The number chewers

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If you are looking for an accountant with Coke-bottle glasses sitting among mounds of paper, this isn't your firm. Only one of these three even wears glasses -- and his office has more dragons and gargoyles than mounds of paper.

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From left, Rick Evans, E.J. Maddocks and Abram Serotta.  Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
From left, Rick Evans, E.J. Maddocks and Abram Serotta.

Now known as Serotta Maddocks Evans & Co., the Greene Street accounting firm started in 1952 under a different name and an older generation. Two of the partners, Abram Serotta and E.J. Maddocks, had the reins of the business handed to them abruptly in the early 1970s when co-founder Elliott Serotta, Abram's father, died.

Mr. Maddocks and Mr. Serotta have had other partners in the past 30 years. Rick Evans has been the third leg of the stool for more than a decade, recruited from a regional accounting firm because of his strength in auditing.

He is quality control.

Mr. Serotta is the visionary.

Mr. Maddocks is the detail man.

The detail man is also the one with the glasses and the dragon office decorations. He surrounded himself with things he likes to see, he explained, because he spends more time in that office than at home each day.

Being at home doesn't make the partners immune from the job. Mr. Serotta has his cabin in North Carolina wired for work. The partners have their home phone numbers printed on their business cards.

If you've ever wondered whether hiring a tree removal service to clean up debris at a rental property is tax-deductible ... it is. Those are the kind of calls an accountant can get on a Sunday.

"Sometimes you're the psychiatrist for the client," Mr. Maddocks said. He's had two phone calls from clients this morning that had nothing to do with numbers.

Nothing will freak out a client more than a letter from the Internal Revenue Service on a Saturday. Chances are, the client isn't going to wait until Monday's office hours to talk about it.

"Somebody e-mailed me Sunday night," Mr. Serotta said. "They gave me a hard time about working all hours of the night. I said I'm really watching the football game," with the laptop computer between him and the television screen.

If there's one thing Mr. Evans is thankful for, it is that tax season arrives in the wintertime. He had chosen a different profession if he had to prepare tax returns in the "pretty months."

Most of the returns, though, are done by Mr. Maddocks. He also hires and fires and takes care of the real estate.

Mr. Serotta is the managing partner, the company president. He'll tell you that the firm is a group of 31 crisis managers.

"People ask us what we do and we have buzz phrases. We're crisis managers, good, bad and ugly. There are good crises: 'I'm getting married; what tax plan do I need to have?' Ugly would be shutting down the business cause you're not making any money," he said. "We try to sweep up what anybody else doesn't want to do. Unable to do some internal accounting work? We'll do it for you."

Serotta

When Mr. Serotta celebrated his 60th birthday in June, it was meaningful -- and not because he is five years from retirement age. It is because he has outlived many Serotta men. His father, Elliot, was 591/2 when he died in 1971.

He was 6 when his father and Louis Bell formed their accounting firm in the Marion Building on Broad Street in 1952.

"I kept books when I was 15," Mr. Serotta recalled.

He has done every job in the firm, but he wasn't groomed: "My dad discouraged me from being an accountant. Too hard a work."

His sister, Jayne, never did any accounting; she went to work for the Red Cross after college and now tutors in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Serotta went into accounting anyway, studying at the University of Georgia while continuing to work for his father during breaks. Before getting his certification, he sold accounting systems and did a six-month stint in the Army Reserve.

He met his wife, Cookie, during her first week at school in Athens.

"My wife has been a key to my success. She's been a complement to me," he said.

She helped him get focused at college.

"He went to a straight A after meeting me," she said. The problems were fraternity matters and intramural sports. "He's still involved with people. He was just in the middle of everything."

It is the people side of the business that motivates Mr. Serotta even now.

"I'm not trying to be egotistical. I love my clients. I love helping people with situations. ..."

He had his own situation to deal with at the start of his career.

Mr. Serotta graduated in December 1969 from the master's program and became a certified public accountant in May 1971, the same day as Mr. Maddocks.

In six months, both men would be running the firm.

Serotta Maddocks and Serotta lost the first Serotta on the nameplate that November.

It was a rough time, Mrs. Serotta recalled, "because they had to convince all the clients that they knew what they were doing at 25 years old."

"They had to hope presidents of companies would keep their faith in them and not switch to someone else," she said.

