Big career decisions: Big 4, mid-tier or small practice?
ACCAs all over the world work in professional practices of all shapes and sizes, across all the services that these firms provide to their corporate, public sector and non-governmental clients — audit and assurance, advisory/consultancy, tax, M&A, technology.
But there are big differences between working for a small to medium size practice (SMP), which range from a home office to having a national or regional multi-office presence, and multinational full-service firms, such as the Big 4 (EY, Deloitte, PwC and KPMG), and so-called mid-tier firms like Grant Thornton, BDO, RSM, Crowe Howarth and Baker Tilly.
The following isn’t a pros and cons list, as for some people a con might actually be a pro, and vice versa, so consider it more a guide to some key qualities and considerations for working in both SMPs and large firms. And remember, whichever path you choose, there is is a great deal to learn, with highly valuable and transferable skills and experiences to develop.
Big 4 and mid-tier firms
Professional development opportunities
Big firms have big resources, and they are highly regarded for funnelling a lot of this into learning & development (L&D), training and graduate schemes, upskilling and personal and professional development.
Range of specialisms and clear career paths in a competitive environment
Big firms provide many opportunities to constantly improve and to specialise, often beyond the usual scope of an accounting practice into more niche areas, such as into analytics, technology and data, sustainability and ESG, M&A, business transformation, and so on. Meanwhile, career paths are clearly visible all the way from associate up to senior partner and board level. Big firms also expect their employees to continually progress and seek promotion, so competition is tough and expectations high.
The large firms count some of the world’s biggest companies as their audit and advisor clients. So if you’d like to work on FTSE100 accounts, this is the route to consider. But bear in mind that the bigger the client doesn’t mean more or higher quality business exposure.
Working in tight knit teams in a culture of continual development and progress creates a collegiate atmosphere in which people encourage one another to develop and progress.
Global mobility, secondments and larger networks
The opportunities for international postings and secondments to different fields and specialisms are highly attractive for many people. As is the size of the personal and professional networks people can build in such large globally far-reaching firms, which is a huge plus for opening up career opportunities.
Good salaries, but with long hours
The bigger the firm, in general, the better the salaries, but it’s also widely accepted that you’ll work long hours. ‘Practice often involves a lot of traveling and overtime during audit season, so personal lives and work-life balance come second for months in a row,’ said Andreea Ivan FCCA, who worked at KPMG Romania for four years as a financial auditor before moving into various industry roles.
A corporate feel, the ‘glamour’ factor and brand impact on CVs
Some love the feel of the ‘high-flying’ corporate environment, as well as the ‘glamour’ and status of being affiliated with such brands. It also looks undeniably good on a CV.
Greater exposure to clients and their businesses
Your clients might not be FTSE100 giants, but smaller businesses means you’ll generally get client exposure from day one, which is great for developing stakeholder management, business development and retention skills.
Hands on learning and broad skillsets
You’ll also get to see ‘under the hood’ of client businesses and learn up close how they’re run. An entrepreneurial spirit is welcome in SMPs. You’ll be tasked with doing more of the work and taking on more responsibility early on. This means learning how to prepare accounts, end-to-end audits, tax and so on.
Sense of ownership
The higher levels of responsibility and closer working with businesses can give you a greater sense of ownership of your work and client relationships.
Less corporate and competitive, easier to get into
While smaller practices might not have the appeal of big corporate, this can be an appeal in itself: smaller practices in which the owners are more visible can create a familial, ‘we’re all in this together’ culture. Furthermore, by sheer numbers of smaller practices, there’s more of a chance to find employment than in the far more competitive Big 4, for example.
Fewer hours and potential for better work-life balance
While there will still be times of the year in which you’ll likely need to go over and above to meet deadlines, in general, work-life balance is more easily achievable in smaller firms.
Increasingly digital practices
Many smaller practices are either running as completely digitalised firms or in the process of transitioning. This means running cloud accounting software that will provide efficiencies for clients, as well as more and real-time insights from data into their companies.
Chance to become a business partner and trusted adviser to clients
With the advances in accounting technology meaning many repetitive tasks are becoming automated, smaller practices have more time and more data to provide clients with added value in the form of richer financial and management information. Instead of just being seen once a year, accountants can become business partners and trusted advisers that can support client growth and profitability.
It’s entirely subjective and depends on your personality and career goals. Some will be suited to the more corporate, structured, but competitive big firm world, while others will flourish in smaller practices in which you’ll be expected to show initiative, shoulder responsibility and get stuck in. Whichever path you choose, working in practice offers the opportunity to learn about how businesses work, how they can grow and be profitable. You can gain exposure to an array of sectors and industries. You can develop deep networks of long-lasting quality. And ultimately, whether you choose to remain in practice for your entire career or move over to industry (client side), working in practice is a fantastic foundation for a long, varied and successful career.