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Controllers Talk Switching Gears From Public Accounting to Industry

public accounting to industry

If it wasn’t for Fred Butterweck, CPA, this article may not have come to be.

I was introduced to Butterweck, corporate controller of New York-based Clickspring Design, who worked for six years at PwC, via email as a potential source for the industry articles I’d be writing for Going Concern. During our email conversation, he wrote, “Not sure if you already covered the topic, but the transition from public accounting to industry has always interested me.” I read that and thought, “That’s a great idea. Why didn’t I think of that?”

I then pitched Butterweck’s idea to Caleb, who said, “That’s a great idea. Why didn’t I think of that?”

So, I spoke to Butterweck and 13 other corporate controllers about their transition from public accounting to industry, including the biggest adjustment they had to make or challenge they had to face. In addition, I asked them whether they used their time in public accounting as a steppingstone to a career in industry, why they left public accounting, and what they took away from public accounting that has helped them most as controller.

The 13 other controllers I spoke to, and the public accounting firms they worked for (in parenthesis), were:

  • Julie Brand, CPA, corporate controller, Pattern Energy Group, San Francisco (Deloitte)
  • Tony Combs, CPA, corporate controller, Urban Airship, Portland, Ore. (CBIZ MHM, PwC)
  • Lindsay Gorang, CPA, corporate controller, SightLife Surgical, Seattle (Deloitte)
  • J.C. Gum, CPA, vice president and corporate controller, Ag Processing Inc, Omaha, Neb. (KPMG)
  • Brian Harding, CPA, vice president, corporate controller, and principal accounting officer, FLIR Systems, Wilsonville, Ore. (KPMG)
  • Drew Hester, CPA, vice president, controllership and global business services, Beam Suntory, Chicago (PwC)
  • Lauren Johnson, CPA, senior controller, Portfolio Advisors LLC, Darien, Conn. (BDO USA)
  • Will Majic, CPA, CA, controller, corporate finance, Calian Group, Ottawa, Ontario (Deloitte)
  • Senad Mustafic, CPA, senior director – corporate controller, Smartsheet, Bellevue, Wash. (Deloitte)
  • Matt Nelson, CPA, vice president and corporate controller, Tableau Software, Seattle (PwC)
  • Mitra Rezvan, CPA, vice president and corporate controller, PagerDuty, San Francisco (KPMG)
  • Paul Starrantino, CPA, corporate controller, Sierra Nevada Corp., Sparks, Nev. (PwC)
  • Christopher Sullivan, CPA, corporate controller, Sucampo Pharmaceuticals Inc., Rockville, Md. (EY)

What I learned is that, for the most part, controllers have fond memories of their time in public accounting, and some envisioned they’d spend their entire careers there. But for one reason or another—whether it was not wanting to be a partner, pursuing a new challenge, less travel, or just losing passion for it—the controllers decided to make the jump to industry.

Here’s a sampling of the answers they provided me. Some of their responses have been edited for length and clarity:

Going Concern: Did you envision using your time in public accounting as a steppingstone to a career in industry accounting? Or did you have other plans?

Fred Butterweck: At the time I received my offer [in November 1999, during his senior year of college], I figured I would be at PwC my entire career. About four or five years into my time at PwC, I started to assume the role of acting manager on some of my engagements. It was at that time I began to realize being an auditor wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my career.

But I wouldn’t exactly use the term “steppingstone” because, to me, that infers a one-way relationship where you take what you want and move on. If done correctly, the public experience should be more symbiotic. In other words, the firm is going to work you hard, but in exchange, you gain valuable experience and come out stronger and tougher for your efforts.

Tony Combs: When I started my career at CBIZ MHM, I seriously considered a long-term career in public accounting. At a mid-tier firm, you get to work on a wide variety of clients, and it was fun seeing and learning a lot of different things. I thought going into industry would be boring at the time.

A friend of mine helped recruit me over to PwC, and I was curious if the Big 4 was any different from a mid-tier firm. At PwC, I had the opportunity to work on a Fortune 500 company [client], which I felt gave me a real 360-degree public accounting career. I had a young family at the time and eventually decided that I wanted to move out of public and into industry. My experience at PwC gave me a nice background to exit into another Fortune 500 company to start my career in industry.

Will Majic: When I began my career, it was a requirement to obtain your professional designation [CPA, CA], which required three years of public accounting working experience. For the first few years, all I had exposure to was my colleagues receiving their professional designation and immediately looking at employment outside the firm. That’s what I thought I wanted during that time as well, because it’s what I was exposed to.

But the more I worked at Deloitte, the more I enjoyed my experience and the more the idea of staying in public accounting appealed to me. I was lucky to have interesting clients and good relationships with the partners I worked for. It wasn’t until I heard of the right opportunity that I seriously considered leaving.

