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Big 4 vs the other public accounting firms

"I get the vibe that most of the people in public accounting are temporary, i.e. they get poached for corporate level positions. My specific question is this; 1) Do people in firms other than the Big 4 face the same type of head hunting? I am sure it has to do with the individual clients you encounter, but I know you can provide more insight. 2) Are you more likely to make partner in a small firm? 3) Is there a huge pay differential between Big 4 and small firms?"

Let me answer your question in parts...
1) I really don't know if the people in the other firms face the same type of head hunting...i.e. calls every few days. I'm sure they do get recruiter calls, but I'm guessing not as frequently as the employees in big 4 firms, even though this experience is grossly over-rated, and the employees in smaller firms have just as much experience as we do, the only major difference being the lack of a diverse clientele.
It really doesn't have to do with the individual clients we encounter. The recruiters get our names primarily from employee directories. So if I'm part of a team auditing a coffee shop or GE, i'll probably still be treated the same when it comes to recruiting calls. Obviously your experience comes into play in terms of actual job opportunities, so if you have tons of manufacturing clients, you are most likely to get offers from manufacturing companies.

2) That's a tough question, and I don't really know the answer. Regardless of the firm, it depends on the client availability. If there are enough clients to go around, you have a better chance of making partner in whatever firm you join. Remember, you can always switch firms after you begin.

3) I'm sure there is a pay difference, and it's probably not that big initially..but gets bigger as you progress within the firm. That's my best guess.

Sorry I couldn't be of more help. Anyone else out there in public accounting who works for a non big 4 firm that can take a better shot at these questions from a small firm's perspective?


Anonymous said…
I work in a small firm and have worked at a few over the years, so I can tell you what my experience is:
1) Recruiters never call
2) I agree partnership depends on availability of clients, but if your firm really loves you they will go looking for other blocks of clients specifically to give you a partnership. I heard it is much easier than in big firms.
3) I know that you work a lot fewer hours in a small firm, and based on what I've heard from colleagues at big firms, you can actually make more at a small firm if you can prove your skills. I think this is because you can't really "fly under the radar" as easily as at a big firm.
Anonymous said…
Anonymous said…
I work at a very small firm (10 people) and we are specialized in one industry (construction). I have never been called by a recruiter, not that I'd want to leave anyways.

You said "the employees in smaller firms have just as much experience as we do, the only major difference being the lack of a diverse clientele." Which I have to agree with, however it has been my experience that although I am working in only one industry, I have more variety of services I perform.

I've done Audits, 401k audits, Individual Tax Returns, Corporate Tax Returns, Trust Tax Return, Forensic Auditing, etc, but you know what they say, "Jack of all trades, Master of none".

Personally, I much prefer this diversity, but to each his own.

Just my two cents.
Anonymous said…
i work in a small firm--25 or so accountants. i have never had a call from a recruiter. i make more than my friends at big 4 firms, because we get paid time and a half for our overtime. it adds up fast when you put in 65 hour weeks during tax season.
i've only been here a year, so i have no idea about the whole partnership thing.
notfordisplay said…
thanks a lot for your answers folks, keep them coming.
Anonymous said…
I've only been working for 3 months at a Big 4 accounting firm, and I'm just finding that I'm not liking the work and already can't wait to leave. Is this just a phase that I'll get over or is this a sign that I shouldn't be in this line of work or this particular firm? How did you feel after 3 months?
Anonymous said…
I just started at a smaller firm (~35 people) with no prior experience in public accounting and I'm fresh out of college. I get a base salary of $45k plus time and a half overtime. My manager told me I should expect to work between 200 and 300 hrs of overtime a year, which works out to about $52-55k per year, averaging around 45 hrs per week.
Anonymous said…
I have worked in a Big 4 environment, a large international corporation, and at a medium-sized local firm (which I conside small).

Recruiters do call, but more for the senior level positions, rather than entry level.

Can you make partner faster at a small firm? The answer is 'maybe'. One thing that I have noticed is that the people who make partner would absolutely not make it at a big company, or probably at a big firm. Basically, the 'soft' skills are virtually ignored. Some of the people skills of the men who have made partner in the past few years are abominable. For example, men who can't make eye contact, men who send angry emails about trivial matters and don't apologize when they are in the wrong, men who allow very dysfunctional environments to occur on their engagements.

