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Thursday, November 10, 2005 

Industry Overview

When thinking about the accounting industry, most folks conjure up images of solitary bean counters, their backs hunched and brows furrowed in concentration as they pore over accounting ledgers. “Ever changing” and “quickly evolving” are not the kinds of phrases that immediately come to mind. But in the past 10 or 12 years, this industry has undergone not just one, but several massive upheavals against a backdrop of constant industry consolidation. It used to be that the group of the biggest public accounting firms was known as the Big Eight.

Their main business focus was auditing public companies. Relative to other industries, accounting was a nice, steady industry, with modest but predictable profits. Accounting firms had a reputation for humility, discretion, and high ethics. During the early days of the tech boom in the early 1990s, though, the major accounting firms started making enormous profits from IT consulting work and began looking at auditing as a way to build relationships that might lead to much more profitable consulting engagements. When they were caught, the major accounting firms were battered by a maelstrom of bad press that continues to this day. Today, thanks to industry consolidation and the collapse of Arthur Andersen due to the misdeeds of Arthur Andersen accountants working on Enron’s books, the Big Eight has become the Big Four: Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, whose U.S. accounting arm is called Deloitte & Touche; Ernst & Young; KPMG; and PricewaterhouseCoopers. But Andersen wasn’t the only major firm implicated in accounting scandals of the early 2000s. Deloitte & Touche, Ernst & Young, KPMG, and PwC have all faced legal heat in recent years thanks to accounting misdeeds. In terms of how would-be accountants are being affected by the scandals, the accounting industry is refocusing on ethics.

There is also an increased focus on hiring accountants with real-world business experience in addition to formal accounting education. And new and experienced accountants alike are being required to expand their knowledge base to include new accounting regulations—namely, 2002’s Sarbanes-Oxley Act (or “Sarbox”), which did things like limit the amount of time senior accounting executives can spend working with a single audit client, create a new accounting industry oversight board called the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, and introduce new regulations to which public companies (which comprise the bulk of the audit clients at big public accountancies) must adhere. A note: Big Four public accounting firms—which focus on auditing clients’ financial statements (thus verifying for investors that clients are being forthright about their financial health) but also include nonaudit lines of business such as actuarial work (risk analysis and management), tax consulting, human resources management, and merger and acquisition advice—are not the only career option for accountants.

Many accountants work for midtier public accounting firms, such as Grant Thornton or Moss Adams, or for smaller firms; for government entities; or for corporations’ in-house accounting or internal-audit departments. Many others go into business for themselves. Trends The Sarbanes-Oxley Effect The Sarbanes-Oxley Act was passed in response to a flood of corporate accounting scandals. Its most famous provision requires chief executives to sign off on their companies’ books, guaranteeing that the financial statements released to investors are not fraudulent. But it contains a morass of other requirements of companies—meaning a more complex and expensive job for the public accounting firms auditing companies’ books. In response, some smaller accounting firms have stopped auditing publicly traded clients, citing increased costs associated with such engagements.

The Big Four, meanwhile, are licking their chops. More complexity in corporate accounting regulations means more complex audit engagements, after all—complete with higher fees. Indeed, according to a survey conducted by Financial Executives International, companies needing audits in the wake of Sarbanes-Oxley expect to pay more than a third more than they used to for audit engagements. Trickle Down The first ones to benefit from the downfall of Arthur Andersen were the rest of the Big Five (now the Big Four). Someone had to serve the accounting needs of Andersen’s clients, largely major corporations—and the new Big Four were the obvious choice.

