‘All I’ve ever wanted to be was an accountant’: Hafen-Buckner celebrates 50 years

ST. GEORGE — When Hafen-Buckner Certified Public Accountants was founded by Val Hafen in 1970, it began in a small office on St. George Boulevard. Hafen’s son Tadd was a one-year-old, so he may be forgiven for not knowing the exact date Val founded the company that Tadd would inherit. After all, 50 years is a long time. What Tadd does remember is the job his dad gave him when he turned 10.

This photo comes courtesy of Tadd Hafen. The house pictured in the foreground was converted into an office in the background as Hafen and Buckner’s business improved. | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News.

“He had moved the business into the house across the street from the office we’re sitting in right now, Hafen said, pointing out the large south-facing windows that open onto 200 North. “My first job was mowing that lawn, but all I’ve ever wanted to be was an accountant.”

Then, in 1992, when the younger Hafen had earned his Master’s in Science in Accountancy from Southern Utah University, his dad finally offered him his dream job as an accountant at Hafen-Buckner.

“Before that, I’d only help out during tax season,” Hafen said. Even though Hafen is now managing partner at the firm his dad founded so long ago, it almost didn’t happen.

“I was riding with a buddy when I was a senior in high school,” Hafen said. “He wanted to be an accountant too. He knew who my dad was. And he kept asking me why I hadn’t asked my dad for a job yet.”

Hafen said it may have been a distaste for nepotism, but it’s hard to imagine a young man favoring ethics over following his path. And who would try to deprive a father from letting his son inherit the family business? Especially one who so loved his dad’s work. On the other hand, Hafen’s mother didn’t want to see her son go into the family business, either.

“She didn’t want me to do such long hours,” Hafen said. “She watched my dad walk in late for years. He’d eat dinner, then he’d go back to work.”

But Hafen was irresistibly drawn to the work of an accountant, maybe even born for it. He had watched his dad for as long as he could remember and had a sophisticated sense of ethics at a young age. And he was obsessed with math. All traits a good accountant needs. So, throwing ethics to the wind, and perhaps overcoming the fear we feel when asking for the things we need most, Hafen finally asked his dad for a job.

“He had me help out part-time to get through the busy tax season,” Hafen said.

When asked if his dad had ever given him any lasting advice, Hafen couldn’t recall any. Instead, he offered a story.

“One night, I was doing homework when my dad walked in and looked over my shoulder,” Hafen said. “I’d borrowed an adding machine to do my work, but the numbers were off, and I couldn’t figure out where. My dad stood behind me, and looked over my shoulder for a minute, then pointed at the green sheet in front of me. ‘That column doesn’t foot,’ he said. Foot means that the numbers add up. He’d figured it out in his head, while I was using an adding machine, and struggling! To this day, I don’t know how he did that.”

Paper to paperless

Hafen-Buckner moved into this building, where they remain today, in 1995. When Val Hafen founded the company in 1970, he was the sole proprietor. They have 21 employees now. | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News.

When Val Hafen offered Wayne Everett a job back in 1979, Everett had just earned a bachelor’s in accounting from BYU. He knew he wanted to be an accountant, and he felt at home in his new role as a staff accountant. But he had come into the business as one age was ending and another was about to begin.

“We still did all of our work by hand,” Everett said. “I was sharp. I knew those calculations. It was more tedious, though.”

Everett is proud of the fact that the owner of Dick’s Cafe was once a client, even if the work was more challenging.

“I had a stack of ledger books,” he said. “I was looking at checks and dates. Adding up food and labor costs. Adding down all the columns, then across, trying to make sure all the numbers footed. It was tough, but I loved it.”

Everett was aware of the seismic shift that the computer represented for the accountant’s process, so he was ready for the coming changes.

“The work moves so much faster now,” he said. ” We get much more done, and in a fraction of the time.”

Still, he couldn’t have foreseen the turns the industry would take after the Enron scandal, which had cost its shareholders $74 billion dollars and its employees their pensions, due to accounting improprieties and fraud.

“Everything changed after Enron,” he said. ” Andersen, which was the world’s largest CPA firm at the time, went out of business because of their affiliation with Enron. It was huge. It prompted much more government oversight, due to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.”

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act – named for its two sponsors, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Rep. Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio), created stricter rules for recordkeeping and ushered in harsh penalties for those who violated securities laws.

Everett said he felt that it made honest accountants do more, which was slightly frustrating, but he rolled with the punches.

“It keeps you honest,” Everett said. “It’s hard to know what your clients are up to, or when you might be brought into court.”

Everett once found himself on the witness stand, staring down at an attorney. He couldn’t name the client, due to the strict confidentiality between accountants and their clients.

“He questioned me in detail about an account,” Everett said. “They were trying to prove that my client had lied. But as far as I knew, my client had not, and we proved that. Still, fraud happens, so you’ve always got to be diligent.”

Of course, fraud, or theft, is an old problem. Pandemics are an old problem too. But as COVID-19 numbers are spiking again, technology has come to the fore to offer solutions.

“I used to have to sit with somebody to do this work,” Everett said. “Now, they can send me their files, we can meet online and we can do what we need to do. It’s remarkable, really.”

Relationships beat technology every time

While technology has changed the accounting game time and again, one thing remains constant at Hafen-Buckner: the relationships.

“It’s all about relationships,” Hafen said. “Sure, we could chase new clients as they come to town, but we’d rather build upon our existing relationships. Our clients refer new clients to us because they’re happy with the work we do. It’s a compliment. That’s really important to us.”

Those relationships are the result of doing business for 50 years and keeping the clients happy. But within the office, relationships are made as well. As are lives. Whether it’s senior partners working to find solutions to tricky problems, clerical staff chatting over coffee or working alongside your family day by day.

One look around Hafen’s office makes it clear that he misses his dad. Nestled in a nook on the north wall, Hafen has a collection of keepsakes that belonged to his father. Among them, there’s a short stack of Val Hafen’s business cards, a leather-bound book full of phone numbers and two brass figurines of a horse and its foal.

Today, you can ask any of the senior partners, and they’ll tell you what has kept their business alive this long: Serving the client with knowledge and dedication. Being accurate and confidential also helps. That’s how they grew the company’s revenues 335% since 1995. Yet many are stumped by how quickly the time has passed.

That could be explained by the adage: Time flies when you’re having fun. After all, Val Hafen was still filling out tax returns the day he died.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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