Attitude Is Everything

Humor is serious business at Hettena Wright & Horton

by Liz Schick

Plus: Year-end Tax Tips from Hettena Wright & Horton, CPAs, PC

At Hettena Wright & Horton CPAs in Williston, Judith Hettena Wright, Chris Horton and Ken Nussbaum season their accounting trade with more than a little good humor.

When certified public accountants Judy Hettena Wright and Christopher Horton formed their business on July 1, 2001, they had been friends for more than 20 years. Having worked together at another accounting firm in the area, they knew they wanted Hettena Wright & Horton, CPAs, PC, to be different. Their philosophy was not to open a traditional accounting firm, but, Hettena Wright says, “to offer clients the best possible service while being sure we had fun while we were working.”

The fun starts in comfortably furnished offices at 5399 Williston Road in Williston, where there’s not a necktie or suit in sight, and clients who come in on Fridays might be invited to dance under a mirrored disco ball in the reception area. The firm’s fun includes sponsoring various Little League, T-Ball and Babe Ruth League teams and hosting at their offices the annual November “Death by Numbers Chili Contest,” a charitable and tasty endeavor of which Horton confesses he is reigning champion.”

Leigh Phillips, a staff accountant in the trust and estate division, recently sat for her CPA exam. Here, she and Horton trade quips.

Hettena Wright and Horton devised their company’s structure so they could focus on doing what each loved the best.

Although both are experienced in general accounting practices, Horton has a special affinity for small-business development - from start-ups through expansions - and has extensive experience in handling tax matters involving real estate transactions, including 1031 (also known as “like-kind”) exchanges, which allow a business exchanging rental or business property for other rental or business property to defer the capital gain until the second property is sold. He is the firm’s president.

Hettena Wright, vice president, describes her passion as “helping people and their families make thoughtful plans and informed decisions about their finances.” To that end, she focuses on individual, estate and trust taxation, aided by her experience in the areas of retirement, charitable and college planning, and works with nonprofit organizations.

Unlike many accounting firms, Hettena Wright & Horton has a bookkeeping department that serves some clients year-round. Lee Ann Start is a staff accountant and nonprofit point person.

On July 5 of this year, Ken Nussbaum joined the firm as a partner and corporate secretary, arriving in Vermont from Chicago. He and Hettena Wright are on the same wavelength when it comes to loving estate and trust taxation and, by his focusing on those specialties, Hettena Wright will be able to expand the nonprofit and education segments of the business.

The partners elaborate on some of the differences between how Hettena Wright & Horton services clients and the way more traditional CPA firms do. For openers, they say, is their full-blown bookkeeping department. They also place a major emphasis on personal financial education for women and children. Explains Hettena Wright, “We help women manage their own finances through QuickBooks training,” in which Horton and employee Beth Wilson are certified.

Another anomaly is the company’s ability, thanks to business services manager Elaine J. Huang’s fluent Chinese, to offer translation services in that language. French and Serbo-Croatian translations are also provided for international clients.

Asked why he focuses on start-ups, Horton confesses he loves working with Vermont entrepreneurs. “I never cease to be amazed at the variety and creativity of Vermont-run businesses. We are an independent state, and my goal is to help bring freedom to the Vermont small business: freedom from financial confusion and worry, and freedom to focus on what entrepreneurs do best - running their businesses.

“Our goal has been to offer depth and breadth,” he continues. “By being involved from data input to setting up accounting systems that get people’s businesses up and running, we are able to supply them with a complete set of financial reports, which, at the end of the year, enable us to provide full tax returns. Having a really deep knowledge of our clients and understanding every aspect of their business, all the way down to the checks they write, informs us to help them with specific, strategic advice.

The bookkeeping department is run by Huang and comes under Horton’s domain. Huang oversees bookkeepers Kiet Nguyen and Lee Ann C. Start, and handles the corporate and income tax preparation. Patrice Onofrio prepares individual income tax returns for Horton’s clients. Start also works with Hettena Wright in the nonprofit area. Kathy Durett has recently moved from bookkeeping to office manager.

Working under Hettena Wright’s mentoring eye in the estate and trust department are Leigh Phillips and Beth Wilson -when she isn’t teaching Quicken - who primarily handle individual returns, the bread and butter of every accounting firm.

