Survival Training

Two wary and weary partners tell how they came through a crisis, and their attorney, William Congleton, adds to the tale.

by Tom Gresham

Tim Carrier (left) and Pete Mitchell, the owners of Precision Balancing in Essex Junction, learned, the hard way, not to let an employee sign the company's checks.

In late 2000, business was booming at Precision Balancing, an Essex Junction company that measures the efficiency of buildings' heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. The staff had grown from two to nine people in five years, and the young company had no shortage of assignments, including enough work to occupy three workers full time at IBM's Essex Junction facilities.

Precision Balancing's co-owners, Tim Carrier and Pete Mitchell, reveled in their hard-won success and aimed to reward their workers for helping make it happen. Among other perks, they paid 100 percent of the employees' medical, dental and disability insurances.

In late November, Carrier and Mitchell gathered their employees together and thanked them for their performance, doling out generous holiday bonuses. Bonuses ranged from $1,500 to $2,500. The company's secretary was handed a check for $1,500. She cried, and, fighting back tears, told her co-workers and employers how much she loved them, how wonderful they were.

Three weeks later, she wrote a Precision Balancing check to herself for $2,000.

The woman had been hired to manage the office at Precision Balancing in part because she was a friend of the co-owners. They trusted her, demonstrating their faith by giving her the authority to sign company checks. Over two years, she wrote $49,000 worth of company checks for personal purposes, ranging from $3.19 to cover a bill at the local market to $4,000 toward a down payment on a new Jeep.

Precision Balancing measures air and water flow in new construction to make sure it conforms to the design standards. It is the only Vermont-based testing and balancing company certified by the National Environmental Balancing Bureau. Pete Mitchell works with a flow hood.

The withdrawals from Precision Balancing's coffers ended only when Mitchell and Carrier, still unaware of the embezzlement of funds from their company, reluctantly let their secretary go on Dec. 8, 2002 one of several layoffs they were forced to make. Business had slowed, and the company's checking account was perplexingly dry. Four days after their secretary's departure, Carrier and Mitchell discovered in the trail of paperwork she'd left behind the reason money seemed to be disappearing.

On a recent April morning, Mitchell and Carrier sat in their office at Pinewood Manor in Essex Junction and recounted the ensuing year and a half with a mixture of black humor and lingering anger. The pair batted jokes back and forth across the room like a volleyball, sometimes stepping on one another's punch lines. They readily admitted that the embezzlement, timed as it was in the midst of a faltering economy, nearly killed their business.

However, instead of retreating into victim-hood, Carrier and Mitchell have responded to the dire challenge with resolve. They have made adjustments, ratcheted up their own work schedules and hung on tight.

"We just said, 'There's no way she's going to ruin our company,'" says Mitchell.

The partners fought through the court system to try to regain as much of their money as they could, and they kept the pressure on their former secretary, not only pressing charges but appearing at every single court date.

Their diligence paid off. Carrier secured the deed to the ex-employee's house and expects to ultimately receive about $46,000 toward the money lost. The former secretary is serving a 90-day prison sentence.

"We're one of the lucky few to get any of our money back," Carrier says. "Most [victims of embezzlement] never see any of it."

William Congleton, the attorney who represented Carrier and Mitchell, praised the aggressive, yet patient approach Carrier and Mitchell took to the situation. Soon after the secretary had been sentenced, Congleton took the business partners out to dinner with some friends and toasted them, calling them "two of the best clients I ever had."

Today, Precision Balancing has a staff of four, including the co-owners, and the company no longer keeps a separate office at IBM. Precision Balancing still handles 100 percent of disability and dental costs for its two remaining employees, Doug Carrier (Tim's brother) and Steve Knowlden, but both volunteered to pick up their health insurance through their spouses, helping to keep the company from going under during the recent lean spell.

Meanwhile, Mitchell and Carrier endure long hours amidst paperwork and computer monitors, handling the administrative work a secretary previously performed.

