Lynnwood accounting firm finds formula for success

LYNNWOOD — It would be easy to look at the partners of Vine Dahlen and assume the accounting firm is a reflection of its founder.

After all, Ann Vine started the business more than 50 years ago when she was one of just a few women accountants in Washington.

Now Vine Dahlen is still a rarity: Five of its eight partners are women in an industry where the majority of accounting firms are run by men.

The simple math would be that a woman pioneering in her field created a firm allowing other women to thrive.

It’s not that easy.

Ann Vine, who died in 1997, set out to create a firm to help other businesses, not other women.

“I can’t recall ever hearing anything out of her mouth that you’d call feminist,” said Milt Vine, one of her sons who followed her in accounting. “I can’t recall an instance where she would say she was going to hire a woman just because she was a woman. I think she just went after the people who worked.”

The firm that Ann Vine launched — and her partners helped build — did create an environment that embraced flexibility, said Lisa McKeirnan, Vine Dahlen’s managing partner. That has allowed employees and clients to succeed over the years.

“I think her legacy really is letting people work and create their own success,” McKeirnan said. “Public accounting from the very beginning you approach it as if you are a business owner, because you’re developing your clients.

“However you do that, however you got the job done, was fine as long as you’re successful.”

It’s been a successful formula for an accounting firm that has proved staying power within the community.

“If you look at her, she had zero background for that,” Milt Vine said. “Hers was total bootstrap. She started with almost nothing, not even a degree in accounting from a school.”

* * *

Vine Dahlen, at 3500 188th St. SW near the Alderwood mall in Lynnwood, offers help with taxes, auditing, financial statements and consulting, mainly for businesses and nonprofits.

Ann Vine started the firm by herself in 1964, naming it Vine &Co. It now employs 28 and is one of the longest running local firms in Snohomish County.

Born Oct. 21, 1921, Evelyn Ann Doyle grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, where her father worked as the registrar for what is now Florida State University.

She went to the college after high school and studied language. During her senior year, her father died, leaving behind her mom who had never had a job outside the home.

After graduating, Ann met Vern Vine, who was in the Navy. They married in 1947 and moved to his home of Seattle.

In the next few years, Ann Vine had three children, Barb, David and Milt. Her husband held several jobs over the years, including a “suit-and-tie job” at Boeing that he hated.

With financial obligations for her mother and a younger sister, Ann Vine worked as a secretary, a job that she hated. She decided to take correspondent accounting courses.

“She did lesson after lesson after lesson for, oh I don’t know how many years, until she felt she was able to take the CPA exam,” Milt Vine said. “She didn’t pass it the first time, but if you know anything about the CPA exam that’s par for the course.”

After a couple of attempts, Ann Vine did pass and she worked briefly with a CPA to get required experience. Then she went to work with a drywall supply business in Bothell, doing the firm’s accounting while finding enough accounts to start her own business. She would later move into offices at a now-defunct Bothell newspaper, and then in the American Legion building in Bothell.

She wasn’t the first woman to get a CPA license in the state. Milt Vine said there were women who had licenses 20 to 30 years before her. But women accountants were few and far between in those early days.

“She used to talk about the early accounting society meetings and seminars she attended where she was the only woman in the room,” Milt Vine said.

If she had clients look elsewhere because of her gender, Ann Vine kept that fact to herself, Milt Vine said.

“Based on what I know about the industry, I’m sure she did,” Milt Vine said.

* * *

A former partner used to comment that Ann Vine had two careers: The first was raising her family and the second was becoming an accountant.

When she passed the CPA exam, David and Barb were teenagers and Milt was about 10. Starting a new business took long hours — especially during tax season — but Ann Vine made time for her family.

“She was very family oriented,” Milt Vine said. “She was by and large there when we needed her when we had concerts and sporting events.”

She was also a devout Southern Baptist, attending church regularly and serving as the organist for the church choir, which meant weekly practices.

“It was many nights a week at church on top of her business and on top of raising kids,” Milt Vine said.

Over time, Ann Vine sought to grow her business, adding employees and later partners, some of whom didn’t work out. It wasn’t until she met Ron Dahlen in the 1977 and later Roger Werner that she found the partners that she needed.

Dahlen and Werner both worked for Peat Marwick Mitchell, now KPMG in Seattle and one of the largest accounting firms in the country.

“I vividly remember that she said, ‘I think I found the right guy,’” Milt Vine said of Ron Dahlen.

Together, they created Vine, Dahlen, Werner &Co. (Roger Werner would later go on to establish a competing firm in Lynnwood, Werner O’Meara &Co.)

Dahlen, who retired from the firm in 1999, had become disillusioned working for the larger firm.

Dahlen and his wife had problems having children, and his wife was pregnant one winter. He had to go on business to Spokane. He asked to get out of it, but was told the firm needed him on the job.

His wife went into emergency labor while he was on the trip. He tried to fly back, but the plane was fogged in.

“I was sitting on a plane in Spokane when my first son was born,” Dahlen said.