Mentoring is another of Hettena Wright’s passions. She was mentored by a former employer and believes in giving back. As a result, Phillips recently took her CPA exam, and Start is working to complete her apprenticeship period.

Hettena Wright holds an associate’s degree in accounting from Champlain College, where she graduated summa cum laude, as well as a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Vermont, which she puts to use now that she has become certified as a Personal Financial Specialist (PFS) by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). She is a member of AICPA, the Vermont Society of CPAs, and of the AICPA Personal Financial Planning Division.

An ex-band drummer and singer, Horton realized he needed a steady gig and traded on his highly developed sense of organization by obtaining a bachelor’s degree in accounting from UVM. He, too, is a member of AICPA and the Vermont Society of CPAs.

Nussbaum gravitated to a basic accounting class in high school, loved it, took a job with a CPA, then attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he received his degree in accounting. He continued on and received a law degree, not intending to practice law but, he says, “now that I’m specializing in trust and estate planning and taxes, my knowledge of law is invaluable in helping to advise clients before they make decisions.”

Hettena Wright’s husband, contractor David Wright, has been pressed into service for the firm on occasion, too, as was Horton’s elder daughter, Krystle. They’ve helped with moving into new space, putting together furniture and shredding paper. Horton’s mother-in-law, Maria Graffeo, an interior designer, has offered her expertise. Hettena Wright’s son, Connor, 12, and Horton’s other children, Olivia, 12, and Ian, 10, along with Ken’s daughter, Sonia, 4-1/2 and son, Benjamin, 6-1/2, aren’t yet old enough to work, “but,” Horton says, laughing, “we’re holding desk space open for them.”

The partners are concerned about the firm’s rapid growth. As Horton says, “We don’t know how big is too big. We are heading to 11 people, including the three of us, and all we know for sure is that we don’t want to be so big that Judy and I lose touch with clients. We’ve had a lot of opportunities come our way - being able to bring Ken on board as a partner is a good example of that - so we are prepared to move ahead when an opportunity to grow makes sense”

Asked why the firm is growing so quickly, Nussbaum refers to the “fun factor” when he replies, “Service and attitude. The attitude here creates a different environment than any place I’ve ever been. It’s apparent to our clients and employees, and it will, I’m sure, stand us in good stead as we continue to grow.” •

Year-end Tax Tips

from Hettena Wright & Horton, CPAs, PC

Sales Tax Deduction

Taxpayers now have a choice between deducting sales tax or local and state income tax. Any sales taxes paid on “big ticket items” (such as cars and boats) can be added to the sales tax amounts calculated based on the tables. In Vermont, the state and local tax deductions are usually higher, so some taxpayers may find that using the tables and adding on big ticket items or saving their receipts and calculating their actual sales taxes may yield higher amounts, especially if they purchase a car or boat during the year.

Start-up Expenditures

All businesses may now deduct the first $5,000 of startup expenditures, with the remainder deducted over five years. Startup expenses are amounts paid for investigating the creation or acquisition of an active trade or business. The same deduction is available for organizational expenditures of partnerships (and LLCs filing as partnerships).

Pension Plans

There is a new investment vehicle for sole practioners. This 401(k) allows sole practitioners to contribute a 401(k) portion, as they would if they were an employee, and a SEP portion, allowing them to increase their pension contributions. SIMPLE plans must be established by October 1, and many other types of plans must be put in place by December 31.

Manufacturing Deduction

New tax law allows a U.S. production activities deduction with respect to the taxpayer’s domestic production gross receipts net of expenses. The definition of domestic production gross receipts includes receipts from any lease, rental, license, sale, exchange or other disposition of qualifying production property manufactured, produced, grown or extracted within the United States. Qualifying production property includes food processing and wholesale, as opposed to retail, sales.

Special School Tuition Deductible

Expenses incurred in order to enable a child to compensate for or overcome disabilities or to prepare the child for future normal education or normal living are deductible medical expenses. Schools, such as the Stern Center, with special programs for treating severe learning, mental, psychological or emotional disorders, or dyslexia are special schools.

This is intented to be informational only and should not be construed as professional advice.

Originally published in September 2005 Business People-Vermont