John Scheer and Bob Hickey

Tax Masters

There are good reasons why these accountants chose a narrow focus 

by Keith Morrill

To help their clients wade through the legal quagmire of tax regulation, John Scheer (right) and Bob Hickey have chosen to focus the business of their Colchester CPA firm, Scheer & Hickey PC, on taxes. 

Every year, from the beginning of February until the middle of April, John Scheer’s wife calls herself a widow. A tax widow, to be exact. The same goes for Bob Hickey’s wife. Around that time she’ll call her husband at the office asking if he’ll be home for dinner. When he replies, “Not tonight,” she asks, “Not tonight tonight, or not tonight until April?” It’s during this two-and-a-half-month period that Scheer and Hickey work six twelve-hour days a week in order to meet that most notorious of deadlines — tax day. 

It’s all part of the business. As partners of Scheer & Hickey PC, the two provide tax preparation, consulting and planning for businesses and individuals, what Scheer calls “full-service tax.” 

The idea is that instead of providing every kind of accounting service as some firms do, Scheer & Hickey specializes. “The reason is all about quality,” Hickey explains. “We’d rather do one or two things well than a dozen things in a mediocre way.” 

Scheer chimes in. “Here’s the dilemma today. Everyone wants one-stop shopping. It can’t happen anymore.” This stems from the fact, he continues, that it is impossible for an accountant to provide every service without compromising quality, something they’re not willing to do. 

“It relates to the complexity of our industries, the complexity of tax laws,” says Hickey. “Every year it gets more and more complex. Laws come into effect, and they’re only around for a few years.” This constant state of flux can leave anyone with more than the most basic of returns unsure of how to properly comply with tax regulations. 

Their approach to servicing clients is simple, says Scheer: They treat themselves as their own best client. 

Says Hickey, “Clients will often ask, how do you do this? Who do you use for your health insurance? What kind of benefits do you offer? How do you keep your books? What software do you use?” 

Steven Clayton, owner of Shelburne Supermarket, shopped around and considered several accountants before settling on Hickey & Sheer. “They are very honest and thorough and reliable,” says Clayton. “They get to know their customers thoroughly, and with that, they end up doing the best job that we’ve found for CPAs.” 

Another big part of their business goes beyond the here and now. “You have to try and help somebody plan what they’re going to do next year and the year after with a fair amount of certainty,” says Hickey. As a result, they’ve seen clients who 10 years ago might not have required their services. 

A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Scheer moved to Vermont with his mother, a Burlington native, when he was 12. Fresh out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1977 with a degree in business administration, he went to work for an industrial corporation in Texas for five years, before joining a small Boston accounting firm, where he worked for six years. 

By then in his 30s, Scheer felt the itch to return to Vermont. “A friend told me, ‘If you don’t move back before you’re married, you’ll never move back there,” he says. Taking that advice to heart, he contacted his sister, who still lived here, and through an acquaintance of hers, he landed a job with John Lamson, a registered public accountant in downtown Burlington. 

Sherry Allard Scheer & Hickey bought the solo practice of Sherry Allard, a CPA who now works for the firm part time as an associate.

A few years passed, and they were tracking to be partners, but it wasn’t meant to be, he says. “Like a lot of partnerships, it didn’t work out.” Left with only 15 clients of his own, Scheer decided it might be safer for him to return to the corporate world. “I actually applied for corporate jobs,” he says. 

That is, until a lawyer friend suggested going into business for himself. “He said, ‘Who ever heard of an accountant going out of business? Why don’t you just put up your own shingle?’” Scheer took the friend’s advice, put out a press release and had cards printed. That was in 1992.

Hickey was a late bloomer as far as his life in accounting is concerned. Originally from Binghamton, N.Y., he moved to Syracuse in his freshman year of high school when his father was transferred there. Right out of high school, he went to work for $1.85 an hour parking cars, the sort of paycheck that made it impossible to afford college tuition. One day, while on his lunch break, Hickey crossed the street to the Air Force recruitment base and never looked back. 

After his four-year stint, the training he received in the Air Force landed him a job as a scale technician with Howe Richardson Scale Co. near Albany, N.Y., and about four years later, with Harris Lanier as a field engineer repairing cutting-edge digital dictation equipment. 

Harris Lanier brought him to Vermont to help establish a Burlington branch in 1987. As the resident engineer, he helped manage the office and spent a lot of hours on the road serving Vermont, upstate New York and western Massachusetts. That same year, he persuaded Laurie Tremblay, whom he had met through friends, to move from Syracuse to Vermont and become his wife. It was easy, says Hickey. “She’s from Lebanon, N.H., and had always loved Burlington.”

Abbe Sweeney and Nancy Rouisse Abbe Sweeney (left), office manager, is a recent staff addition at Scheer & Hickey. Nancy Rouisse is staff accountant.

It wasn’t long before the on-the-road lifestyle grew old. He decided to pursue an engineering degree at the University of Vermont, but that ended when children entered the picture. Hickey went to work at a friend’s newly opened pet store on Dorset Street. “I started helping out, then managed it, and it turned into a full-time gig for about 11 years. It got to the point where I had to make a decision,” says Hickey, who asked, “Am I going to be in retail for the rest or my life, or am I going to try something else?” 

In his mid-40s and with the looming prospect of putting two offspring through college, he enrolled in an accounting class at Trinity College. “I wanted a class that looked simple, had rules, and with the right answer somewhere in the book and I could find it,” he recalls. 

It clicked. “It was just something that came naturally,” he says. Hickey worked through the degree, attending nights and weekends while continuing at the pet store, and passed his CPA exam on his first attempt.

In 1999, right after Hickey graduated from Trinity, he met Scheer, and less than six months after that, Scheer hired him full time. They have now moved to a full partnership, and Scheer’s original list of 15 clients has grown to include more than 500 businesses and individuals. 

In building the business, the biggest challenge has always been time management. “In professions that require hourly billing, you have to work ‘X’ number of hours to get the work done, and when you make a commitment with clients, and they have needs, you’ve committed your future to that work,” says Scheer. 

To share the burden, Scheer & Hickey employs a mix of full- and part-time individuals without whom, say the partners, they might have a grim story to tell at the end of tax season. 

These employees include full-time office manager Abbe Sweeney, staff accountants Nancy Rouisse and CPA Sherry Allard who works part time for most of the year and full time for tax season. 

The firm also employs two seasonal helpers: Juli Hunton, Scheer’s sister, who comes in from Arizona to help with bookkeeping and tax preparation; and Debra Mitchell, who shares office space with the partnership, running her own bookkeeping and accounting practice in addition to working full time for six or seven weeks for Scheer & Hickey during tax season.

The team tries to be out of the office by 5 p.m. on April 15 to cap the season off with a nice party somewhere downtown. The exception is when the occasional last-minute catastrophe — like a system crash or extremely errant return — keeps them late. 

Scheer keeps plenty busy year-round. He was the director of the KeyBank Vermont City Marathon for its second and third years, and remains active in the event from time to time, and he is himself an avid runner. He’s been treasurer of Burlington’s First Night celebration for the last 15 years. He and his wife, Sue, whom he met through the Marathon and married in 1995, have a 6-year-old daughter, Katie.

Hickey and Laurie, a middle-school teacher in South Burlington, have two children, daughter Brenna, 14, and son Patrick, 11. On Sundays during tax season — “my one day off,” says Hickey — the family hits the slopes at Bolton Valley. 

They never rest long. Work continues in the office year-round, although it’s tamer for the nine months outside that tax-season rush. No doubt just enough time to recharge. •