The Big Four have seen strong revenue increases as a result starting in 2003. Now, in 2004, the second tier of public accounting firms, such as Crowe Chizek and Plante & Moran, are picking off more and more Big Four clients. This is happening in many cases because Big Four firms are ending audit relationships with companies they consider more risky to audit. Regardless, the second tier of accounting firms is about to enjoy a bigger bottom line as a result of the significant new clients coming their way. Meaning these are going to be good places to find jobs in coming months. Changing Skills, Changing Job Titles Accountants are becoming more integral to their employers’ decision-making processes than ever. Rather than being simple bean counters, keeping track of companies’ businesses without really having an impact on the direction of those businesses—even if they work in-house—accountants are enjoying a greater voice in strategic business decisions. Rather than just collecting data and presenting it to management, accountants are being called on to analyze the numbers and the business environment and then to tell management about how companies are truly performing, how they can be expected to perform moving forward, and what steps management might take to improve future performance.

This new emphasis on strategic input in accounting means that it will be more important than ever for accountants to have a deep working knowledge of technology, leadership ability, an understanding of the broad business environment, and the ability to communicate with colleagues in a diversity of corporate departments and functions. How It Breaks Down The Big Four This group used to be the Big Five, but with the demise of Andersen in the wake of the Enron scandal, it’s now the Big Four: Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Ernst & Young, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers. They are mammoth in size, with annual revenues in the tens of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of employees. These are the most prestigious employers for accounting grads. Why? Big Four clients are Fortune 1000 companies, which means that employees are exposed to complex accounting issues. A job with a Big Four firm is a great career move for someone entering the accounting profession.

If, instead of moving up the ladder in your Big Four firm (to partner, preferably), you decide to work for another public accounting firm or to take an in-house position in industry or government—or even if you decide to hang out your own shingle—your Big Four experience will shine on your resume. The central focus of the Big Four firms is audit services: the verification of the accuracy of clients’ books. This also includes nonaudit lines of business, including actuarial work (risk analysis and management), tax consulting, human resources management, and merger and acquisition advice. Other Public Accounting Firms Although the Big Four get most of the publicity, there are many smaller, less well-known national players and regional public accounting firms that hire lots of people. Representative national firms include Grant Thornton, McGladrey & Pullen, BDO Seidman, and Moss Adams.

Within different regions of the country, there are also strong regional players that usually affiliate themselves with some national network of other such players. Insiders tell us that the hours are often a little better at these smaller firms than at the Big Four, the path to partner a little quicker, and the work itself more varied and interesting. If you go to a Big Four firm, your only responsibility for 3 months might be to audit the cash account at IBM. Ugh! According to one insider, at a regional firm you’ll be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. In-House Accounting Whether publicly traded or not, every company has internal accountants to set budgets, manage assets, and track payroll, accounts payable and receivable, and other financial matters. For medium and large firms, the internal staff works closely with the public auditors at the fiscal year-end and with senior management and IT staff year round. Controllers and CFOs at smaller firms often enjoy even more important and influential roles in running and developing the business. These jobs are just as demanding as those in public accounting. Most accountants in the private sector stay in one place, in one job, working with the same colleagues, for extended periods.

However, should you choose to move around, accounting skills are very portable. Internal Audit Outsourcing Some businesses prefer to outsource their internal audit functions to a third party. For these companies, and for auditors who want to work in this capacity, accounting firms like Jefferson Wells International are the answer. Government Although it’s not the biggest blip on the radar of aspiring accountants, the government hires a lot of people with accounting skills. The biggest federal employers are traditionally the Department of Defense, the General Accounting Office, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Internal Revenue Service. In addition to monitoring individual and corporate tax returns, government accountants at the state and federal levels formulate and administer budgets, track costs, and analyze publicly funded programs. Independent As an accountant, you can always hang out your own shingle, individually or in partnership with other accountants, especially once you have your CPA.

There is plenty of business preparing tax returns and advising small businesses, provided you have relevant expertise, such as a thorough knowledge of tax law. You will also need to market your services and manage your own business—time-consuming activities that not everyone enjoys. Job Prospects It’s a good time to be looking for a job in public accounting firms. After contracting during the business slowdown of the early 2000s, hiring is now on the rise—especially, as demand for accounting services soar due to a newly healthy business climate, for experienced candidates who can come in and start contributing on day 1. Far and away, the most positions available in public accounting are in audit, with tax coming in second. The need for forensic accountants—specialized accountants who focus on digging into clients’ balance sheets to look for red flags—is growing as the industry and its clients look to rebuild their reputation. Demand for in-house corporate accounting and finance employees is expected to grow, as well.


