As a junior or senior in college getting ready for the real world, you are exposed to many recruiters, on campus interviewers, and professors who give you advice about how to start your professional career. My school, Temple University, primarily encouraged us to explore the Big Four firms, which led to my interviews with two of the Big Four. I interned in audit with one of the firms during the summer after my junior year and ultimately accepted a full-time audit position, starting the September after I graduated.
As an intern, the job was great. With happy hours, the opportunity to meet great friends, an all-expenses paid trip to Disney World to celebrate the completion of the internship, and finally getting a full-time job offer, life was great! However, my experience once I began my full-time job the following September was slightly different. I worked more hours than I expected and pulled several "all-nighters." Although the hours were intense and work was stressful, the people I met were great and the experience I gained was invaluable.
While some people thrive on that type of high pressure, high stress environment, after a year I decided it wasn’t the right fit for me. At first I thought I would go right into industry as a senior accountant or financial analyst, but I realized I wanted exposure to other industries and to learn more. So, I applied for a role at the regional accounting firm Kreischer Miller of Philadelphia.
From my first day, I realized that Kreischer Miller puts their people first and stresses a work-life balance. My biggest fears about joining a new firm were about the work and the people. However, I soon learned that for the most part, the work was quite similar. And my colleagues were just as great.
A year later, here is my take on the similarities and differences between working at a Big Four firm versus a regional accounting firm like Kreischer Miller.
- Audit is audit. At the end of the day, whether you are at a Big Four firm or a 200 person regional firm, audit is audit. We all follow U.S. GAAP and GAAS and perform similar testing. Testing procedures and templates may be different depending on the firm, but the underlying process will be the same. Sure, you may have a multi-billion dollar client and substantially larger samples at a Big Four firm, but a three way match test for revenue, AR existence testing, or bank reconciliations will be performed and tested no matter where you work.
- There is always a busy season. Whether you work in tax or audit, at Big Four or Kreischer Miller, if you work on December 31st year-end clients, you will have a winter busy season. The hours won’t be fun and your significant other won’t see as much of you, but this is a part of the career we chose!
Both the Big Four firm I worked for and Kreischer Miller provided meals during busy season, which is a nice perk when you’re working through the dinner hour. While busy season can be tough, it'll come and go and you can look forward to lighter schedules and summer hours after April 15th.
- You will travel. Travel is a given in public accounting. Clients won’t always be within easy driving distance, so overnight travel is sometimes necessary. Flights, train rides, and even long car drives are just part of the job if your client is far away. Being away from home can be hard at times, but the perks I’ve enjoyed include credit card points, great meals, seeing cool areas, and most of all, becoming a Marriott platinum member.
- You will work with great people. For me, the hardest part of leaving my Big Four firm was the people. I developed lasting relationships with coworkers I started with, traveled with, and worked late nights with. However, the people at Kreischer Miller made my transition easy. There were fewer team members overall, but there are a lot of people my age and everyone welcomed me with open arms. I've played sports, shared meals, and gone to happy hours with my new coworkers and they are as fun as my former colleagues.
- Compensation is comparable. One thing I worried about when leaving the Big Four was whether the pay would decrease. Contrary to what I thought, pay was comparable (if not much better, if you calculate your hourly rate). As a staff/senior, salary and bonus are very competitive with the Big Four. As you move higher in the firm (basically, partner status) salary and bonus may change, but overall, I feel that my salary, raise, and bonus at Kreischer Miller are on track with my friends who are still at the Big Four firm I worked for.
- Social opportunities within the firm. Nobody likes working all the time (well, maybe some people do), but both the Big Four and Kreischer Miller offered opportunities outside of work to bond with associates. From intramural sports to happy hours and other events such as golf outings, firm picnics, and parties, both regional and Big Four firms offer these opportunities for employees to spend some time together outside of work.
- Work/life balance. The biggest difference between the firms is work/life balance. At Kreischer Miller, people come first and employees’ lives outside of work are of the upmost importance. At the Big Four, they try to maintain this balance, but due to the nature of the clients and amount of work, it's difficult to adhere to and most people end up working nonstop.
- Type of client work. The Big Four tend to focus on publicly-traded clients, whereas Kreischer Miller’s focus is on middle market, privately-held companies. The major difference is the internal control testing required by Sarbanes-Oxley and the quarterly reviews required by the SEC. With privately-held clients, an auditor is not required to test controls, although they may choose to do so on occasion. Additionally, auditors of privately-held companies are not required to do a quarterly review or follow SEC reporting guidelines.
- Financial statement preparation. At the Big Four firm, we could not prepare financial statements as that would compromise independence. The clients prepared their own financials, which were then reviewed by the partners. So when I came to Kreischer Miller, I had to learn financial statement preparation. I really enjoyed learning because it changed the way I looked at the financial statements. At my last firm, I did not really have much exposure besides tying the numbers back to our audited work papers. Putting together the financial statements (and notes to the financial statements) are a great way to learn more about the financials and help you understand the client even better.
- Busy season/deadlines. While I mentioned above that all firms have busy seasons, the main difference at Kreischer Miller is the hours. For the most part, team members at Kreischer Miller work about 50-60 hours per week during the winter and then go back to 40 hours for the rest of the year. At the Big Four, it was not out of the ordinary for me to work 100 or more hour weeks, with the main driver of that being deadlines. Public companies have much more aggressive deadlines than non-public companies, which led to the intense hours. I would also work 12 hours on Saturday and Sunday, which I have yet to do at Kreischer Miller. Finally, at Big Four there are more fiscal year-end clients, which led to working even more weekends and 80 hour weeks during the summer.
- Expenses. At Kreischer Miller, expenses are paid out-of-pocket using personal credit cards and are reimbursed by the firm (which I prefer as I get credit card points). At my last firm, everyone was given an American Express credit card that was paid by the firm. It was used for all travel expenses, busy season meals, and any other expenses related to work. Additionally, Big Four paid for employees’ cell phones as we were required to receive emails on our phones and if we were in a place with no internet, anyone could turn their phone into a hotspot and connect to the internet via the cell phone network. Part of the work-life balance at Kreischer Miller is, when you are “off” you are not expected to remain “on-call.” I don’t have to receive my email on my phone and better yet, I’m not expected to.
- Opportunities within the firm. At Big Four firms, it is very hard to move within the firm. Whether you want to get into a different industry, switch to tax/audit/advisory, or get involved in a niche market, it can take years to make the move out of the industry you are in. At Kreischer Miller, it's much simpler to switch industry focus. Additionally, moving from tax to audit and vice versa is not as difficult in a regional accounting firm versus a Big Four firm.
- Summer hours. At Kreischer Miller, summer hours are a great perk. As a thank you for the hard work during busy season, employees are given the option to leave work at 3:00pm on Fridays during the summer, as long as they can accommodate client work. Oh, and did I mention that you don't have to take vacation for those two and a half hours? It is paid time off to enjoy the summer weekends. Unfortunately, Big Four cannot offer this perk due to the client needs and work performed. At my last firm, we were not given summer hours, but we "rolled" our hours, meaning that when we worked more than 40 hours a week, we would smooth over our hours and take a few days off using the extra hours worked.
While this guide may not be inclusive of all the similarities and differences between Big Four and regional accounting firms, I hope it helps you choose where to start your career or decide whether a move from the Big Four to a regional firm is right for you. Remember to do your research on the firm, interview well, and no matter where you work, work hard!