Milkin' It

As a young child growing up on Glen Farms in the valley of Oley Township, Pa., CPA and dairy expert Carl D. Herbein was early to rise, up at 5 a.m. — every single day of the year — to help with chores on his father’s 102-acre farm.

As a 5-year-old, the only child of Carl B. and Ruth M. Herbein collected eggs. Later, he hefted milk pails and fed the cows, and by his teen years, he was driving a tractor, throwing hay bales and, of course, milking cows — the perfect dairy farm boy.

Except for one thing.

As he got older, Herbein wasn’t that interested in taking over the dairy farm. He wanted to go to college, work with numbers. He wanted to stray from the profession that Herbeins had done since 1707, when the first of his ancestors came from Germany to this corner of Pennsylvania to chase white gold.

“There was some rebellion in me,” allows Herbein, a trustee of Alvernia University who lives in Reading with his wife, Kathleen (Driscoll) Herbein ’95. She is a trustee emerita and former chair of Alvernia’s board.

“There was a time when I really liked being a farmer,” the founder, president and CEO of the 44-year-old Herbein + Company continues, plunging into one of his telltale yarns that revolve around individuals whose names he remembers without fail. “I didn’t know any different. Then I became friends with Earl Andrews. His parents were engineers, college professors.”

With his father’s blessings, the young Herbein went to Elizabethtown College, the first in his family to go to a four-year school. There, he drank pasteurized milk for the first time (“It tasted funny,” he says); ran varsity cross country, and got his degree in accounting. But even though the college man left the farm, the farm — and the work ethic ingrained in him since his farm boy days — never left him.

“I learned a lot from my father, who was a very good, practical, steady, patient, successful farmer,” says Herbein, an affable man at 5 foot 6½ inches with a penchant for blue shirts in accounting’s sea of white. He still rises at 5 a.m., often bikes 10 miles to the office and works 12-hour days routinely. And he still loves all things dairy, albeit he has traded milking for advising, overalls for suit jackets.

Herbein’s combination of farmer work ethic and deep dairy know-how has proven the secret sauce to the success of his kitchen-table (well porch-table) start-up, now 180 employees strong. Headquartered in Reading, Pa., with six offices across the state, the accounting firm sets itself apart with its unusual dairy niche, a third of its business at 75 clients. It also specializes in local government, school districts and nonprofits, and serves a good number of local businesses.

But dairy is Herbein’s passion. He leads the dairy accounting team himself and lectures on the topic to a national audience each year in Chicago. His office windowsill attests to his roots, crammed with model dairy trucks and porcelain cows. His company is considered the go-to CPA firm in the country for dairy matters — for both bean counting skills and, even more importantly, solid advice.

“Carl really stands alone in his knowledge of the dairy industry,” says John B. Rothenberger, co-owner and CFO of Clover Farms Dairy in Reading, who has been a client since 1985.

“The dairy industry is very competitive,” he says. “For Clover Farms Dairy, a local, one-plant organization, having that experience and network of knowledge and contacts is crucial. It’s helped us be successful. We consider Carl an asset of the company.”

In college, Herbein initially declared an economics major, until accounting professor and mentor Edgar T. Bitting talked to him after class one day.

Here’s Herbein’s account:

“What do you intend to do with a degree in economics?” Bitting asks.

“Well, I might coach and teach, maybe a bank hire.”

“Oh, I get it,” Bitting says. “You’re one of these rich kids who doesn’t need a job.”

Herbein, who grew up in a pennies-counting household, tells the professor he hopes to buy a car one day.

Bitting declares he will never get a job as an economics major. “You’re doing well in class,” he says. “Have you considered being an accounting major? There are always jobs for an accountant.”

Herbein immediately switched majors.

Bitting encouraged Herbein to take an internship at then Ernst & Ernst, which turned into a first job in 1968. He also found his true love, Kathy, “this young, gorgeous woman working there” as a secretary, Herbein says. She typed his offer letter, which the couple still keeps.

Ernst expected long hours. Auditing jobs often required Herbein to meet his boss at 6:45 a.m. No big deal for the farm boy.

When the lovebirds got married in 1969, Ernst’s nepotism rules resulted in Kathy’s retirement. “The joke always was, Ernst made a mistake,” Herbein says. “They should have kept Kathy and sent me on my way.”

Kidding aside, he thrived there. Herbein enjoyed “helping businessmen succeed, getting bank loans, paying as little tax as legally possible, developing honest trusting relationships with the clients, their suppliers and banks. They could trust and believe in what I had to say.”

From the get-go, he had a way with people.

“Carl has a sly sense of humor,” says Sandy Solmon, founder and CEO of Sweet Street, Reading-based manufacturer of gourmet desserts. “He can really make you laugh unexpectedly because he looks so corn-fed and conservative. You just don’t expect it from him. Makes dealing with numbers fun.”

