One for the Books

Technology supports this firm, while old-fashioned attention to detail keeps it a good place to work

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Joseph Bilodeau, David Santerre, Brett WAlker, Alison AbryVermont born and educated, Joseph Bilodeau (left), David Santerre, Brett Walker, and Alison Abry are partners at the CPA firm Bilodeau, Wells & Co. PC. Their Essex Junction offices at 20 Main St. have been home since the company was founded 24 years ago.

When someone calls the offices of Bilodeau, Wells & Co. PC during working hours, a real person answers the phone — always. After hours, a recording instructs the caller to leave a brief message to be forwarded to the individual. Messages go by e-mail.

“We don’t have voice mail,” says Alison Abry, one of the firm’s four principals. “We’re one of the few firms left out there without it.”

“We feel 95 percent of issues can be answered when somebody first calls in,” adds Joseph Bilodeau, the firm’s co-founder and a principal. “We operate very traditionally.”

A visit to the offices on Main Street in Essex Junction reveals exactly what one would expect having heard that: a quiet, conventional environment in an old building; lovely, polished woodwork; muted, businesslike decor. 

Gone, though, are the walls of tax report binders that once graced every accounting office and required the insertion of monthly printed reports, replaced now by frequent e-mail updates on what’s happening with the IRS and in all 50 states. This is a place of tradition underpinned by technology — a paperless office where even tick marks (symbols used by auditors to indicate they have performed certain operations) are electronic.

“Twenty years ago, we would have needed 60 people to do the volume of work we do with 20 people today,” says Bilodeau.

Unusual in these times is the fact that the partners — Vermont natives all — have no titles. All four — Bilodeau, Abry, David Santerre, and Brett Walker — are generalists, as is every other accountant in the firm. 

“Every accountant we have does both accounting and tax,” says Bilodeau, “so a client doesn’t have to talk to somebody different to get an opinion on taxation. 

“That’s where we differ traditionally from some of the very large firms, where somebody focuses and goes into a specialty area,” he says. “It’s really very challenging, because those are two broad areas that everybody has to become conversant and trained in.” 

That’s not to say they don’t have preferences and areas of special interest. For example, Bilodeau does a lot of estate planning. Santerre is the “go-to” man for special areas of corporate taxation and is an expert in extractive industries such as mining. He also handles a lot of builders and developers.

“Brett does probably the lion’s share of our Canadian work and multi-state work,” says Bilodeau. “Some of our clients will file in as many as 45 states at the same time, so you have to be an expert in multi-state taxation.”

“We do quite a bit of international work, as well,” says Abry. “We work a lot with Canadian clients and have quite a few who have foreign-owned subsidiaries in various countries.”

Some of Bilodeau, Wells' employeesHaving a paperless office allows response time to be fast and makes working from home possible occasionally. From left are Dave Wood, staff accountant; Barbara Wilkinson, firm administrator; and Nancy Pratt, administrative assistant.

Abry is a certified valuation analyst with an interest in dental practices, retail, and the computer industry, which reflects her early degree work in management information systems at New Hampshire College. Abry has taken the lead on converting the firm to a paperless office.

The firm is “very good from a technology standpoint,” says Jim Mooney, vice president of the commercial banking group in the Burlington offices of TD Bank NA, who is in a position to recommend CPA firms to the bank’s clients. “Bilodeau, Wells is not a client of ours, but in our line of business,” he says, “we look toward CPA firms as advisers for our clients.

“We’re always asked to make referrals,” Mooney continues. “We typically refer three, and Bilodeau, Wells is always among my list of referees. They’re also very good from a tax advising standpoint, and very good as far as their knowledge of accounting principles.”

Maintaining their generalist approach does have its challenges, and staff, such as two who have master’s degrees in taxation, augment the required expertise. “We’ve always stayed with that generalist philosophy,” says Bilodeau, “and it clearly is more and more difficult, just because there are more accounting standards about more things — complex financial instruments that require greater levels of knowledge and disclosure than ever before. For example, back in the dinosaur age when I was going to school, there were probably about 32 statements on auditing standards, and I think we’re up to 114 now.

