FORVIS alum Heather Norton grew up on a Christmas tree farm. So it seems only fitting that she now works for a place that, each year, displays some 150 elaborately decorated Christmas trees—the majestic Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. We talked to Heather about her “roots” at FORVIS and what she’s doing now.

    Alumni Heather Norton at the Biltmore Estate
    Alumni Heather Norton with her family

    What’s it like working at one of the most lavish and iconic homes in the world?

    Well, I’m afraid I disappoint some people when I tell them I don’t work inside the house, but in an office downtown. No one actually lives in the house anymore. But it’s still a very special environment. Many people are surprised to learn that the Biltmore House, which was built by George Vanderbilt in 1895, is now operated by fifth-generation descendants who are some of the most wonderful, generous, down-to-earth people I know.

    And, of course, the Biltmore House is just one part of a sprawling family-run enterprise…

    That’s right. In addition to preserving the house—which hosts over 1 million visitors annually—the Biltmore Company operates 27 entities, including a winery, restaurants, hotels, rental properties, an insurance company—even a solar field. Overall, we employ about 2,000 people.

    How did you become Senior Director of Accounting there?

    I loved (FORVIS predecessor firm) DHG and the people there and all the incredible experience I received. After several years of being a manager, however, I realized that the partner path just wasn’t the right fit for me. I was ready for a change. So in 2015 I joined Biltmore Company as corporate controller and have worked my way up to senior director of accounting.

    Was Biltmore a client when you joined?

    Yes, but, ironically, I never served the account. I’m pleased to say that Biltmore is still a FORVIS client today, and I have a wonderful relationship with Ashley Smith, the FORVIS engagement partner; Bill Smith, managing director; and their team.

    What impact has COVID-19 had on the company?

    It’s been fairly traumatic but with some silver linings. Throughout the outbreak, the rules concerning how many guests we could have—and under what conditions—were constantly changing, making decision making a nightmare. In March 2020, we had to shut down altogether with the exception of wine production. We furloughed about 90% of our employees on April 1, 2020. That was extremely difficult. But we tried our best to constantly communicate with our people and even provided weekly meals for our families that were on furlough. Fortunately, we were able to re-open on Memorial Day in 2020, and we’re now back to full capacity.

    On a more positive note, COVID-19 forced us to challenge some long-held assumptions as to how we strike the ideal balance of admission price versus capacity versus guest experience. It also led to some leadership changes that have fostered fresh strategic ideas, more collaboration, and new opportunities. I just love it.

    What are you most proud of as a FORVIS alum?

    I’d say it was my work with Women Forward, an initiative that really helped kick-start the firm’s diversity and inclusion efforts. We held roundtable discussions with clients and women leaders from throughout the community. It was quite groundbreaking at the time. As program liaison in Asheville, I was asked to lead four sessions in that office. Well, after teaching the first two I was hired at Biltmore. But I was so passionate about the program and its vision that I asked if I could return and teach the remaining two sessions—even as a non-employee. And I did!

    What does it mean to you to be a FORVIS alum?

    First, I’m sure my experience at FORVIS is the primary reason I was hired at Biltmore. FORVIS is very respected here. But I’m also proud of how the firm, even as it continues to grow, has never lost its ability to balance its focus on its people while also providing highest quality service. They really get it right. Finally, I’m grateful that FORVIS taught me a lot about myself—created a better awareness of my strengths and weaknesses—and I’ve been able to use that knowledge to become a better leader. I think that’s the key reason for my success.

    More about Heather Norton:

    • Born and raised in Marshall, North Carolina
    • Received her BA in Economics from Duke University; Masters in Accountancy from UNC Chapel Hill
    • Started her career in 2001 with an international accounting firm in McLean, Virginia
    • Joined predecessor firm Dixon Hughes in Asheville, North Carolina in 2007
    • Married to her husband, Ashley, for 16 years
    • Has a son and daughter, ages 8 and 11
    • Serves as treasurer for Homeward Bound of Western North Carolina and sits on the board of the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina
    • Enjoys camping, college basketball, and time with family