After five years at Ernst, Herbein had a list of loyal clients. One, Robert Emig of Emig Products in Reading, asked him in 1972 why he hadn’t started his own business yet.

“You have to have clients,” Herbein said.

“You’d have one,” Emig replied.

When a second client said he would jump to Herbein too, Carl was ready to be his own boss. But before he could get going, the elder Herbein had a heart attack, and Carl spent the next few months back on the farm, once again beginning his day with milking cows. (Nowadays, Glen Farms, which Carl and Kathy own, is leased to a neighboring farmer who grows crops.)

His father recovered. Herbein opened shop later that year, on a rosewood card table out on the enclosed porch turned hasty office in the couple’s Fleetwood duplex. The nearby kitchen cabinets housed his files. “I knew exactly how to prepare reports for clients,” Kathy says, sitting across from Carl at that same table, which he keeps in his office at Herbein + Co. “We were a good team.”

Carl recalled those early days. “The phone would ring and Kathy would be sitting there and I would be sitting here,” he says, tapping the table. “‘Yes, Mr. Emig. I’ll see if Carl is available.’ She’d put her hand over the phone. We didn’t even have a hold button.”

From that humble start, his business multiplied, getting manufacturers, school districts and others. The couple’s family also grew to two sons, Andrew and Peter. (Andy is a banker, and Pete owns a laundromat business. Both live in Reading and have two children each.)

Early on, Herbein realized he couldn’t do everything for his clients. “I recognized the need for specialization,” he says.

First on board was a tax specialist. By 1974, offices had moved to 401 Oley St. in historic Centre Park, a mansion-turned-office building that the fledging company bought on a wing and a prayer.

“We always just knew, instinctively, that this is absolutely right,” Kathy says.

A couple years later, the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board needed a new accountant. A family friend suggested this man who knows dairy inside out, and the rest is Herbein history.

“We prevail with our facts and figures,” the leading expert on milk rates says proudly. Since 1976, Herbein has spent 13,500 hours preparing for and testifying at more than 115 price hearings. He keeps meticulous diaries on how he spends his time, fodder — along with his stories — for a book he plans to write with Kathy, who studied English and psychology as an older adult at Alvernia.

At the turn of the decade (1979–80), Herbein traveled to Pittsburgh for milk rate hearings. As he audited clients, he would offer tips on ways to save money on taxes or improve the bottom line. Pretty soon, the dairies wanted to hire him as their accountant.

“I felt it was our obligation to tell those companies if there was some way they should be doing things better,” he says. The avid poker player adds, “I knew it was good marketing.”

In 1985, Herbein + Company opened an office in downtown Pittsburgh. By the end of the decade, he had five partners and 45 employees. When the company celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2012, it boasted 17 partners, 110 employees (including daughter-in-law Sherry) and clients in all but a few states. Outgrowing Oley Street, the company moved to its current headquarters in a Reading office park about a decade ago. Over the years, Herbein has hired Alvernia graduates, and six are currently on staff.

Kyle Levengood ’08, a manager in the audit department, says Herbein sets the pace. “I don’t know anybody who works harder than he does, even after all these years,” he says. “Usually, owners take a step back, but I would say Carl’s even working harder.”

Herbein + Company’s lobby has a prominent compass pattern. That’s thanks to Kathy.

“My concept was that Herbein would show you the direction always and keep you on your path,” she says. Even though she left Herbein’s day-to-day operations years ago to focus on community service, her influence persists, in the compass, in the old maps that line the walls and in the counsel she offers when Carl asks.

It is that kind of partnership, and it is two ways. Not surprisingly, then, Herbein fell in love with his wife’s alma mater as she got involved with its board.

“They really asked me to join the board to keep in contact with Kathy,” he quips.

As he contemplates Herbein + Company’s future — clients in those last few states, its wealth management arm and more — a few things will never change, he says.

For one, the company refuses to merge with the bigger outfits that come calling on occasion. “We’re determined to remain independent,” Herbein says.

That attitude allows the company to maintain its fun and family-centric culture, he says.

Jim Michalak ’85, a partner and member of Alvernia’s Finance and Business Affairs Committee, agrees. “All those types of [corporate] firms, you’re just an employee, just a number,” he says. “Here, it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re an important member of the team. We have a very open-door policy, led by Carl. He’s a leader you can talk to.”

Even the company name, with its use of a plus sign rather than an ampersand, signals “that those that joined Herbein were making the business bigger and better,” says its founder. Joining a family, in other words.

And no doubt, those values — that people matter, that hard work counts, that trust is earned — have their roots in Herbein’s own family, his farm family.

“There was a time, if you asked me, `Are you a farm boy?’ I would have given you some answer where you wouldn’t be sure,” Herbein says.

“But later in life, it became a big asset to me and source of pride, as it is to this day.”