Not only did they keep most of the clients, they also began running another accounting firm for the widow of Ed Johnson, who couldn't sell the firm and was at risk of losing everything.

Mr. Serotta and Mr. Maddocks were alternating days over at the firm, eventually buying out the widow during tax season of 1972.

They were younger, 10 feet tall and bulletproof, Mr. Maddocks said, unsure that they would want to go through that now.

"We were thrown to the wolves," Mr. Maddocks said. "We worked through it."

The loss of Elliott Serotta made Abram the patriarch of the family, taking care of his mother, Eva, and the family business.

"He didn't get the chance to make his mistakes and have fun. But he's been a better person for it," Cookie Serotta said.

She said her husband's hobby is people.

"I love to mentor to kids who want to be successful," Mr. Serotta said.

Every year, he mentors 10 to 20 students going off to college or soon to be graduating from college. He has only one rule: no parents around during the mentoring talk. It adds credence to what he's saying.

"He tries to show them what they want to do by making them talk about it and plan it out," Mrs. Serotta said.

Maddocks

Don't call him Earle -- that's his dad. Earle James Maddocks has been known as E.J. for as long as he can remember.

When it comes to the business advisory accountant, Mr. Maddocks is the prime example. While he was the CPA for Western Sizzlin restaurants in the 1980s, he planned the annual party for franchise owners -- and handled the negotiations and paperwork for parsing out some of the franchises.

Western Sizzlin is no longer a family-owned company based in Augusta. Mr. Maddocks helped orchestrate its $95 million sale in 1988.

"If you do a deal and everyone walks away slightly dissatisfied, it was a good deal. If one is smiling, then the other one got nailed," Mr. Maddocks said.

Being accountant and pseudo vice president of franchising isn't the hardest part of the job. That is when you have two clients who are married and they want a divorce.

"That can get a little messy. It is difficult to represent both of them," he said.

Mr. Maddocks, now 64, is not only the oldest of the trio, but maybe the optimist. Everything happens for the best, including contracting an illness at Augusta College so severe that it knocked him out of the engineering track. Mr. Maddocks had come down with mononucleosis.

"Back then, they didn't know what to do for it," he said. "I was out of school, lost 40 pounds. Got out of sequence with engineering, so took a few business courses. I said, 'Hey, I like this,' and went into that."

He started working for Elliott Serotta in 1963, officially a member of the firm before Abram Serotta was.

"He was a pleasure to work for," Mr. Maddocks said. "We over the years developed a good relationship. Back in 1969, I had passed three parts of the (CPA) exam. He brought me in and said, 'I know you're going to pass the other part of the exam; what do you want?' I said I'd like a third of the action."

That was the whole conversation. He was a partner soon after passing the exam.

Mr. Maddocks isn't an Augusta native, but he feels like one. He was born in Maine, the oldest of three boys. His family moved a lot because his father was a lieutenant colonel in the Army, finally settling in Augusta in 1957. After graduating from Aquinas High School and Augusta College, he went to work for Bell & Serotta.

Mr. Maddocks became the firm's human resource manager because he got tired of firing people the other partners had hired.

"I'll do the hiring and the firing, but I won't do one without the other," he said.

Mr. Serotta has spent his outside-the-firm involvement in the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau. Mr. Evans is a board member of Golden Harvest Food Bank. For Mr. Maddocks, volunteer time was spent in the professional organizations.

A notable milestone during his tenure as president of Georgia Society of CPAs came in 1990. Then-Gov. Zell Miller signed a rule to make public accountants have 150 hours in accounting before taking the exam. He has a picture of the signing on his wall among the certificates. Those certificates are among the few things in Mr. Maddocks' office that make it resemble one.

There are the dragon figurines. The gargoyle table legs. Black marble artwork. A wall-size poster of a 1930s magician. All were selected because they are visually appealing, he explained.

"My wife tells me this doesn't look like an office," Mr. Maddocks said. "Great."

His wife, Carolyn, lived across the street from him, and it was love at first sight.

"I met her when she was 13. I was 16. When she was 151/2, I gave her an engagement ring, which she could not wear because her father was a U.S. marshal and would probably have killed me," he said.

She wore the ring after she turned 18 and graduated from high school. They have been married for 42 years.

