1972.

In 1978, Kittell met Branagan, who joined Briggs Keyes a few years out of college. The Littleton, Mass., native had come to Vermont to study economics at the University of Vermont, met Carolyn Whitney, a Windsor girl, and never returned home.

At UVM, Branagan had vague ideas about going to graduate school, he says, "but when I got married, things changed and I needed to look for a job." He hired on as a teller at Franklin Lamoille Bank, and it was during his year there that he realized accounting was "something I probably could do."

He returned to school to study accounting, although he didn't enter a degree program. "I was just taking courses for a year or so," he says, "then took the CPA exam, passed it and got an offer to work at Briggs Keyes."

Sargent was hired in 1983. He had left St. Albans to attend New Hampshire College (now called Southern New Hampshire University) in Manchester. After graduating in 1981, he went to work for A.M. Peisch, a public accounting firm in Rutland.

"My mom and dad were not professional folks," says Sargent. "My dad worked for the post office; Mom stayed home with us. Her brother had taken accounting courses years ago, so in high school, I took an accounting course and liked it. It's a common-sense approach to things rather than algebra. I just got hooked on it. I was probably a rarity for a high school senior," he says with a chuckle.

As he entered his freshman year, Sargent's accounting program classmates numbered 250; by graduation, the class was down to about 75.

Dana Kittell's original partners, Christopher Branagan (left), and Gregory Sargent, divide the bulk of administrative work: Branagan covers tax, pension and profit-sharing; Kittell reviews employees' work and manages the business; and Sargent is in charge of auditing and control of the firm's accounting practices.

"That was in the early '80s; PCs were just coming out. When I started college, we were doing work on the old card system; we went from boom to bust in a hurry: from those old cards to that floppy disk system in the years I was in college."

"The big thing back then was accounting degrees and management advisory services, a combination of computers and accounting," he says, adding, "Those were the bookworms. I couldn't do that. I spent a lot of time playing hockey and baseball and working in the gym."

Sargent jokes that Kittell arrived in Rutland with an offer he couldn't refuse, bringing him back to St. Albans in the fall of '83. He had married a high school chum, Sally Smith, also a St. Albans native, and they were expecting their first child. "When Dana said, 'We need a senior staff person,' it was ding-da-ding-da-ding!" he exclaims.

In 1984, Briggs Keyes merged with another Burlington firm, Urbach, Kahn & Werlin. Kittel, Branagan and Sargent stayed with the new firm for 18 months.

By May of '86, they realized that what they really wanted was to work for themselves. By then, Kittell was the partner in the St. Albans office; Sargent was auditing manager; and Branagan was a tax manager. "We made a deal with Urbach Kahn to acquire the building and the St. Albans practice," says Branagan.

In the years since founding the firm, they have taken on two additional partners, Dan Thompson and Andrew Bashand, but, says Sargent, the bulk of the administrative work is spread among the three original partners. They have also hired 11 professional and two administration staffers, including Kittell's son, Kregg, also a CPA.

They share the work according to their interests and specialties. Sargent is in charge of the accounting and auditing practice's auditing and control. Branagan oversees tax, pension and profit-sharing. Kittell's days are spent largely reviewing other people's work and managing the business.

While the company handles a number of contractors, manufacturers and other general accounting business, the health care industry has surfaced as a major focus. "We do a lot of work for nursing homes, hospitals and mental health agencies throughout New York and New England," says Kittell. "One of my old-time partners at Briggs Keyes, Les Hoy, who is now dead, did some nursing homes. At that particular point of time, I was working with him, and I sort of put my arms around that and ran with it. We work closely with the Vermont Health Care Association, and in New England, we do over 50 nursing homes."

Kittell and Sargent spend a good deal of time out in the field with clients, says Branagan. "I don't travel very much compared to my two partners, because I'm typically here, spending most of my day reviewing tax or doing some kind of research for clients.

