Taking Care of Business

by Mary Landon

This accounting company helps clients meet the challenges of today’s economic climate head-on

Peter McCoy ad John McSoleyPeter L. McCoy (left) and John F. McSoley were coworkers at KPMG’s Burlington office when they left to found their South Burlington accounting firm, McSoley McCoy & Co., in 1990.

According to the Wall Street Journal, more than 60 percent of all individual tax returns are prepared by professionals. As the forms change each year, they often become more complex and frustrating. Many individuals can’t figure out how to do them or don’t want the hassle.

“In my opinion, this is just wrong,” says CPA John McSoley. “As much as we love to do the work for them, people really should be able to fill out their own tax forms by themselves without too much difficulty.”

Although tax time may be blissfully off the radar at the moment, things are buzzing at the offices of McSoley McCoy & Co. in South Burlington. This firm of accountants and business advisers will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2010. Over the years, the partners — who now number three — have assembled a cohesive group of 10 staff accountants and three administrative employees to round out their team of 16.

In 1990, McSoley joined forces with Peter McCoy to found the firm; their first office on Kennedy Drive had two basic computers and a used phone system. They had met as employees of KPMG, where they were managers.

McSoley had joined KPMG when his former employer, the Burlington accounting firm of P.F. Jurgs, merged with the national firm in 1987. McCoy had worked in the Albany office of KPMG and was one of two people brought to Burlington after the merger to help with the transition.

It wasn’t long after opening the doors of their new company that McSoley and McCoy hired Michele Eaton as administrative assistant. Eaton, who is celebrating 17 years with the firm, is now the controller.

Certified public accountants are involved with a variety of services used in the financial world: tax preparation, auditing of financial statements and benefit plans, merger and acquisition assistance, business valuations, estate planning, and attestation services.

One of the most valuable benefits to clients, says McSoley, is the ability to look at the “big picture” — to objectively analyze the many components that make up the financial health of a particular business. With this information in hand, decisions can be made that will enhance the success of the client’s business and maximize its efficiency.

There is no typical day, according to Tom Stretton, the audit manager, who became the third partner in January. “Circumstances can change quickly. People are called on to switch direction and attend to the matter at hand,” he says, adding, “That’s one of the things I like about this office environment — the flexibility of the staff to roll with whatever comes up. We actually only spend about 15 percent of any day at a desk behind a computer. The rest of the time we are seeing clients, going over paperwork, traveling, going to meetings or conferences. It’s always interesting.”

Typically, the firm has its busiest season from January through April, to coincide with tax season. Beyond tax work, though, there are matters demanding attention year-round. The business has grown substantially since it was started.

The three partners, although not native Vermonters, have strong connections to the area.

McSoley, the director of income taxes and business valuation services, has lived in Vermont since high school. “I moved to Vermont from Ankara, Turkey. My father was stationed there in the Army and was transferred to Camp Johnson.”

He says he “stumbled” into the accounting field. After trying a course in accounting at the University of Vermont, he switched his major from liberal arts to business administration.

McCoy, in charge of audit and attestation services, comes from the Lake George area of New York. His employment history began at age 14. “I worked a ton of different jobs,” he says. “When you’re a kid in Lake George, you work. I was a park ranger, short-order cook, dishwasher — sometimes working three jobs at a time.”

He says he knew he was destined for a life in business because he liked being in charge of making his own pocket money. “You learn humility as a dishwasher, for sure,” he continues, adding wistfully, “I wish kids were doing that now.”

He says his first “real job,” following graduation from St. Bonaventure University in Olean, N.Y., with a double major in accounting and finance, was with a regional accounting firm in Connecticut. He then joined a firm that was eventually bought by KPMG, and thinks that experience is probably why KPMG sent him to Burlington to help with the transition.

Michele Eaton, Danielle Barkyoumb, Vanessa Brown and Stacie AdamsMichele Eaton (second from left), the firm’s controller, was McSoley McCoy’s first administrative employee, hired 17 years ago as administrative assistant. Danielle Barkyoumb (from left) and Vanessa Brown are staff accountants; Stacie Adams is office manager.