"We work 60 to 70 hours every week," says Mitchell. "It's our business and we still love what we do, but we're always working now. It's like going back to the lifestyle we had when we first started out. It's stressful on our families, our not being at home. It's tough."

Mitchell and Carrier agree that the labor aspect of their jobs working on projects or studying the intricacies of their field is not the problem.

"We might have a job in Ludlow that we've got to get up at 3 a.m. to get to," Mitchell says. "There's no stress in that. We like that. The stress is in chasing the money."

"The stress is in filling out a piece of paper," says Carrier. "Or staring at the computer. We've been pulled out of the field, which is where we want to be, to do the menial tasks."

Still, this year, it has become clear to them both that Precision Balancing has safely reached the other side of what was at one point a genuine crisis.

"About a month ago, I think we began to finally feel like we were starting to head in the right direction again," Mitchell says. "It feels good."

According to Carrier, weathering a challenge as significant as the one Precision Balancing has navigated ultimately demonstrates a business' strength and resilience.

"There are a lot of lessons in business," he says. "This was an expensive one. If the lesson is hard, you learn it good. We've learned it now don't let your secretary sign your checks and it's great to be thinking about business again."

Carrier and Mitchell have been good friends since their days working together at Air Comfort, an environmental testing and balancing company. Although Carrier prefers hunting and fishing to Mitchell's golf and skiing, the partners camp together occasionally with their families and enjoy hanging out away from work. Carrier lives in Richmond with his girlfriend and three children, and Mitchell lives in Essex Junction with his wife and two children.

Tim Carrier (pictured) and his partner have been forced by circumstances of the embezzlement to spend more time with paperwork and less time doing what they love in the field.

In the mid-1990s, Mitchell and Carrier decided to break off from Air Comfort and form their own business. Precision Balancing was launched in 1995.

From the beginning, Precision Balancing was a tight-knit outfit, Carrier says. For the first three years, there was no office and everyone met behind the Bread & Bottle store on River Road in Essex, leaning on their pickup trucks as they planned or reviewed their day.

There was no shortage of jobs, either, including work at several IBM construction projects.

Precision Balancing maintains a strict set of standards in a field that offers enticements to those willing to engage in less-than-honest practices. As Carrier and Mitchell explain it, they are reporting on the systems put in place by the mechanical contractors, who are the people who have hired them.

"Sometimes, you have to tell people something they don't want to hear," says Carrier. "You step on a lot of toes in this business. But to do it right, you have to be honest."

Precision Balancing is the only Vermont-based testing and balancing company certified by the National Environmental Balancing Bureau, which has rigorous testing standards.

In 1997, Precision Balancing hit a high point when it nabbed the Most Quality Conscious Contractor award from IBM for work done at a massive renovation project that involved a host of contractors.

The low point, both Carrier and Mitchell say, came five years later when they discovered their employee and friend had been stealing from them.

"Our business depends on labor," says Mitchell. "We don't sell anything, so we don't want to be in the office. We want to be out working; so we hired her to run the office. We'd known her a long time and we trusted her. We brought her in, set her up. We gave her our trust and she abused it."

As much as the financial hurt smarted, the emotional pain was also significant for the business owners with a "We Are Family" attitude. Mitchell remembers the days he and Carrier spent combing through the books in the wake of the secretary's departure. Every day, he would tell his wife the total that had been stolen as it climbed higher and higher until finally she said, "Forget it. I don't want to know anymore."

"I still think it was my fault, my responsibility," says Mitchell, who handled the bookkeeping before the secretary's arrival. "I really took it personally. I think I should have caught her. I'm a very trusting person I don't see bad in people. I never expected that someone I treated so good would bite my hand like that. I've definitely lost a lot of faith in humanity."

Carrier says the strain of keeping the company alive did not hurt the relationship of the co-owners; in fact, he adds, it appears to have made their friendship stronger.

"We have bonded some," he says. "We always got along and enjoyed each other, but maybe we talk about our feelings a little bit more now. Emotional things. This has tightened us up some."

Carrier and Mitchell admit to being wary and weary from the embezzlement and its aftermath. However, they also say they will not allow it to dash what their hard work has created.