Their son, Jared, is a chef and the manager at Boll Weevil in Augusta. Jeff lives in Columbia and works for Westinghouse, making nuclear fuel rods while pursuing a master's degree in nuclear engineering.

"I told my children growing up, 'Find a job that you like, where you enjoy getting up in the morning and coming to work. If you don't enjoy it, find something else to do. Don't worry about money. Do what you enjoy doing and the rewards will come,' " he said.

Even though he's a year from traditional retirement age, Mr. Maddocks has no intentions of hanging it up: "I would be bored out of my tree to retire."

He gets enough time off traveling and hunting.

"It is just relaxing to get out," Mr. Maddocks said.

Evans

Serotta Maddocks Evans is one of the oldest accounting firms in Augusta. It became the first professional CPA firm in Georgia because the law changed in 1971, allowing a public accounting firm to incorporate as a business.

Mr. Evans has been part of the firm since 1993, when Mr. Serotta and Mr. Maddocks invited him to replace Betty Devaney, who had been a partner for 15 years until her husband's position with IBM moved her out of the area.

At 51, Mr. Evans is the youngest partner. Born and reared in Rome, Ga., he was surrounded by textiles. In high school he had an internship in the accounting department of a carpet maker. It caught on.

"I knew from day one going into college that's what I wanted to be," he said.

When his two eldest children reached college and struggled to find what they wanted to do in their lives, it was a foreign concept to him because he knew all along that he wanted to be an accountant. "Because it came so easy for me, I thought it came that easy for everyone."

His son, Brant, is in graduate school for education, and his daughter, Ansley, is a senior on her way to obtaining a business degree. Both are at Mr. Evans' alma mater, Georgia. Neither elected to follow in his footsteps.

"Maybe they see my hours, and that's why they aren't angling for accountancy," he said. "Got another hope for that in high school."

The youngest child, Will, is a senior at Lakeside High School.

University of Georgia colors run thick in the family.

"I used to go to UGA for the games, and now I go to feed my kids and all their college buddies," he said.

He met his wife, Kim, at church when he was in fourth grade. They were friends through high school and didn't date seriously until college in Athens.

"I didn't date her in high school because her father was my Sunday school teacher. I didn't want to bring the Sunday school teacher's daughter home late," Mr. Evans said.

They were married in 1980. Mr. Evans moved to Augusta in 1987. He and his wife remain the only members of their families who don't still live in Rome.

Ask him for his hobby and he'll tell you rearing children since 1983. A lot of kids would know him as coach Evans. He has been involved in Little League, soccer or softball since 1989.

"Having a daughter was interesting because I grew up with all brothers," Mr. Evans said. "If you would've told me that I'd be coaching women's sports, I would've thought you were crazy. My daughter changed my mind."

Bankers or accountants know that if they are in a civic organization, they will be turned into the treasurer. Mr. Evans serves as the treasurer for the Exchange Club of Augusta and the Lakeside Touchdown Club, a football booster organization.

He also is the treasurer of the Development Authority of Columbia County. Within his job, he sees himself in a position to develop businesses. Many clients are small businesses or people seeking to start small businesses.

"Anything an owner would need, I get involved," Mr. Evans said. "You might think you'd be discouraged in seeing how successful someone else is. It is rewarding to know that I had a part in creating something successful or them reaching the other level."

Mr. Evans' schedule is about to get very busy, and it has nothing to do with the tax schedule.

"Accounting firms who perform review are required to go through a review of peer every three years. Ours is this year, coming in three weeks," he said.

It is his job to make sure the firm passes the audit of the auditors.

"Rick is strong in auditing," Mr. Maddocks said. "I put our quality up against everybody. That's important to us."

Teamwork

The three men cover the faith gamut. Mr. Maddocks is Catholic. Mr. Serotta is Jewish. Mr. Evans is Methodist.

They don't have the same social circles, but that's good for the firm.

"If you drew out a plan for developing relationships, you wouldn't want all three partners in the same social setting because you'd all be working on the same people," Mr. Evans said.

Having been part of a large firm with 20 or more partners, Mr. Evans likes the smaller setting. Decisions don't have to come from a committee and be digested by dozens of people.

"We can meet in the hallway, or at lunch, and change direction of the ship fairly quickly," he said.

Reach Tim Rausch at (706) 823-3352 or timothy.rausch@augustachronicle.com.


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