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Executive Profile

Accounting for His Actions
Avery Thomas knows the bottom line
is the strength and richness of his community

By Phil Kirk

Avery Thomas is always working on something, either as a partner in Burlington's largest CPA firm or as a volunteer in one of the many civic and charitable causes he supports. Working hard and staying busy is something he's done all his life, even as a teenager holding down part-time jobs. From collecting scrap paper to driving an ambulance to writing and working at a florist, he has always worked. “One year I had six W-2's,” he chuckles.

In recent years, Thomas' work has made his name and the term community service synonymous in Alamance County and the Piedmont Triad. A founding partner in the Burlington CPA firm of Thomas, Stout, Stuart, Core and Stuart, Thomas spends about all of his free time on civic, religious, and governmental activities throughout the state.

Born to Charles Avery Thomas Sr. and Fannie Lee Boone Thomas on Oct. 13, 1936, Thomas apparently inherited his work ethic from them. He also inherited from his parents his ability to sell good ideas. His dad's career was spent at B. A. Sellars and Currin and Hay clothing stores and his mother also worked at Sellars her entire career. Both died in 1986.

“We were just ordinary working people,” Thomas says of his family. “There was never any question as to whether I would become involved in the community (because) they were always involved.”

Thomas Sr. helped his community by fighting fires, leading the singing at church and serving as a Boy Scout Leader. “My mother was involved as well, and she encouraged us.”

He went to Fisher Street Elementary School in Burlington and was in the first class to go all four years at Williams High School, where he graduated in 1955. He married his high school sweetheart, Betty Earp, in 1957.

The Thomases have two children — Scott Thomas, who is a partner with his father in the CPA firm, and Karen Thomas Latta, who lives in Melbourne, Fla. She has been a director of christian education at the First United Methodist Church there.

There are eight grandchildren in the Thomas clan, including two sets of twins in Florida. Scott is married to the former Nancy Sheets of Raleigh and Karen's husband is Glenn, who designs and sells televisions for airplanes.

While Avery Thomas is a UNC fan, the family also has strong ties to N.C. State. Scott and his wife, Nancy, are graduates of State and he has also studied at Guilford and Elon. Karen is a Carolina graduate and her husband has State and Carolina ties.

Influenced by his father, Thomas went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “My dad went there and he took me to football games as a youngster,” Thomas recalls. He attends Carolina football and basketball games. In fact, former UNC football coach Mack Brown still is a client of the Thomas CPA firm.

At Carolina, Thomas studied accounting and worked as circulation manager for The Daily Tar Heel.

“I liked math and numbers so that led me to study accounting,” Thomas says. It's a professional decision he has never regretted.

He began his career in 1959 with Williams and Wall, a Raleigh firm which is no longer in existence.

Thomas studied for the CPA exam while he was doing some work for Mt. Olive Pickle Co., where Burlington native Johnny Walker was president.

“I'm sure things are different now in Mt. Olive, but in 1959 and 1960 there was not much to do there so it was easy to find time to study,” he chuckles.

Of course, Thomas passed the CPA exam. His CPA certificate number is 1891 and it was issued on April 4, 1961. Now there are more than 27,000 CPAs in North Carolina.

In the early days of his career, Thomas worked all over Eastern North Carolina, often working alone. Assignments included the Bank of Raeford, Bellamy Drugs in Wilmington, Sound Chevrolet, Morehead Block and Tile, and Carteret County Hospital. Governmental audits were performed for local government in Beaufort, Morehead City, Swansboro, Hoke County and Warren County. He also did ABC stores in Wilson, Pitt, and Greene counties as well as school systems.

Agricultural clients also gave Thomas a working knowledge of this important part of North Carolina's economy. While performing an audit for Bertie County, Thomas helped to organize a sweet potato cooperative. He also worked with several peanut farmers, in addition to representing the legendary Percy Flowers of Johnston County, who was under an IRS investigation.

Thomas later worked with the Lindsay Squires & Everett firm in Greensboro, which later merged into McGladrey and Pullen. “There I had the pleasure of working with clients like Luck's in Randolph County and Hatteras Yachts, which was then in High Point.”

His next career move was joining Fred Gilliam and Steve Moore in his hometown of Burlington. On Nov. 1, 1967, he started the firm which bears his name.

Thomas emphasizes he never intended to have a large firm. “Businesses have become more complicated and our clients have demanded more and broader services.” There are now 64 employees, including 30 CPAs in his Burlington firm.

His philosophy is that happy, content employees do a better job. He also believes in encouraging his employees to gain more knowledge and experience in areas of accounting, which they enjoy.

“This has led our firm to grow in particular niche areas such as auto dealerships, medical practices, golf courses, and non-profit organizations,” Thomas says.

“We are also growing in functional areas such as estate planning, financial planning, elder care planning, business valuations, and specialized consulting.”

The large Burlington firm is organized by areas of concentration, rather than in departments, as is the case in many large firms. “There is one partner responsible for each client with a backup partner. Others are often brought in for specific projects.”