"We're just too stubborn," admits Carrier.

A Lawyer's Tale

by Tom Gresham

Essex Junction attorney Bill Congleton, a sole practitioner for 33 years, guided Tim Carrier and Pete Mitchell through their crisis. The partners credit Congleton's casual surroundings and accommodating attitude for giving them the encouragement they needed.

Attorney William Congleton toasted Carrier and Mitchell, calling them "two of the best clients I ever had."

William Congleton's office suite in Essex Junction has the clean, business-like look of most law firms. A legal assistant sits at a neat but busy desk in the lobby. Nearby, a waiting room provides a quiet place to enjoy any of the magazines artfully spread across a coffee table.

However, the feel is somehow different from the often somber atmosphere of most law firms. Green plants are perched about the place; a huge aquarium dominates the reception area; and inside Congleton's office, a parrot stands at attention, occasionally slipping out for a twirl about the suite, while a dog sleeps soundly on a lush bed on the floor.

"I spend a lot of time here," says Congleton, a sole practitioner. "That's why I've got all the plants and the pets. That's why I'm usually casually dressed, unless I've got to go into court. I think it helps my clients to come to a place like this. It's not as intimidating as a law firm often is."

Tim Carrier, a co-owner of Precision Balancing, an Essex Junction business, appreciates Congleton's approach. Carrier says Congleton's accommodating attitude has helped him and his partner, Pete Mitchell, as they try to regain money embezzled from them by an employee.

Carrier is quick to note that Congleton's friendliness to his clients does not mean he is laid-back in his work.

"He made some really good moves for us, some smart stuff, that helped us try to get our money back," Carrier says. "He always seemed to know what to do. He also helped take some of the weight off with his humor. He's been very, very helpful."

Congleton's practice encompasses family law, small-business law and criminal law. He says family law takes up the bulk of his work. However, he does have a number of small-business clients like Precision Balancing. Congleton says he understands the difficulties of running a small business and tries to help his clients avoid missing critical weekday work hours by holding Saturday morning office hours.

"The fact that I'm a sole practitioner, I think, is one reason small-business owners feel comfortable working with me," Congleton says. "Nobody's handing them a paycheck and that's true of me, too."

Congleton says his work with business clients often puts him in the role of counselor rather than litigator. He says, "My work with them is usually about giving advice to help them keep a problem from becoming more serious."

When told of Carrier's reference to his occasional levity, Congleton says humor is one tool he often uses with clients, whether they are seeking a divorce or dealing with an embezzlement.

"The point is not to get them to have a lot of fun," Congleton says. "No one's ever had fun with a divorce settlement. I just want to help make an unpleasant situation less unpleasant."

Congleton's legal assistant, Diane Brigante, started as his secretary. He jokes that she's "kept giving herself promotions."

A native of northern New Jersey, Congleton moved to Vermont in 1973 fresh out of George Washington Law School. He had spent 1967-70 in the U.S. Marines a stint that included a tour of duty in Vietnam. Congleton arrived in Vermont with his wife but no job. He says he simply chose Vermont because it seemed like a nice place.

Vermont's reputation as a place full of recreation offerings probably had something to do with its attractiveness for Congleton, who admits, "I love to play. Some people say I've never grown up."

Congleton skis in the winter and boats in the summer. He bicycles regularly and has a model train layout in the basement of the home he shares with his second wife, Patty, a professor of speech communications at the University of Vermont.

"A lot of lawyers have a hard time finding a balance between work and play," Congleton says. "I've never had that problem. I think I'm efficient and that's allowed me to have flexible hours. I don't think you have to be in the office to serve your clients. All my clients have my cell phone number. They can always reach me."

An avid reader, Congleton has a particular fondness for Robert Frost, the late Poet Laureate of Vermont. Congleton says he recognizes his life's path in Frost's famous poem "The Road Not Taken," with its lines: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I / I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference."

"I think I've always done things a little bit differently," Congleton says.

Originally published in May 2004 Business People-Vermont