This CPA finds his job to be anything but boring
“That was the last thing on the face of the earth that I was ever going to be,” he said.
Carter has been an accountant for about 33 years now, and he likes to joke that he fears he will probably “end up being one for the rest of my career.”
“I love it,” he said, in a more serious vein.
“I’m one of these guys who actually looks forward to coming to work. I don’t even mind coming to work on a weekend. I love what I do.”
Carter is co-managing shareholder at Hungerford, Aldrin, Nichols & Carter PC, CPAs and Consultants, at 2910 Lucerne Drive SE in Grand Rapids.
The accounting firm was founded in 1941 and is now one of the largest in the region.
Although Carter began his college career with no interest in accounting, he did know he wanted to be involved in business. His mother came from a family of entrepreneurs and his father was a CPA with his own firm in Grand Rapids called Carter, Hamilton & Dieterman, which ultimately morphed into the Grand Rapids Plante & Moran office.
A native of Plainfield Township, Carter played on championship football and tennis teams at Northview High School, then began his higher education at what was then Grand Rapids Junior College in the early 1970s.
His father recommended that he take an accounting class, so he did — and he did well in it so he took another.
“I just seemed to be a natural,” said Carter.
Carter was recruited by the GRJC tennis coach to join the team and was good enough to start. Soon, however, he got behind in his studies — at least, he felt he was — so he left the team.
“It bothered me a great deal if my grade point was going down,” he said.
However, since then he has had second thoughts about quitting the tennis team.
“What difference does it make,” he said, if one has a 3.5 GPA instead of a 3.6?
“Now, if I could do it over again, I probably would have stayed with my tennis and gotten a lower grade,” he said, half-jokingly.
From Grand Rapids Junior College, Carter was accepted at Valparaiso University, where he hoped to get on the tennis team. Once at Valpo, Carter eventually found himself majoring in accounting.
“I decided I might work for a CPA for a couple of years,” he said.
Upon graduation, he had offers from firms in Chicago, but, he said, “I was one of these people who wanted to come back to Grand Rapids” — a concept he apparently finds somewhat humorous.
After a false start at one firm, he went to work for Robert J. McBain & Co.
Robert McBain had a lot of connections — Gerald R. Ford was a close friend — and young Carter worked closely with McBain on many accounts in various capacities, all of which was “great experience,” he said.
Then Carter was accepted into Grand Valley State College’s master’s degree program in taxation, which added yet more power to his career.
After a few years with McBain, Carter said he realized he would never be an owner there, so he talked to the Hungerford firm and took a job there in 1983.
At the time, he said, there were probably only about 10 people employed at Hungerford; now there are about 70.
“The firm just kind of took off over the years,” he said.
Carter is a good storyteller, and his enthusiasm for his work and his firm is huge. He conceded readily and humorously, when prompted, that there is an image of accountants being boring people in a boring job — “and sometimes we wear that image with pride,” he said with a laugh.
But his children, who are now in college and beyond, know that his work at times is anything but boring. They would recall the time a client called their dad on a Saturday morning, in panic and despair, and asked to meet with Carter right away at a coffee shop. The client’s spouse had suddenly moved out unexpectedly and taken a lot of the couple’s money and assets with her. What to do?
Another time, a client confided in him when a family member’s drug abuse was triggering a very expensive family crisis.
Over time, a CPA’s relationship with a long-term client — whether the client is an individual or a business — can be as confidential and emotionally absorbing as the relationship between a patient and doctor. After all, most people’s closest friends or relatives wouldn’t dream of sharing with them all the details of their financial lives — but it sure would be interesting if they did.
Carter is well-known around Grand Rapids because of his community and professional involvements. He is a member of The Right Place Inc. finance committee and technology group, among other things, and he has long been involved in a leadership role with the Arts Council of Greater Grand Rapids. He was elected its president in June.
The arts, he said, are very important in any community that wants to encourage businesses to locate there.
Hungerford, Aldrin, Nichols & Carter is more than just accountants. The firm specializes in a couple of areas that don’t fit the mold for a traditional accounting firm — specialties that many young people would probably not consider boring. One of its strongest assets is its computer technology division — SourcIT Technologies — which is overseen by Carter.
SourcIT offers a variety of IT products and services to businesses, including network monitoring and consulting, co-location, website/e-mail hosting, spam filtering, offsite data backup, infrastructure development and maintenance.
According to the SourcIT website, it evolved from the accounting firm’s in-house IT department and began accepting outside clients in 1996. With the coming of the confusing Y2K phenomenon in 2000, a lot of SourcIT’s activity slowed down, according to Carter, and he then began working with the SourcIT staff to sort out the problems and solutions.
“I wasn’t much of a technology guy” in 1999, he said, but added, “I know a lot more now.”
SourcIT is “about to complete the best year in the company’s history,” added Carter.
While most CPA firms are divided into specialties such as accounting and taxation, Hungerford tends to divide itself by industries, said Carter.
“In the broadcast area, we’re probably one of the foremost accounting firms in the country,” he said.
The firm publishes the Hungerford Report, to which many TV stations across the country subscribe. The report shows how that client’s market is doing in total advertising sales revenues. The client station then can have a clearer idea of how its sales are going compared to the others, and what the drivers are.
Because of the inherent confidential nature of the Hungerford Report, it is kept to a low profile, said Carter, and there may even be management people at West Michigan television stations that don’t realize the Hungerford Report is generated right here.
The accounting business, in general, has probably been far less boring to its practitioners over the last three years than at any other recent time in American history — unless one is blasé about an economic earthquake.
“We’ve lost a lot of clients because they’ve gone belly up — bankrupt — or just decided to get out of business. And we’ve had a lot of bad debts, and that really impacted our cash flow,” said Carter.
However, he added, Hungerford was one of the few CPA firms in the top 20 or so in the region “that didn’t lay anybody off.”
“We kept everybody here, for the most part, and we were able to weather” the recession, he said.
Most of the impact of the recession is on the surface, but Carter said there is another deeper impact — “the psychological side of it” — that isn’t necessarily so visible.
“I’ve seen, both with our clients and even within our own company here, where people are afraid — because of how deep this recession was and the things that happened,” he said.
That fear has prevented investments, “and sometimes they are just minimal risks,” he added.
“I see a lot of people saying, ‘Let’s sit back and wait.’ I think there are some tremendous opportunities, even right here in West Michigan, and we’re holding back.”
That doesn’t sound like a boring guy talking.