It All Adds Up

Vermont companies have counted on this firm for 87 years

by Janet Essman Franz

A.M. Peisch & Co. The 10 partners in the five offices of A.M. Peisch & Co. carry on a tradition established by the company’s founder 87 years ago in Norwich. CPAs Todd Burgess (left) and David Wood, partners in the firm, join Aaron MacAskill, managing partner, and Glen Bolster, partner-in-charge of the Colchester office, to discuss the evolution of the business and the industry.

In the Colchester office of A.M. Peisch & Co. — the company’s largest — three of the firm’s 10 partners and the managing partner recall its history and reminisce about their early days with the company.

The public accounting firm was established in 1920 in Norwich in the home of its founder, Archibald M. Peisch. Today it operates from five offices: in Colchester, White River Junction, Rutland, St. Albans and St. Johnsbury.

Peisch, a Wisconsin native, came to Vermont in 1920 with his wife, Josephine, to teach taxation and accounting at Dartmouth College. The couple settled in Norwich, and he continued teaching at Dartmouth until 1930, while simultaneously building his business, which he named Archibald M. Peisch & Co.

Peisch focused on building relationships with customers, says Glen Bolster, who joined the firm in 1975 and is the partner in charge of the Colchester office.

Peisch, says Bolster, spent time on client relations, meeting with bank presidents and other client staff he had come to know over the years. “He was a real gentleman and all of the bank personnel had come to know him and Josephine. The relationships he established with bank personnel were a real asset when it came to retaining clients. I think that is still true today,” Bolster says.

Through the 1970s, Peisch operated the company in association with numerous business partners. In 1975 he sold the practice to Richard E. Belisle and Alan L. Brock. Belisle became second managing partner. Peisch retired in 1976 and the firm was renamed A.M. Peisch & Co.. Peisch died in 1984 at age 90.

Swanton resident David M. Wood joined the firm as a staff accountant in 1972, right after graduating from the accounting program at the University of Vermont. “I had two career choices,” he recalls. “My father was a funeral director, and I could have done that. But accounting is more lively,” he says with a grin.

A.M. Peisch & Co. A.M. Peisch & Co. employs 45 people and adds five extra during tax season. To keep up with the times, the staff includes a certified fraud examiner, information technology experts and business valuation specialists, positions that did not exist until recently. Rich Lyon is a partner in the St. Johnsbury office.

Wood saw the growth of the company from eight employees spread among three offices, in Norwich, Rutland and Burlington. Locations in St. Albans and St. Johnsbury were eventually added.

The Burlington office moved to Colchester in 2002. Today the firm employs 45 people, adding five during tax season. These include 17 certified public accountants and eight who are preparing for the CPA exam. The staff includes a certified fraud examiner, information technology experts and business valuation specialists, positions that did not exist until recently.

Wood recently cut back to part-time hours, putting Bolster in charge of the Colchester office Jan. 1. Wood intends to spend more time on the golf course and with his grandchildren.

When Bolster, a Dummerston native, joined the firm, the headquarters were still in Peisch’s Norwich house. Bolster remembers receiving an unexpected assignment on his first day. Newly graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in business administration, he anticipated preparing tax documents and auditing banks, so he was surprised when the company patriarch handed him the keys to his car and told him to drive while the boss rode in the back seat with his wife.

“We were going to a bank audit in the middle of New Hampshire, and I was Archie’s chauffeur,” he says with a laugh. “Archie and Josephine got into the back seat, and he said, ‘Just keep it below the speed limit.’”

Wood and Bolster have witnessed many changes in the industry and within the practice during the last 30 years. They recall the firm’s first computer, which operated with 12-inch disks. Until then, accounting and tax returns were done with pencil and paper. As late as the mid-1970s, Josephine Peisch attended the audits to hand-write the confirmations.

“The advent of the computer changed the way audits are done,” says Bolster. “We used to take three days to reconcile a major account and run the balance sheets. Now it takes five or ten minutes on a computer.”

Tax laws have become increasingly complex through the years, Wood observes. “Accounting rules became more structured, and they continue to become more complicated. It has changed this profession from one where people punch adding machines to one where it’s very technical,” he says. “There is less busy work and more theoretical thinking going on.”

