Lately, Norm VanNatter, a staff accountant with the certified public accounting firm of Dupuis & Ryden, has been finding his biweekly paycheck $33 leaner. "I feel the pinch," says the former police officer, who had already taken a substantial cut in salary to change careers and join the 70-person firm in Flint, Mich. But he also thinks that the money is well spent -- indeed, an investment in his future. VanNatter is using the payroll deduction to pay for his own Apple II Plus microcomputer.

Better yet, VanNatter, along with some 35 other Dupuis & Ryden employees, knows he is getting a real bargain. Dupuis & Ryden negotiates a quantity discount of about 20% with Computer Mart of Flint, for financing through its bank. The firm also picks up all interest payments, which average from $500 to $750 per micro. Employees can either pay for their machines outright -- although so far no one has -- or by payroll deductions. "It's a pretty painless way of doing it," says Linda Holloway, director of management consulting and computer services, and the partner in charge of the employee purchase program.

The partners first thought about helping employees buy computers about two years ago, when a number of staffers expressed interest in owning micros. Then, when an article appeared in one of the CPA trade journals describing a St. Louis firm with such a plan, "we just decided to do it," says Holloway.

But while the St. Louis firm offered the option only to its professional staff, Dupuis & Ryden decided to make computers available to everyone -- from janitors to partners -- on the same terms. "We felt that everybody has value to the firm. It shouldn't be like an executive perk," says Holloway.

The firm also decided to provide a soup-to-nuts deal. When the offer was first made in December 1982, each participant received, for $2,400, an Apple II Plus with one disk drive, a monitor and stand, a NEC dot-matrix printer, paper, VisiCalc, the choice of one additional software package, a box of diskettes, training, and a one-time shopping spree discount of 20%. "If they need anything, it may be an extension cord," says Holloway. "We want them to be able to take it right home and start using it." The offer has been made twice since then, with later purchasers paying a little less for the newer Apple IIe, which has more memory.

And, Holloway emphasizes, the plan was, and is, a no-strings-attached offer. "We don't encourage people to do work at home." she says. "We tell people, 'When you buy it, that's for your personal use."

Obviously, Dupuis & Ryden's partners didn't devise the plan purely for philanthropic reasons. Holloway estimates that the total cost to the firm will probably be around $20,000 in interest payments. But, she points out, the value of having half the staff thoroughly comfortable around micros is incalculable.

"Our people have managed to stay two to three years ahead of [employees at] the other CPA firms," says Holloway. Dupuis & Ryden now has a flourishing computer advisory service. Employees teach highly successful "Microcomputers for Decision Makers" seminars, and the firm markets specialized Lotus 1-2-3 templates that it has developed for the accounting and banking professions.

The purchase plan has also generated a lot of favorable publicity, promoting goodwill with clients. "They see us not just as MAS [management advisory service] partners that know about computers," says Holloway. "They see an organization where most of the professional staff are knowledgeable and can help them with their needs."

Because Dupuis & Ryden employees have learned how to operate their computers at home, they can take advantage of them at work with little or no additional training. Members of the staff regularly use micros for audit fieldwork. And, if an accountant is preparing a year-end statement, familiarity with the micro makes it more likely that he or she will do longer-term, more detailed analyses of a client's financials, and then help with any problems. "And that," says Holloway, "generates extra fees."

Sybil Goldberg, a CPA on Dupuis & Ryden's management consulting staff who specializes in advising start-ups, was in the first wave of microcomputer buyers. With very limited hands-on experience before her purchase, she leapt at the chance to participate in the plan. Even though she had been toying with the idea of buying a micro, she says, the employeepurchase arrangement "is what pushed me over the edge. When do you have time to go out and shop all the computers and all the packages and try to put the best [one] together for home use and business use? When they offered the package, it took me 30 seconds to decide that's what I wanted."

Goldberg finds that having the computer at home has helped her enormously at work. For starters, her fears about using micros have totally vanished. "The computer is now our ally," she says. "Before, I think all of us would be in awe [of it]. Now we think of ways that we are going to challenge the computer to give us what we need."

Previously, she says, when clients asked questions about microcomputers -- something they do continuously -- "I would have no idea what to tell them. Now I tell them exactly what not to do and what to do, even though that's not my specialty."

Recently, for instance, one of Dupuis & Ryden's clients, the head of a large medical clinic, was about to buy off-the-shelf software that didn't make allowances for the large number of records that his type of business requires. Goldberg convinced him to delay the purchase until a detailed analysis of the clinic's computer needs could be done -- a project which, not surprisingly, was contracted out to Dupuis & Ryden.

Goldberg's teenage son and daughter are now both conversant with computers. Her daughter, in fact, has become something of a neighborhood expert. And Goldberg's husband, a real estate broker and building contractor, continually uses investment-analysis software to work through proposals for his customers.

Of course, this spillover hasn't hurt employee relations. "It was a commitment that I saw from them to me that they wanted to see me improve myself," says VanNatter. "It was just another fringe benefit that certainly not a lot of companies were willing to make." And so far the plan hasn't produced any problems. If employees do work at home, and then want to transfer a file to one of the firm's IBM Personal Computers or IBM PC-compatible Compaq micros, and in-house program called the Apple-IBM Connection ($250; Alpha Software, Burlington, Mass.) makes it simple. Or, if they feel they need more memory for a project than their Apples provide, they are free to check out one of the portable Compaqs.

Should someone leave Dupuis & Ryden, the firm either takes back the computer and uses it within the company, or the employee can elect to pay off the balance, including future interest payments. And the partners have recently developed a policy to determine whether a program an employee writes at home belongs to the firm or to the individual. If the software is written on company time or relates to an assigned project, it becomes Dupuis & Ryden property; if it is done on the employee's time, that staffer is free to market the software as he or she sees fit. "We're not going to discourage anyone's entrepreneurial urges, as long as [they don't] interfere with their work," says Holloway.

Published on: May 1, 1984