I say 'men', because no women have been admitted to partner while I have been there.

If you are considered a rainmaker and bring in a lot of busine$$, all of the above problems are overlooked--believe me I get that.

But the guys who act like total shits and don't bring in business--those are the ones who leave me scratching my head.....

Having said all that, being a CPA is a great profession. I got back into public accounting because I saw the opportunity to leverage my business knowledge and be a different type of auditor. I hope you young people out there will stick with it. There is power in that license, and the persona that comes with it.

I got laid off today. My firm doesn't have enough work. Clients are asking for price reductions, others are going out of business or are opting out of services if they can.

I'm bummed, believe me. But I'm going to start my own practice using the skills I have acquired after all these years.

Advice: Pay attention. Learn, learn, learn. Listen and internally evaluate. You can learn just as much from the shitty bosses as you can from the great ones. (i.e. how not to do things and treat people).

I'm drinking wine. Tomorrow is a new day.
Kelkel said…
I wanted to work at a small firm, but I chose a big one because I want international opportunities.
I would choose a small firm if I knew I wanted to do accounting my whole life, and I wanted to work at that firm my whole life. If all you want out of audit is a springboard into another job, then may as well stick it out at big 4 for a couple of years. You'll get tons of contacts.
Anonymous said…
If you want to maxiamise flexibility in your future path start with a big 4. The brand on your resume will always matter.

If you like public accounting after a period you can always move to a smaller firm.

I did this as an assistant manager.

If you have contacts and can bring in clients go for it.

If you have good people skills you can always take your client with you from this point.

If you are a rainmaker you can choose your work, way you work and lifestyle.

Partners in big firms are more like account managers. The smaller the firm the more you are directly self employed.

Income on average as partners in big firm is higher however there is no general rule.

I worked mega hours, I called the recruiters and broaden my experience by moving every two years. Economy was better thou.
Anonymous said…
I've been working in small firms for 8 years now and my salary more than a manager makes in a big four. I always have lots of calls from headhunters, and also the HR departments from the big 4s. I had never worked for a big 4. I once turned down one of the big 4s because it offers me less money and I don't want to give up my current nice office with city view in my small firm for a windowless tiny office in a big 4. But after managing audits on 4 gigantic privately held companies, a couple financial reviews and am now buried with ton loads of complicated partnerships and corporate returns all at the same time since Jan 2012 for 15 hours a day everyday and then with very limited technological support and people support ( I have only 2 staffs assisting me for every type of work), I think I am going to join another big 4 which has been courting me for over a year now. I am planning on giving up my nice spacious office for an ugly one in return for the huge resources and the many tools that a big 4 can provide me with. Small firms, big firms don't matter for any accountant who got the ability and skills to self learn quickly and to be able to teach and advise others, (from the firm's partners to clients' CEOs, CFOs, to their accounting departments and your own associates who work under you.)....

Small firms force CPAs to be resourceful and multi-task. One valuable experience I got from small firms is that from early on, I was being able to be given the entire picture of how an audit was done from the beginning to the very end, and from early on I was given access to not just the CEOs of the companies, but board members and also the owner and president. So, in terms of networking, small firms provide plenty also. The firm really matters less than the person. Just my experience. I have several headhunters calling me from all the major cities in the US. Many of which I never even picked up and answered and let them go to voice mail. I had developed some kind of network with the Big 4 HRs also by answering their phone calls and emails. I think the HRs of the big 4s are actively seeking experienced CPAs in small firms because we had already proved that we have the staying power in public accounting and for my case, my clients and the small firms that I worked for had proved that I am good at what I do...

With small firms, I really develop clients development skills, and the ability to amass new knowledge very quickly, because there is big team of experts I can rely on. I have to be my own expert or find creative ways to get experts in other firms or other companies to help me. This is why I started networking cause when there aren't experts in my small firms, I at least have access to all these experts through my network.

Small firms have lots of opportunities and exposures too. You will be surprised by the kind and size of privately held companies some small firms serve. And the sometimes the complexity of the industries these privately held clients are in is not any less than you will see in the Big 4 clients.

Remember, all roads lead to Rome. Hard work and long hours are needed if one wants to make money in accounting. Small firms are no different. I have been working 15 hours every day for months now. This is why my small firm pays me more than the big 4 and gives me a glamourous office. There is a price for everything whether it's a big firm or a small firm.
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