The ABCs of 123s
Sheltra tutors her clients as she tends to their finances
by Chris Farnsworth
For almost 15 years, Diana Sheltra, enrolled agent and the owner of Sheltra Tax & Accounting in Essex, has offered her clients expertise in bookkeeping, taxes, and training.
For some, the quest for a career — a calling — is a long and arduous process, as much a soul search as a job search. Others, however, find their path by looking to generations of family traditions.
For Diana Sheltra, the owner of Sheltra Tax & Accounting, bookkeeping is in the blood.
“I’m the third generation in bookkeeping in my family,” she says. “It just came natural.”
It has now been 14 years since she started her company in Vermont, a decision that was easy to make after 20 years of working for others in New York City. “I’m a better business owner than employee,” she says with a knowing smile. “I like to manage my own time.”
Sheltra uses that time in a variety of ways to service the greater Burlington area. Her company not only specializes in tax preparation and resolution for individuals, families, and businesses, but also offers comprehensive bookkeeping and QuickBooks support and tutorials.
On top of all her company does, Sheltra is a member of Business Network International’s Vermont chapter, vice president of the Vermont chapter of the National Association of Tax Professionals, and a member (and one-time president) of the Women Business Owners Network. One may wonder how she manages to wear so many hats at once, but for Sheltra it’s more about the why than the how.
“I believe in helping people,” she says. “It’s rewarding. If someone is running a business, it’s important to be responsible, and I help them do that. Not having proper bookkeeping kills businesses.”
In order to serve that creed, Sheltra and her three-person team often find themselves going to extreme lengths. For every client who shows up with a neatly prepared tax plan, there are far more who are likely to appear at Sheltra’s doorstep in Essex with boxes of receipts and bank statements. One client in particular was so famously scattered that Sheltra and her employees were spending five hours a day opening mail and going through the mountain of bills and receipts before they could solve the client’s issues with the IRS.
“Sheltra Tax & Accounting is as good as advertised — fast and thorough,” says Fred Iannotti, senior media analyst at Iannotti PR Inc. “Diana Sheltra is well-prepared with online tools, is highly inquisitive so as to not miss anything, very ‘hands-on,’ and maintains excellent communication.”
As an enrolled agent, Sheltra is able to represent taxpayers before the IRS, an important qualification to clients feeling the stress from their taxes. Sometimes that involves a lot of listening patiently while her clients express their frustrations or despair at their predicament. Her company’s work eases the process between the taxpayer and the IRS, a relief of such magnitude to some of her clients that she says they look 10 years younger once it’s all over.
“I let them vent,” she explains. “But I’m a New Yorker; I tell it like it is, in a nice way. You have to be pretty honest and direct, which is important. It’s my duty to be accurate and to be sure.”
Indeed, she learned her trade from her bookkeeper family while growing up in Queens. Her mother, Audry, is still a bookkeeper (and works with her), as was her maternal grandmother, Dorothy.
After seeing the business up close, Sheltra enrolled at St. John’s University, going to school nights and weekends and working during the day. It was a taxing process, she says, but she came out of it with her bachelor’s degree in business management.
Fate stepped in when she moved to Essex in 1995, following the man she would marry the next year. She decided to go back to school and begin the next chapter in her career. That chapter began with Champlain College, where she earned an associate’s degree in accounting in 1996.
In 2002, she founded her company and began working from her home office. “It’s a perfect synergy,” she says. “Our clients can get bookkeeping, taxes, and training in one step, which makes for more accuracy in their finances.”
One of the main factors in her success is what she describes as a “highly-educated staff,” made up of her mother, Audry; Carole Pouliot; and Richard Codling, their QuickBooks Pro advisor.
“Diana is proactive,” says Pouliot, who works for her as a bookkeeper and office manager. “We here have a cohesive team approach to keeping up with the needs of our clients.”
Sheltra brought in Pouliot, who specializes in working with e-commerce clients among other responsibilities, after the tax preparation side of the business expanded rapidly. “In the last few years we’ve seen a 60 percent growth in tax prep,” she says. “I hired Carole to help me out and she’s really freed me up.”
Which is a good thing, as the business has been growing anywhere from 20 percent to 30 percent a year. When asked to what she attributes the company’s ascending popularity, she just shrugs.
“More people are getting to know me,” she says. “I never have to be a salesman.”
One way in which Sheltra has made her company important to the community is the tutorials she and her staff conduct on bookkeeping; in particular, the use of QuickBooks. To do people’s bookkeeping and taxes is one thing; to teach them to do it themselves is a whole other skill — one she relishes.
“I find Vermonters like to do it themselves,” she says of her tutorials. “For bigger businesses it’s a bit different: There’s a lot of areas to look into; we have to determine the way forward. But other clients, we can teach them how to utilize QuickBooks. I find it empowers them to do it themselves.”
Pouliot says part of the process is “keeping up to date with the tax rules, software, and the apps available to make everything as automated as possible.”
“We try to get clients one-on-one,” Sheltra says. “We teach them their area, their real data, and we find people can relate to it so much more.”
“What I love about Diana is not just her knowledge and efficiency, but her personality, sense of humor, and nonjudgmental nature,” says Melissa King, an education consultant and Hatha Yoga instructor who runs Ascent Learning Services. “She is invaluable to my small business.”
There have been numerous times over the years when Sheltra has used every resource, even ones outside of her own business, to help her clients. From counseling restaurant owners on how to make use of the Small Business Development Center to easing clients out of bankruptcy by using her expertise to, for example, discover the client was in the wrong business entity and save him over $15,000, Sheltra says she will do what it takes. She even counsels her clients to keep an eye on their accountants.
“We tell them to look at their bank statements before you hand them over to an accountant. Open the mail, check things out first,” she says, noting how many people in history have been too trusting of others with their money, too ignorant of how it works and how it should be managed. “Knowledge of your accounts can save so much.”
Sheltra and her first husband divorced in 2003, but in 2011, she married Tom Sheltra, a master plumber and manager of County Plumbing and Heating in Morrisville. They lived for two years in Wolcott, but she found its rural nature difficult and they returned to Essex.
“Living in Wolcott wasn’t for me,” she says.
“I liked living in Essex,” she says. “Moving here, it felt similar to Queens, you know? Obviously not in size or anything, but it’s a little bit of a city. There’s plenty of businesses, you don’t have to go to Burlington. There’s also lots of clients in Jericho and Underhill.”
She and Tom enjoy traveling to craft shows and on car trips. “I am a computer geek,” she adds, “and love to read, cook, etc.”
But she admits to heading back to visit Manhattan as often as possible, as she confesses: “I am a ‘city girl.’” •