What's GreatBig Four Jobs = Resume GoldLet’s face it. Big Four accounting firms’ retention rates are low for a reason: These jobs make great stepping-stones. Insiders say their exposure to a wide range of companies and industries and the vast responsibility given to them allows them to develop impressive skill sets, whether they want to hang out their own accounting shingle, go into finance in industry, or go into another profession entirely. StabilityDespite the fact that Andersen has fallen flat on its face, forcing thousands of people to scramble to find new employers, the accounting industry remains a bastion of stability. After all, in good times and bad, corporations and other institutions need accountants. And the career path remains pretty set in stone. Assuming you can do the work and do it well and are willing to put in a few extra hours when necessary, you can fairly accurately predict where you’ll be in 5, 10, or even 15 years. It’s the PeopleMany young accountants in big firms enjoy the fact that they’re surrounded by other folks who are a lot like them: young, college-educated, and up for going out and socializing with coworkers.

One insider says, “It’s great in the Big Four. The people are smart—they all graduated with good GPAs from good schools—and they’re fun.” What's To HateBig = BureaucracyThe Big Four are mammoth companies, and some insiders say that they feel overwhelmed by their size at times. According to one, “If you’re not used to a big corporate atmosphere, it can come as kind of a shock. You go to office-wide meetings where you see people you’ve never seen before and will probably never see again.” And bureaucracy is a natural offshoot of these firms’ size and business focus. Accounting involves myriad rules, regulations, reviews, and checklists, and some insiders say that a feeling of administration overload creeps unnecessarily into other aspects of their professional lives.

One insider says, “I’m really busy, and it just seems like a lot of the administration stuff isn’t really necessary.” If you dread red tape, beware! The HoursEspecially during tax season, accountants are notorious for working late. There are always client demands to be met and numbers to be checked—and double-checked. During busy season, accountants can expect to work 55-hour weeks, and depending on the client, may be required to work 60- or 70-hour weeks. Be prepared to do what it takes to get the work done—even if it means sacrificing your personal life. One insider says of a particularly grueling assignment, “I didn’t see anyone for 3 months. I became a social loser.”

For some in the industry, the travel can be a drain, too. An insider says, “A lot of people get sick of going from client to client, especially as they grow older.” Not Rocket ScienceSeveral insiders use the phrase “it’s just accounting” when describing their line of work. While accounting does offer more flexibility and variety than most people think, you won’t be asked to reinvent the wheel or build a better mousetrap. A large portion of the work involves checking to make sure that numbers conform to the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). If you long to create and innovate, accounting is probably not the ideal place for you.

Major Players
Top Ten Major Players, by 2003 Revenues
Revenue ($M)
1-Year Change (%)

Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu


Ernst & Young International

KPMG International

BDO International

Grant Thornton International

PRG-Schultz International, Inc.


Moss Adams, LLP

Clifton Gunderson, LLP

Sources: Hoover's; WetFeet analysis.

Job Descriptions & TipsKey

Jobs Although with few exceptions all accountants are involved with a company's financial statements, there are several different career tracks to consider. At public accounting firms, employees usually join either the audit or the tax practice—movement between the two is relatively uncommon. Auditors review the books of their clients; tax accountants prepare the taxes. In private accounting, the lines aren't quite as sharp. However, the larger the organization, the more you'll probably specialize in a certain kind of task: cost accounting, tax, or government reporting, for example. Associate or Staff Accountant This entry-level job at public accounting firms goes by various names depending on the firm. Associates sometimes go into the audit pool, a large group of accountants who get picked out from time to time to work on audits under the supervision of a more senior accountant. Typically the newer faces get the easier audit assignments—cash accounts, for instance—leaving the Swiss bank accounts and money-laundering operations to older hands. Increasingly, however, even associates are beginning to specialize in particular industry audits such as banking, entertainment, or health care. In private accounting, the staff accountant may have responsibility for managing particular accounts, such as accounts receivable or accounts payable. Salary range: $34,000 to $42,000. Internal Auditor In this typical first position for an industry accountant, you'll basically do for a company what a public accountant does for the public record: Make sure that the value is where it should be. It used to be a position where you'd cut your teeth before moving on; now accountants are staying at this level longer. Salary range: $39,000 to $48,000; toward the higher end if you have expertise in a particular field. Budget and Credit Analysts The budget side plans and manages corporate finances over a 12-month period or longer.