The “dinosaur age” in this context was the 1970s. A Middlebury native, Bilodeau entered the University of Vermont to study botany, and in his first year, a professor interested him in the business world. One of his two summer jobs was doing entry-level accounting, he says, and “I had an awful lot of fun.” He switched majors and graduated in 1976 with a degree in accounting.

Some of Bilodeau, Wells' employeesIn addition to the partners, Bilodeau, Wells’ employees number 16 plus two part-timers. Claudia Brousseau (left) is a senior staff accountant; Jim Ouellette is a staff accountant; Chaz Blackmore is a manager; and Michelle Leever and Donald Turner are senior staff accountants.

He landed a job with a local firm that’s no longer in existence, where he worked for six years before having a “parting of the ways. I’m a little type A, I guess,” he confesses. One positive result of that experience was meeting Wendy Wells, who was working as an intern on the desk adjacent to his. They married in 1981, and she has remained active as a CPA in the company, says Bilodeau, “and over the last 10 years, between raising kids and working tax season, she’s been an avid volunteer on various boards.” She is taking a break from her profession to pursue her interest in hospice work with the Visiting Nurse Association.

After leaving his first job in 1982, he and Wendy took a month off to travel, and Bilodeau started doing freelance work. “I tried my hand at teaching, as an adjunct at Champlain College for a semester, and that was a lot of fun, but just looking at the economics [here, he laughs] I decided it really wasn’t for me at the time.”

For a couple of years, he shared office space with Wendy’s father, Robert Wells, also an accountant, but didn’t want to become business partners with him. “I didn’t want to lose the wonderful relationship we had as father- and son-in-law,” he says.

“By 1984, we decided we could work together without ruining our relationship and we started the firm, right here at 20 Main St. in Essex Junction.” After hiring an administrative person, they hired Dave Santerre.

Santerre was a Colchester native — a self-confessed nut for basketball who played in high school, coached AAU basketball when his sons were small, and continues to play every chance he gets. 

He entered UVM to study electrical engineering. “That didn’t work out too well,” he says with a laugh. He switched to accounting in his sophomore year and graduated in 1982.

After working a year for a Montpelier firm, he explored options closer to home. Bilodeau and Wells hired him in 1984. He became a partner in ‘89, two years after Wells retired from the firm.

Abry, who grew up in Morrisville, was hired in 1987. Following graduation from New Hampshire College, she did bookkeeping to work her way toward her bachelor’s degree in accounting at UVM. “When I received my degree,” she says, “I interviewed with Joe, he hired me, and I’ve been coming to the same office some 20 years now. In that time, we’ve purchased the building, expanded, and now have most of the upstairs.” She became a partner in 1994.

Walker joined the firm in 1996 and was made a partner on July 1 of this year. A native of Burke, he went to Champlain College to study hotel/restaurant management, but switched to accounting after the first semester.

Out of school, he landed a job with New England Air Systems, where he worked for eight years. “I decided to do the CPA exam,” he says, “passed it, and needed to have public accounting experience before I could get my license, so I came to work for Bilodeau, Wells.”

He could be called the firm’s “odd man out.” The other three partners are married, with families, and have physically active lives outside of work. Walker is single and an expert chef. “Pastry’s a specialty,” says Abry, “and every Saturday during tax season — if we work Saturday — Brett brings us pastries. That’s a really good reason to come in.”

This kind of good-natured banter is common among the partners. Spending time with them, one gets the impression they truly like one another.

“I would say that we live our lives,” says Abry, explaining that, even during the throes of tax season, employees are encouraged to limit their hours in the office. 

“I made it to every single sporting event my kids did when they were growing up, and that’s true across the board,” says Bilodeau, a self-confessed “incessant bicycler” who rides his bike to work a couple of times a week. 

“I coached AAU basketball during tax season!” Santerre exclaims. 

“I’m big into family,” says Abry. “I have a lot of big family gatherings like my annual Fourth of July party where 10 of my cousins come every year. That’s what life’s all about. I think we portray that in our firm as well.” •