Stretton, a native of Duxbury, Mass., knew Vermont from many family trips to Smugglers’ Notch Resort, where they had a timeshare for 10 to 15 years. He chose to study at St. Michael’s College, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. “I was offered a job by McSoley McCoy when I was a senior,” says Stretton. He is the company’s audit manager.

About 75 percent of the firm’s client base is in Vermont. Typical of the clients is Cindy Shuman, president of Resolution Inc. in Williston, who has worked closely with McCoy for 15 years, including her time as the former vice president and chief financial officer of Vermont Public Radio.

“Not only has Pete provided thorough and insightful audit, management, and tax reporting services,” she says, “but he and his team of financial professionals have also taken the time necessary to learn the particular needs and operations of each business. The team has provided me with focused advice that allows me to take informed, productive action in an ever-challenging business environment.”

The relationship between CPA and client is built upon a foundation of trust, communication, and professional responsibility, maintained over time as circumstances change. Not only do the staff at McSoley McCoy & Co. serve as accountants, auditors, and tax preparers, but they often also wear the hats of lawyers, therapists, and trusted confidants, says Jamie Harnish, CPA and the firm’s tax manager. “We are never just the accountants.”

Tom Stretton and Jamie HarnishTom Stretton (left) was named partner in January. Including the three partners, the firm’s team numbers 16. Jamie Harnish is tax manager.

Jim Salter, captive insurance audit manager, agrees. “You get so involved with the clients, and their trust grows because of the relationship you’ve built up.” Salter has been at McSoley McCoy for about a year. Partly because of his specific education and training, McSoley McCoy & Co. is the only Vermont-based CPA firm that is licensed to audit captive insurance companies.

The current economic downturn has not had too dramatic an effect on the firm’s day-to-day business. “Fortunately, most of the clients we work with have not suffered huge setbacks as a result of the current financial crisis,” says McCoy. “Vermont hasn’t had huge growth, but we also haven’t had a huge crash.”

Recently, the firm entered into an alliance with BDO Seidman LLC, an international accounting and consulting firm. Being an independent member of this alliance gives McSoley McCoy & Co. access to a global network of resources and established offices worldwide.

Every year, a CPA must take at least 40 hours of course work to keep licenses current and to stay abreast of new laws, rules, and regulations. “One of our ongoing challenges is keeping up with the proliferation of accounting standards and tax changes,” says McSoley. “Luckily, we no longer have to look through 10 fat volumes on a bookshelf; updates to tax law, as well as changes in accounting practices, are communicated to us regularly and directly, online. But it does take a significant amount of our time, nonetheless, to stay on top of it all.”

Employees are encouraged to take courses and develop skills necessary for the furthering of their professional knowledge and experience. “When we’re recruiting new staff,” says McCoy, “we are much more likely to be attracted to a candidate with excellent verbal and written language skills than we are to someone with just an accounting degree.

“Yes, a degree is a valuable asset,” he continues, “but it’s more important that an employee know how to write well and be a clear communicator. The accounting skills can be taught; the writing skills are much harder to find.”

Vanessa Brown, a staff accountant for approximately a year, is in charge of the education department at the company. She works with employees to map out individual strategies for achieving professional goals.

The partners make sure to schedule opportunities for the staff to get together away from the office. In the kitchen at their South Burlington office is a photo of the group on a recent white-water rafting trip in Canada.

“There’s been a bit of a tough time enticing students to get into accounting,” says McSoley. “But it’s a great field of work that can include travel and exposure to all sorts of interesting people and businesses and skills. We have a pleasant office atmosphere and a tremendous commitment to our clients. We are inspired to come in to work every day because we are making a difference for them.”

“It’s great bringing Tom in after 18 years with just the two of us,” says McCoy. “We have a strong relationship, where the three of us reach decisions collaboratively.” All three partners also enjoy golfing together, so they try to fit some in whenever they can get away. McCoy serves on the boards of the Ronald McDonald House Charities, the Vermont Foundation for Children and Families, and the Burlington Country Club. McSoley is treasurer and on the board of the Howard Center of Burlington.

At the moment, Stretton confesses to being more than adequately busy with his family and his new duties as business partner, although he admits that, as a partner, he’s found his niche — just as McSoley McCoy and Co. appears to have found its niche in Vermont. •