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Controllers Offer Tips on How to Look Before You Leap From Public Accounting to Industry

public accounting to industry

Last week we published an article on what the transition from public accounting to industry was like for 14 corporate controllers. During my interviews with them, I asked what advice they’d give to a CPA at a public accounting firm who is looking to make the jump to an industry accounting role. And boy did they have a lot to say!

Instead of cramming their advice into the article about their transition stories, we decided to make it a stand-alone feature.

So, without further ado, here’s what these 14 controllers would tell a fellow CPA considering following in their footsteps:

Be patient

Once you decide it’s time to leave public accounting, take your time and wait for the right opportunity, said J.C. Gum, CPA, vice president and corporate controller at Omaha, Neb.-based Ag Processing Inc, who is a KPMG alum.

“Throughout my public accounting career, I had many bad days, and I also was presented with some good opportunities to leave, but thankfully they never occurred at the same time. Some would have been good excuses to leave after a bad week,” he said. “Looking back, I’m thankful for the discernment, patience, and perhaps the lucky timing that allowed me to pass on those early opportunities and wait for the best one.”

Will Majic, CPA, CA, controller, corporate finance at Calian Group in Ottawa, Ontario, agrees with Gum, adding that he’s seen several people jump at the first opportunity to leave public accounting.

“The first leap that you take when you leave a firm is an important one because you have so many doors open to you,” said Majic, who spent more than six years with Deloitte. “There are so many employers that love hiring from accounting firms directly, so there’s no need to leap at the first opportunity that comes up as it may not be the right fit for the individual.”

Never make a desperate move

Make sure you’re leaving because it’s the next strategic step in your desired career path, said Drew Hester, CPA, vice president, controllership and global business services at Chicago-based Beam Suntory, who started his career at PwC.

“Public accounting careers are full of moments that can feel a bit overwhelming and chase some people out of the profession, and I’ve encountered many who regret the timing of their departure,” he said. “You get just one jump out of public to industry, and it’s really important to land well.”

As a hiring manager, Lauren Johnson, CPA, senior controller at Portfolio Advisors LLC in Darien, Conn., said she strays away from candidates whose stay in public accounting was brief.

“Staying in public for the standard two years will not serve you well in private industry,” said Johnson, who worked at BDO for nine years. “You need experience managing staff, exposure to different clients, and time to truly see an audit from start to finish before your time in public will become an asset to you while working in private. Unless you work for a company that doesn’t receive an annual audit, you’ll need audit experience in order to know how to manage your external auditors as the client.”

Learn about the company and industry you’re interested in

Think of it like a college assignment, said Tony Combs, CPA, corporate controller at Urban Airship in Portland, Ore., who cut his accounting teeth at CBIZ MHM and PwC.

“Don’t just understand the accounting, but look into the unique issues within the industry, the underlying trends, and the jargon,” he said. “Investing this time will enable you to communicate more effectively and understand your co-workers more clearly.”

Julie Brand, CPA, corporate controller at San Francisco-based Pattern Energy Group, who started her accounting career at Deloitte, recommends learning as much as you can about all aspects of the company beforehand, such as reading financial reports and learning how the various inputs to accounting operate.

“Join a business in an industry that you’re interested in,” she said.

But don’t just focus on one industry

Johnson believes it’s a good idea for candidates to broaden their job search and be open to different industries.

“I think oftentimes when you work in public accounting, you can specialize in an industry—for me it was real estate and hospitality—but when you look to make the jump, you may only focus on that same industry,” she said. “This can sometimes make it difficult to make the transition [from public to industry].”

Use your network

“It’s important to have mentors—both internal and external—who can weigh in and give perspective,” said Brian Harding, CPA, vice president, corporate controller, and principal accounting officer at Wilsonville, Ore.-based FLIR Systems, who started his accounting career at KPMG.

Harding added that your mentors might steer you toward making a career move when it’s less disruptive to the teams you work with.

“As someone who occasionally interviews candidates looking to exit public accounting, it doesn’t bother me—in fact, I appreciate the sentiment—if that candidate tells me their start date is dependent on when they’ll be able to wrap up their current responsibilities with the firm they work for,” Harding said.

In addition, don’t be afraid to have a conversation about outside opportunities with a partner at your firm, recommends Matt Nelson, CPA, vice president, corporate controller at Seattle-based Tableau Software, who worked at PwC for more than eight years.

“Most of the partners are well-networked and can help you figure out whether a role is a good fit,” he said.

People might think that talking about leaving public accounting is a career mistake, as it shows you’re not interested in your current job. But that’s not the case, Majic said.

“All you’re doing is evaluating options,” he added. “Most of the people who leave accounting firms are leaving their first real employer, and they don’t have the experience of what this can mean. People who left, or people who still work at the firm, have seen so many people leave that they can give a good perspective to those considering it.”

