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Midsize Firms Are Stepping Up Their International Game to Compete with the Big 4

big 4 international

Globalization has reached a saturation point. For small and midsize accounting firms, the question of expanding internationally is not one of if, but when. Many firms have responded to the challenge, creating international capabilities that in some ways equal or even surpass that of the Big 4.

A world of opportunity

A 2016 survey by USForex found that 58% of American small businesses already had international customers, while 72% were planning to expand internationally within the next year.

Why? Because that’s where the money is. International trade consists of 30% of the U.S. economy and exports of American goods reached $2.3 trillion in 2014. Respondents to the USForex survey cited higher-quality suppliers, vendors, and talent as the key factors behind their global desires.

As U.S. companies increasingly outsource manufacturing and other jobs overseas, a domino effect is created that impacts a number of industries. Today’s corporate lawyers, for example, need to be well-versed in international trade regulations in order to adequately represent their clients.

But you didn’t come here to read about lawyers. Let’s take a look at how globalization is affecting your home: the accounting industry.

Accounting globally

The dominos are falling in the accounting and finance sectors as well. Even your smallest clients will soon need you to help them navigate the complex taxes and tariffs of international trade.

Aprio, an accounting firm based out of Atlanta, has been focusing its energy on global clients and expansion for decades.

“We need to go where our clients are,” Kristin Maeckel, international tax partner at Aprio, says. “A lot of American firms are exporting manufacturing, production, and supply chains outside of the U.S., and we need to be able to serve that.”

On the flip side, non-US firms are doing more business here, and may want to engage an American accounting firm to help.

“We have a lot of foreign nationals that are CPAs and English is not their native language,” Maeckel says. “So we are able to serve clients in their native tongue, which makes them more comfortable and sets us apart from a lot of other firms.”

Creating an international network

Realistically, even the largest accounting firm can’t anticipate and meet every need of every international client. That’s why many midsize firms are creating global partnership networks.

Through a network, firms can refer international projects that are outside of the scope of their abilities to a partner better suited for the work. And the initial firm will benefit from other companies within the network sending clients to them for the same reason.

“Our international network allows us to refer clients to firms in other countries when necessary,” Maeckel says. “This helps us keep the partnership alive with the client, because they don’t have to waste time looking for other firms around the globe.”

Stepping to the Big 4

It’s no secret that the Big 4 have a stranglehold on just about every key accounting firm metric in the U.S. And their global capabilities are nothing to scoff at either.

But through innovation and technology, some midsize firms are starting to equal, and in some ways surpass, the Big 4 in the international arena. And a sharper focus on personal service has also helped midsize firms wrangle international clients away.

A 2017 article by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants postulated that the Big 4 were currently underserving their small-to-medium-sized clients. According to the article, “With the Big Four being such complex monoliths, breaking them down into service lines exposes opportunities for rivals to win away revenue.”

Aprio: American accounting firm, global powerhouse

Aprio serves as a perfect example of a non-Big 4 firm that’s competing well in the global economy. It conducts business in and out of 40 countries across the globe. More than 25 languages are spoken at Aprio, and 25% of its staff is foreign-born.

“We represent so many companies coming to the U.S. for the first time,” Richard Kopelman, CEO and managing partner at Aprio, says. “We’ve purposely built our capabilities country by country, with specific desks for Korea, Japan, China, the Netherlands, Germany, and Russia.”

Aprio’s dedication to international accounting doesn’t just benefit the firm’s bottom line. It creates a diverse workplace that employees find attractive, and it offers accountants the opportunity to foster international skills that will help them accelerate their careers.

“Probably 40% of the people on our tax floor come from different countries,” Maeckel says. “You hear a lot of accents. People enjoy being exposed to cultures from other countries as well as their own. And our employees learn how to work across borders for wealth management, 401(k) administration, audits, valuations, and so much more.”

Aprio’s international reach also enables it to offer unique employee programs and incentives.

“You get to travel a lot. I go to Europe three, four times a year. A lot of our people are always traveling to China, Japan, and Korea. And we exchange employees with our partner firms through our secondment program, allowing them to work abroad for months at a time,” Maeckel says.

With its global reach and dedication to personal customer service, Aprio serves as a great alternative for accountants looking for big career opportunities outside the Big 4. If Aprio sounds like the type of place you’d like to work, you’re in luck: the firm is hiring now. Scroll down to see current openings at Aprio, or learn more about working at Aprio here.

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One thought on “Midsize Firms Are Stepping Up Their International Game to Compete with the Big 4

  1. It would be good if a few of the large 2nd tier firms could grow to the point where they legitimately compete with the Big 4 firms. I think that would be good for the profession. It would be also good for private industry because there would be more options for accounting services, which would make the Big 4 firms stop being so lazy and overpriced.

    This is especially true with respect to international services. I know the 2nd tier firms are trying to compete, but there is still a huge gap between the services they can provide and what the Big 4 offers. I work for an international company, and I can attest that there are a lot of services that I can only get from a Big 4 firm.

    For now, the Big 4 knows what they are and what their 2nd tier competitors are not.

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