Partner Todd J. Burgess, who joined the firm in 1988 and was made partner in 2004, adds that today’s accountants do much more than crunch numbers. “With the literature we have to read and the computer programs we use, it’s so much more,” he says. “Accountants must keep up with ever-changing accounting rules and auditing standards.”

A Rutland native, Burgess lives in Williston with his two school-aged, sports-focused children. He studied accounting at St. Michael’s College. “The irony of it all,” he says, “is that most of us got into this business to avoid reading and writing because numbers come easier to us.”

Burgess oversees information technology. Two full-time IT personnel perform security testing at clients’ offices and within the company. “Our clients want to know what their own security risk is,” says Burgess. “Regulators want to know what safeguards there are to IT security. Our clients take it very seriously.”

About a year ago, the company started encrypting all electronic data that leave the firm. “We bring laptop computers to our clients, and any information that gets transferred to a laptop is automatically encrypted,” he says.

Over time, the firm’s clientele has shifted from mostly financial institutions to a broader spectrum, while still focusing on locally owned private businesses with fewer than 200 employees. Clients include automobile dealerships, retailers, manufacturers, plumbers, electricians, medical and law offices, hotels, artists, farms and municipalities. The firm also provides tax services to individuals.

A.M. Peisch & Co. The firm has offices in Colchester (the largest), White River Junction, Rutland, St. Albans and St. Johnsbury. Ed Murphy and Lisa Magnuson are managers in Colchester.

Wood was named third partner in 1978, serving as partner in charge of the Burlington office. He became the managing partner in 1995.

While staff and expertise are shared among the five offices, each site has its strong points centered upon the needs of the individual community. “St. Albans has a strong dairy farm presence and small businesses. White River tends to be a financial institution office. Rutland is split between financial institutions and state and local governments,” Woods says.

Work in Colchester tends toward auditing and tax consulting to wholesale, governmental and service sectors, such as schools. In St. Johnsbury, most work involves IT functions for financial institutions. “All of the offices have a strong tax-consulting focus for local businesses.”

Aaron R. MacAskill, managing partner and in charge of the White River Junction office, joined the firm in 1981. He was raised in Brookfield and studied accounting at Salisbury College in Maryland. He lives in Wilder, where he enjoys kayaking on local lakes and ponds. Over the years MacAskill’s focus shifted from audits for governments and banks to business and estate planning. He says the types of skills needed to serve clients have changed.

“When I started there was more emphasis on the end product, the financial statement and tax return,” he says. Today, “we are their partners in many ways. It becomes both business and personal. They have questions about how to pass their business on to their children, or if one of their kids has special needs, how to plan for that,” he says.

The issues run the gamut from small to large, says Wood. “It goes from, ‘Should I buy this new car?’ to, ‘Should I buy this new factory?’ When two partners in a business don’t agree, we help them settle their disagreements. At times you feel you’re as much a psychiatrist as an accountant.”

The accounting profession experienced major changes in the wake of corporate scandals like those at Enron and WorldCom. Public and private companies are expected to meet certain standards with respect to internal controls. The auditor’s responsibilities to assess the risk of misstatement has expanded.

Bolster, who oversees audit quality, says A.M. Peisch & Co. is prepared. “Our audit team looks at where the risk of misstatement might be and the control environment in place to manage that risk.”

“Every year we have to adapt to something else,” adds Burgess. “It used to be that we would simply give a client a financial report. Now we have to look far beyond the numbers behind the report.

Longtime customers appreciate the firm’s broad understanding of new practices and business development. “They offer more than an auditing service,” says David Bergeron, principal and chief financial officer of Heritage Automotive Group in South Burlington. “We use them for financial planning, tax planning and as a sounding board.”

Bergeron has worked with A.M. Peisch since 1987. “When we’re looking at a new project or expansion, we touch base with our accountants. They can poke holes in our plan and steer us in a better direction. It’s good for a small company to have someone with an outside view for a reality check.”

Now into its third generation as a business, the accounting firm is putting people in place to manage the business going forward. “Industry-wide there’s a concern about succession,” MacAskill says. “There are fewer accounting graduates, and fewer are going into public accounting. The average age of CPAs running public accounting firms is in the late 50s.”

The company retains employees by keeping them fulfilled, says Wood. “We focus on education and on making this an enjoyable place to work. We give employees the flexibility to deal with family issues, because family comes first. These are the things that make people want to work for you, to stay and not go somewhere else.”

“We want to be around another 87 years,” says Burgess. •