Thomas sees the advent of computers as perhaps the biggest change in the accounting profession.

“Computers have made it more exciting, especially for the younger people,” Thomas said. “The more mundane work can now be done on computers.”

He sees a slight downside to a reliance on new technology. “The only distraction is people may rely so much on the computer and software that they forget the whys. We need to remember the laws and rules and their importance.”

Another major change is the growing entry of women into the accounting profession. There was one female in Thomas's class at UNC. Now, he says, almost 60 percent of new CPAs are female.

He also believes strongly in this firm's intern program. “We like to provide opportunities to keep Alamance young people here after they graduate.”

Thomas likes to look at new areas, and he has started a new program dealing with elder care services. “We frequently work with clients' widows who are inexperienced at dealing with day-to-day financial matters.”

Phil Stuart has worked with Thomas since 1968 when he did an internship as a student from Carolina. “It has been a great experience working with Avery,” Stuart says. “He's been a great leader.”

There are several attributes which have made Thomas a success, according to Stuart and others. “He really has a love of this community. He is committed to his clients. He is a unique thinker and has the ability to analyze. He has a very creative mind and is also very innovative.”

Another partner, Tom McGowan, adds, “Avery enjoys problem-solving. He thinks out of the box, whether it's about accounting, economic development, or saving Chinqua-Penn. He has the patience to make things work.”

His awards are too numerous to list, although he downplays their significance. For example, he was Alamance County's Man of the Year in 1999 and the year before he won the Frank S. Holt Jr. Business Leadership Award at Elon College.

Thomas likes to emphasize the successes of his clients, rather than his own. “We enjoy witnessing the successes and milestones of our clients and celebrating with them.”

Specifically he points to new buildings and a new president (Dr. Leo Lambert) at Elon College, a new first-class medical facility for Alamance Regional Medical Center and plans for a LifeCare Retirement Community Center, and expansion of Chandler Concrete into Virginia.

He is especially proud of the many family-owned businesses he has worked with over the years such as Chandler, Holt Hosiery Mills, Huffman Oil and Stadler's Country Hams.

The feelings expressed by clients mirror those from Thomas himself.

Ralph Holt, CEO of Holt Hosiery Mills, says “Avery is an unselfish and tireless worker for the betterment of his community and state. His involvement on committees and his personal contacts across the region have resulted in many improvements.”

Butch Gunnells, president of the N.C. Soft Drink Association, which has been a client for 11 years, says “I'd characterize Avery as a workhorse, not a showhorse. As a Duke fan, it pains me to say he is to his community what Julius Peppers was to UNC's basketball team — a quiet reservoir of strength who leads by example, and just never quits.”

While it's difficult to believe now, there was a period in his professional career when he concentrated on building his new firm.

“In 1967, I dropped everything except my church activities so I could concentrate on the new firm,” he recalls.

Partner Tom McGowan talked him into becoming a charter member of the Rotary Club of Alamance, and he's been active in many phases in life in Piedmont North Carolina.

Economic development and regionalism have been major interests of Thomas. He has done consulting for the Department of Commerce and was heavily involved in trying to locate major automobile manufacturers to the Alamance County area.

He's still “hopeful” that a major prize will land in Alamance. “We've got the best location. Even Mercedes said that!”

Thomas somehow finds time for a few hobbies, such as yard work and spending time in the Ocean Ridge section of Atlantic Beach, where the Thomases have had a second home for more than 30 years.

He continues a family tradition by being active at the First Street Methodist Church in Burlington. His grandmother was a charter member and several Thomas grandchildren are now active there. Five generations of Thomases have been mainstays in this historic church. Just last year he stepped down as church treasurer after 31 years.

Thomas continues to look for new areas to influence in a positive way.

“Dick Levin, who was one of my UNC professors, has gotten me interested in beach preservation, although that wasn't very difficult because I've always loved the beach,” Thomas says.

Surprise — he's now on the board of directors of the N.C. Shore and Beach Preservation Association!

Many of Thomas's admirers wish he would run for public office, but that doesn't appear to be in his plans.

“I enjoy the role of being supportive of politicians,” he says. “I'm not really partisan.” He has served as the chair of the Piedmont Legislative Caucus, where he has worked effectively with key members of both parties.

“Avery is a shining example of a visionary leader. In addition to building an influential CPA firm, he also foresaw a great benefit to mobilizing business in his region to represent their interests at the General Assembly,” says Jim Ahler, executive director of the N.C. Association of Certified Public Accountants.

Gunnells sees it this way: “Although I don't get the feeling he truly loves politics, he's made the time and effort over many years to become politically engaged. I think he's done this simply because he understands what federal, state and local political leaders can do to help his community if he's attentive, and what damage can be done accidentally or intentionally if folks don't pay attention to politics.”

In his characteristically modest analysis of his career, Thomas says, “The profession (accounting) has been good to me.”

“He is at once very unique and special, but undoubtedly also emblematic of business people throughout the state who made it a practice to give back to their communities more than they ever take,” Gunnells says.

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