Have a long-term plan

Don’t expect to jump right into your dream job after you leave public accounting. Instead, seek opportunities that best qualify you for the position you’d like to have in the long-term, Harding said.

“If you know you want to be a CFO, schedule a meeting with a CFO and ask about their career progression. They probably held several lower-level positions before achieving the CFO title,” he added. “Network along the way, and be open to new opportunities that get you closer to that plan.”

Don’t be afraid to take risks

After spending 10 years at EY in Baltimore, Christopher Sullivan, CPA, left in 2015 to become controller of OpGen, a small biotechnology company. Like most startups, the business had many challenges, Sullivan said, but the growth opportunities and learning experiences he had there proved to be invaluable.

“By joining a smaller organization, I was able to report directly to the CFO, as well as have regular interactions with the CEO, vice presidents, and board of directors,” said Sullivan, who is now corporate controller at Sucampo Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Rockville, Md. “Those experiences enabled me to quickly learn aspects of industry accounting and finance and how all of the various pieces of the organization operated together.”

Know your value

Because the compensation and progression path in public accounting is fairly rigid, it’s easy to lose sight of what high-performing companies are paying, Hester said.

“Knowing what salary you can reasonably expect to pursue is critical to calibrating your personal departure timing and ensuring you don’t accept a suboptimal opportunity,” he added.

Assemble a team of recruiters

Build a network of eight to 10 recruiters, and then pare down the list to four or five you trust, said Fred Butterweck, CPA, corporate controller at New York-based Clickspring Design, who spent six years at PwC.

“This is not an easy exercise, but if you feel like you’re being sent on interviews with companies that don’t match your profile, you should cut that recruiter loose,” he said. “A good recruiter will invest the time to understand what you’re looking for and only try to connect you with opportunities that fit.”

Pay attention to the office atmosphere when you go on interviews

Does the vibe in the office seem alive, with people working collaboratively? Or is it dead silent?

“Just make sure the atmosphere matches your personality and work style,” said Butterweck, who also recommends paying attention to how the person interviewing you speaks to the person at the front desk or others he or she encounters during a tour of the office.

Gum said CPAs should definitely consider the culture of the company when investigating potential job opportunities.

“Job seekers need to realize there are times when a profitable company with opportunities for advancement isn’t always the wise choice, particularly if the culture of the organization doesn’t fit them,” he added.

Get an understanding of your work scope

Opportunities outside of public accounting are diverse, and the scope of work can vary significantly depending on the size and structure of the organization you join, said Lindsay Gorang, CPA, corporate controller at SightLife Surgical in Seattle, who served as a senior auditor at Deloitte & Touche.

“I’ve enjoyed taking on new areas, such as project financing and supporting contract negotiations as an accounting subject matter expert on M&A and key supplier contracts,” she said. “Meanwhile, I’ve learned that other areas, such as payroll and administration, aren’t a good fit for me.”

Leave your firm on good terms

Don’t hang your firm and your colleagues out to dry in the middle of busy season, which could ruin the relationships you built and the friendships you made, said Senad Mustafic, CPA, senior director – corporate controller at Bellevue, Wash.-based Smartsheet, who worked at Deloitte for nearly six years.

“In public accounting, you’re surrounded by people who can support you on a daily basis because they all know accounting. In industry, that network is smaller,” he said. “Being able to occasionally connect with an old friend and discuss an accounting challenge is extremely valuable.”

Be open to technical and operational accounting roles

Mustafic said a good controller should understand both the technical and the operational sides of accounting, and hire people who are strong in each.

“People who come out of public accounting tend to be technically strong, and public accounting prepared them for that, but lack operational experience, which can best be gained through various operational roles,” he said.

Mitra Rezvan, CPA, vice president and corporate controller at San Francisco-based PagerDuty, who started her career at KPMG, agrees with Mustafic, adding that it’s important that your manager at the company you decide to move to is willing to help mentor you in operational accounting, as well as provides you with support and training to learn the business, and gives you a chance to try new things.

Build new relationships, keep the old ones

Once you join a new organization, spend time getting to know people outside of the accounting and finance department, Combs said, and don’t be afraid to contribute in cross-functional teams.

“Make it a point to identify key people in different departments, introduce yourself, and ask questions,” he added.

In addition, Sullivan recommends maintaining your public accounting relationships after you leave. He said he attends EY’s annual alumni event, as well as other networking opportunities, such as happy hours, meeting former colleagues for lunch, and golf outings.

“My reputation with EY was important during the recruiting and hiring process as the controller of OpGen and Sucampo, and I believe that my EY network will be critical in identifying the next opportunity along my career path,” Sullivan said.

Change is good, so embrace it

You never know where new opportunities will lead you, said Paul Starrantino, CPA, corporate controller at Sparks, Nev.-based Sierra Nevada Corporation, who spent 14 years at PwC.

“You will face new challenges that will broaden your experience and make you more valuable professionally,” he added.

Image: iStock/savoia