KBS has made inroads into smoothing out the peaks and valleys of the business. December is the year-end for many for-profit businesses; for nonprofits, it's mostly June 30, says Sargent, adding that many health care businesses have a June 30 year-end, which keeps things hopping right through the end of October. "It's a good cycle for us," he says. "We do have some Sept. 30 year-ends to fill in some of that void, and then we're right back into the busy season January through April."

The three partners differ from one another outside the office as much as they do at work.

Kittell says his life revolves around three seasons: "hunting in fall, tax all spring and golf season all summer." He and his cousin own Bakersfield Country Club six miles from his house. "It's forced recreation and a family-type thing as well," he says. He and Judith own a second home on a golf course in New Smyrna Beach, Fla.

While Kittell Branagan & Sargent handles various kinds of accounts, health care–related firms, including hospitals, mental health agencies and more than 50 nursing homes, have emerged as a kind of specialty. Robin Barnett (left) and Christa Vandevord are staff accountants.

The Florida house is about 10 miles from the Daytona International speedway, where Kittell can feed his NASCAR habit. He's also an avid hunter, spending most of his time in the woods between Oct. 1 and Dec. 10.

"We are very much involved in community activities," Kittell says. "All our people serve on local boards. I was on the local hospital board; my partner was president of the Northwest Mental Health facility here in St. Albans. We have been involved in, for example, Little League; I was on the school board in Fairfield. We very much promote that in our firm: that you're supposed to give back to your community after what they do for you."

"I coach kids," says Sargent, who coaches hockey and a Little League team his father led when Sargent was in college. His three children, Charlie, 19, Ellen, 17, and Eddie, 14, have been very much involved. His wife went to school on a basketball scholarship and still plays. Ellen was voted Miss Hockey for Vermont this year. "When I'm not working, I spend my time with one of my kids at baseball, softball, lacrosse or hockey," he says.

Branagan likes to work around the house he and Carolyn own in Georgia. "We own a little over a hunded acres of land, so I'm always doing a ton of mowing, landscaping, cleaning up. I like to do that stuff." Twice a year, he takes his father, who he says loves to gamble, to Las Vegas.

Branagan also has an interest in Irish history and culture, and travels to Ireland once a year to visit relatives in County Galway and see the countryside. "Right now, I'm studying Gaelic," he says.

Each spring, he tries to make himself available to help with Carolyn's maple sugaring operation, although tax season cuts into his available time.

Partnerships are challenging at their best, but these three seem genuinely and consistently respectful of one another.

"We're probably as different as night and day, which works well," says Sargent. "The biggest part of any partnership is the trust you have with everybody. That's key. If you don't have trust, it won't work. You can put as much on paper as you want, but nothing takes the place of that.

"We like what we do up here," he continues. "Are we successful? I think we are. Do we know the secret to that? No. We'd be able to sell it if we did. We understand what our goal is, and that's everybody pitching in to help out and do the best we can for our clients. It's a good mix of very intelligent people."

Dana Kittell's son, Kregg, is a CPA who has worked with the firm since graduating from college.

On thing on which all three agree is that they enjoy public accounting. "It's because you're doing something different every day," says Kittell. "One day you could be working for a nursing home, the next day for a manufacturer, the next day for a small-business guy; and not only that. In running an accounting practice, you're an entrepreneur. It's a business."

Sargent says it simply: "I just like the fact that I don't have to go to the same place every single day and do the same thing. We're the 'blue-collar partners' we roll our sleeves up, we're there all the time, involved in every one of our clients' engagements."

For Branagan, the fascinating part is the challenge of determining the real intent of the tax law and how it was put together. "It's not for everybody," he says, "but when you've done it long enough, you kind of actually begin to understand it."

These guys genuinely love what they're doing, and they're thriving because of it.

Kittell sums up what has become clear in speaking with them: "My feeling is that life is too short to do things you don't like to do. You spend approximately a third of your life working, and why would anybody spend a third of their life doing something they don't want to do?"

Originally published in June 2003 Business People-Vermont