They present findings and recommendations either themselves or through a controller. The government also employs thousands of budget analysts to do the same type of work for public programs and expenditures. Credit specialists focus on whether or not customers or institutional clients can repay a loan or credit line. Banks are the biggest employers for these analysts. Salary range: $32,000 to $48,000. Senior Accountant This is the second level in the public accounting hierarchy. After a year or two at a public accounting firm, your paycheck improves and you might get sent out alone to run an audit. Depending on your firm, you might begin supervising teams of other accounts, so now is the time to take your CPA. In the states that have such prerequisites, you'll have logged enough hours by this point. This is also when a lot of accountants—as many as eight out of ten—leave their firms for some form of private corporate accounting.

Salary range: $50,000 to $62,000. Manager This is a watershed position at a public accounting firm. If you get to this point, the firm thinks you're partner material, and you're probably giving the idea serious thought. You don't do as much hands-on auditing anymore, although managers often handle sensitive issues such as an important client's creative bookkeeping. Mainly, you plan and assemble audit teams and allocate their time at various jobs. At the end of an audit, you report back to a partner, who signs off on your work. This is a 5- to 7-year test with significant competition from your peers who are also on the partner track. Salary range: $70,000 to $105,000. Controller A catchall title for a key financial officer at a corporate firm. The responsibilities and pay will vary considerably depending upon the size of the firm. Controllers generally leave most of the actual number juggling to junior accountants and take a more strategic role in the support side of the business, planning the allocation of various funds throughout the company.

Salary range: $82,000 to up to six figures. Partner You made it! It took you probably 10 or more years to work your way through. Now you sign off on audits, work on client development (that is, bringing in the business), and train younger accountants. Oh, and you also collect a salary in the six-figure range. Getting Hired You can apply for accounting jobs with a BA or BS and build a highly successful career with nothing more. Nevertheless, the more accounting courses you take in school, the more employable you will be. If you pass the CPA right out of college, you're that much further out in front. Many states now require several months’ worth of public accounting experience before allowing accountants to take the exam, but most firms are well aware of this and will allocate time for you to prepare. And though certification seems to be more in demand now than before, most places don't insist on it until you reach the level of manager. You can also get an MA in accounting, but our insiders agree your time would be better spent on information-management and -technology courses.

Consider these things as you look for a job in accounting:
Accounting is a profession that demands precision. Many insiders say that this is actually much more important than math skills. In looking for a position, says one, "Pay attention to detail—in your dress and speech."

You'll also need a certain amount of charisma. Accounting is increasingly a team sport, and as specialization proliferates, you become more like a business consultant—someone who works exceptionally well with clients and peers.

One veteran recruiter says, "The accountants who do well in the long run can see the big picture as well as the details. The problem is that a lot of accountants who do well at lower levels by paying attention to detail are not able to see the big picture. A lot of good accountants can only see one face—the detail side."

Would-be accountants should display skills and attributes including analytical ability, leadership (if you advance in the Big Four, eventually you’re going to be supervising teams of accountants), written and oral communication skills (since you’re going to be communicating regularly with colleagues and clients), an eye for detail (accounting is all about getting the details right), ability to work independently, team skills (since in most positions you’ll be working with a team from your firm), the ability to work long and hard when necessary (read: tax season), and high ethical standards.

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