DGN: 32 years and accounting

TRAVERSE CITY – The sign of a good accountant is dollars and sense. Helping you make a profit as a business owner, your accountant should be one of your business' best allies. One local firm is such a friend, marked by decades of success in the regional business community and public recognition by the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce.

Dennis, Gartland and Niergarth, P.C., the largest locally-owned CPA firm in northern Michigan, was recognized in May as one of the top 10 regional businesses by the Chamber of Commerce, and was the only professional services firm in the ranking.

Founded in 1973 by Thomas Gartland and his business partner, the firm started out in a small office on Union with the two men and a part-time secretary. They felt strongly, Gartland explains, that they could do a better job of serving clients than the regional firm they had just left.

Now, 32 years later, the CPA and business advisory firm has some 2,000 clients and has grown to a staff of 40 led by Gartland and six other partners. Gartland and firm administrator Kimberly Arbour describe a work environment that begins with quality, referring to quality expert Edward Demming in discussing the role it plays in the firm's everyday practices.

"He (Demming) defines quality as pride of workmanship," says Gartland. Rather than thinking of it as a control used to inspect a finished product, Demming promotes developing quality at the beginning, Gartland explains.

"It starts with people," he says, and taking pride in the work they do. "We listen to our clients and then we show them that we really care about their success."

In addition to tax planning and preparation, the firm offers an extensive list of advisory and business services, including computer consulting, payroll services, pension and profit sharing plans, and estate planning.

"We're helping clients to succeed," he says. "They come to us first with problems and want us to help them." There is also a flip side to that relationship. "Their expectation is that we will come to them with news about tax changes and planning ideas for improving their profitability," Gartland explains, emphasizing the importance of knowing and understanding the client's particular industry.

"It goes beyond the tax return, the audit," Gartland says.

Well beyond it, in fact.

"Second to client profitability, relationships are the next important thing," says Gartland. "A lot of my clients have become my closest friends." He says the relationships he builds with clients are his favorite part of the job.

The firm works hard, he says, to instill the importance of relationships in this "people business" to its employees. Finding employees that are right for this business is the biggest challenge, Gartland says, adding that the firm has a training and mentoring program in-house, which is very successful. Gartland recalls an analogy used by Good to Great author Jim Collins. "He talks about getting the right people on the bus and then in the right seats," Gartland says, adding that the relationship aspect of the business has been the key to the firm's growth over the years.

Clearly, the firm has created an environment where its employees are happy and successful as it has an attrition rate of less than one percent. Gartland says the firm tries very hard to strike a healthy balance between work and personal time, and that includes flexible work schedules and vacations during the busiest time of the year. The majority of the staff is also committed to the community through involvement in various volunteer and service organizations.

Recognition in the region as one of the top businesses was an honor and a humbling experience, Gartland says of the Chamber of Commerce distinction. In addition, the firm was recognized this year by the Internal Revenue Service, one of 18 acknowledged nationally, for its 98 percent success rate in filing electronic returns.

"I never thought I'd be recognized by the IRS," Gartland says with a grin, at least not in a way that could be framed and hung on a wall.

Based in northern Michigan, the firm's clients are primarily small businesses, many in the construction and manufacturing industries. The firm also does work for government, oil and gas, non-profits, healthcare, and hospitality. Gartland says these days the firm is doing more consulting with family-owned businesses, as well as tax and estate planning. He cites healthcare and construction as industries where the company is seeing more clients.

As is the case with most any profession, advancements in technology have dramatically changed work processes. Gartland remembers filling out tax forms in pencil. A couple of years ago, the office entered the "paperless" age. In fact, the file room is currently being phased out as all files are now stored on a computer.

"Technological advances have caused huge changes in the accounting profession," he says. He adds that most CPA firms are going paperless, using document management software. "We did a lot of research on going paperless and it's been very successful so far. Clients have had to advance with the technology and we help them do that."

The firm offers a Tax Planning Guide for 2005 that has a section devoted to business deductions. It can be found at dgncpa.com.