He decided to look for a new job after that experience.

He can’t remember where he met Ann Vine, but the two hit it off. She had a background in taxes and payroll taxes and had a customer base. His background in auditing and more technical accounting were skills that he brought to the firm.

He said he wasn’t put off by Ann Vine’s lack of formal training: “You don’t learn everything you need to know in a goddamned college classroom.”

Vine and Dahlen spoke to a banker about joining together.

“I said, ‘If I joined, Ann, do you think we would starve together?” Dahlen recalls saying.

The firm doubled business within a year.

* * *

They call them shoebox clients, customers who keep receipts, bills and everything else they think is important in a shoebox and bring it into an accounting firm during tax season.

That was one of the first jobs that Ann Vine had for McKeirnan, who started at the firm out of the University of Washington in 1986.

“She thought it was fun training me on my first shoebox, that it would be kind of challenging,” McKeirnan said.

The culture of the business was different than many of the accounting firms of the 1980s, McKeirnan said.

“I know there were a lot of firms that when you first started working they said you had to work a minimum of 60 hours a week, you’re going to have meeting every Saturday and it’s going to start at 7 to get people in here and you’re going to have to have this many chargeable hours,” McKeirnan said.

Vine Dahlen was more accommodating to their employees.

That didn’t mean that the accountants worked less than other firms. Ann Vine and Ron Dahlen emphasized customer service and being available for clients. That’s continues today.

“They all have our direct lines and cellphone numbers,” said Dale Bonn, one of the firm’s partners. “I’ve had partners who have called me at home when one of their business partners have died they wanted to let me know.”

Dahlen said he learned his lessons waiting on the plane in Spokane.

“So when people worked for me they still had to get their work done, but they were treated with respect and a lot of large institutions forgot that,” Dahlen said.

And that helped the firm retain employees over the years.

Becky Mackenstadt saw that firsthand when she started at the firm 17 years ago.

“I started in November and I announced at the April 15 event that I was pregnant, it was unintentional, it happened,” said Mackenstadt, who became an equity partner in January. “So that meant my son was due in November at the beginning of my tax season.

“They left it up to me, ‘You tell us how much you can think you can work and we will make sure we can support you for that.’”

Over the years, other accounting firms have embraced work-life balances, but what’s promoted doesn’t always become reality, said Stacy Minning, another partner who also started at the firm 17 years ago.

“The men who work in our office are dads and they work in the same manner that we do with a work-life balance,” Minnig said. “They take off to go to soccer games and coach in their kid’s baskeball games.”

The firm’s flexibility has helped in other ways. Vine Dahlen went paperless as an office in 2003, years ahead of many firms, McKeirnan said.

Keeping a stable workforce over the years has helped the firm’s clients.

Accounting firms know intimate details about finances and structures of businesses.

Having the same accountant year after year is an asset especially when developing a succession plan, a trust or deciding future ownership of a business.

“For a business owner, they’re lonely people,” McKeirnan said. “There are not a lot of people they can talk to about their business issues whether it’s employees or any kind of strategic decision making. We can be that person who can help guide them through some of those issues.”

* * *

Vine Dahlen reached 50 years in business last year. The celebration: They added a logo on their email that says “1964-2014 — Celebrating 50 years.”

The firm was busy, because it merged with Gillespie &McMahon, McKeirnan said.

“We bought a firm so we spent all of our time working on assimilating them,” McKeirnan said. “In the back of my mind, I kept thinking we need to be doing something and it was our intention to do that.”

That’s part of accounting, the business is always looking forward to the next tax season, the next reporting deadline.

But 50 years is a milestone for any firm.

“When we hit the recession in 2008 or 2009, and you see some of the companies that are failing around you, you appreciate what you have achieved especially in this type of environment,” McKeirnan said.

The success of a firm isn’t just its culture. Dahlen points to work ethic.

“I don’t care what your business is but if you are set up to provide a product or service, if you provide it earlier than they expected for a better price than they expected, they’ll send all their friends,” Dahlen said.

But he also notes that the employees they hired and how long they’ve remained with the firm.

“If you take look at a lot of the bigger local firms that were around at the time (we formed the firm), they disappeared,” Dahlen said. “They were selfish in how they treated people.”

Ron Dahlen now splits his time between the Puget Sound area and Arizona.

Ann Vine died at the age of 75, just a few years after her husband, partly from complications of scoliosis, which she suffered her entire life.

Milt Vine never worked for the firm — he worked for Arthur Andersen in New York before returning to Seattle to work for Ernst &Whinney. But his daughter — Ann Vine’s granddaughter — Katy Vine, did an internship at the firm a few years ago.

McKeirnan said the firm’s success can be attributed to Ann Vine and Ron Dahlen and those who came after them.

“The legacy she left behind was that family is important, life is important, but our clients are important too,” McKeirnan said. “And everyone is a business person when they start in public accounting and it’s up to you to get the work done and, however, you do it is up to you.”

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