Matt Nelson: My father has been a business owner for 40 years. Growing up, he turned me onto the idea of working for myself one day. So, I always knew I wanted to find a role where I could help contribute to running a company. That was motivation for me while I was working at PwC, and I took cues from the partners in our office. They helped shape me as a professional and prepared me for the role I have taken on at Tableau.

Mitra Rezvan: Earlier in my career at KPMG, I planned to eventually become a partner at the firm. But as I worked with different audit clients, I became more interested in being on the corporate side, running the business and implementing processes, systems, and controls. Above all, I wanted to learn how to set up and run a business, and how larger organizations worked. As an auditor, I felt that I could provide valuable feedback, but I never had the chance to implement that feedback and see the ultimate results.

GC: When did you know it was time to leave public accounting and take a new path for your accounting career?

Julie Brand: What prompted me to leave public accounting was a great career opportunity on a client that I had provided services to. I was also interested in a reduced travel schedule that public accounting could not otherwise ensure.

Brian Harding: While at KPMG, I’d always assumed I’d pursue a partner opportunity. When I returned to KPMG in Portland, Ore. in 2011 after spending over a year at the firm’s European headquarters in London, the recommended path to partner would involve a rotation through the national office. I was asked to consider that path and come back with a “yes” or “no” on our willingness to move to New York in the next year. After much deliberation and stressful discussions, my wife and I decided we’d be open to the New York rotation. But a little while after communicating that willingness, the landscape had shifted and I learned that the partner promotion opportunity was no longer dependent on the transfer through the national office. After wrestling with this decision and kind of putting life on hold for the next move, it was somewhat disappointing to have the rotation off the table. It also introduced another layer of uncertainty in the timing for the partner opportunity.

Shortly thereafter, I was offered the opportunity to join FLIR. The position checked many boxes for me as an opportunity for professional development with a market-leading, innovative, and growing technology company.

Drew Hester: I was missing out on the experience of building something really lasting. Teams assemble, disassemble, and reassemble very quickly in public accounting, and the audit product itself is so intangible. It can be difficult to sustain a sense of having accomplished something that is more than fleeting. It’s also been really enjoyable to have great spirits brands to talk about at parties when people ask me about my job rather than watching smiles slowly fade and eyes glaze over as I explain that I audit multinationals.

Paul Starrantino: I left public accounting in 2010 during the downturn in the economy after working at PwC for 14 years, the last four as a senior manager. I no longer had the same passion [for] the profession that I had earlier in my career and felt it was time to seek opportunities in industry that would further broaden my professional experience.

Christopher Sullivan: During my time at EY, I felt challenged with new career experiences; however, I felt the experiences began to plateau once I was promoted to senior manager. Therefore, I felt it was time to evaluate what my long-term professional goals were. It came down to whether I wanted to commit to attempting the partner path or jump over to the world of industry accounting. Ultimately, I made the decision to move to industry because becoming a CFO one day seemed more exciting to me than the thought of becoming partner.

GC: What was your transition like from public accounting to industry? What was the biggest adjustment you had to make or challenge you had to overcome?

Julie Brand: The most impactful part of the transition was not working under a level of materiality. Public accountants perform procedures in conjunction with evaluated risk profiles and a defined client materiality scope, which is not the case in industry accounting. Industry accountants must perform their procedures at lower levels of materiality, if defined at all.

My biggest challenge was to effectively integrate the strategy of the business within the constraints of accounting. In other words, the “big picture concept”—there is more to the business decisions of the company that reside outside of accounting, such as operations, legal support, and IT.

Lindsay Gorang: I had two main concerns with leaving Deloitte and was pleasantly surprised in both cases. First, I thought I would miss the variety of working with so many different team members. I moved on from Deloitte to a small company with only 40 employees and feared I was significantly slimming my work network. What I failed to consider was how many outside parties I would regularly collaborate with: joint venture partners, lenders, key suppliers, attorneys, consultants, and affiliate companies.

Second, I thought I would miss working with the caliber of talent I worked with at Deloitte, but I was delighted to discover that my new colleagues were equally bright and motivated, and from a far broader array of fields. I love teaming with cross-functional leaders; they help me learn about so many areas beyond accounting-specific matters.

J.C. Gum: In public accounting, if I came across an accounting issue with which I had no previous experience, I could walk down the hall and usually find a couple of others who had. They could provide quick references, helpful leads, and generally get me started on researching the issue. In industry accounting, I found myself being the resource of last resort. I really missed having that interaction with others, bantering concepts and pitfalls on the most complex accounting issues.

Brian Harding: One of the biggest challenges for me was stepping into a new position where I was expected to be a leader in the organization, but I initially had no direct staff members to supervise. Coming from KPMG, where we had droves of managers, seniors, staff, and interns to support each engagement, there was a challenging transition into a new reality that, while I’d regularly report and present to the board and executive leadership, I’d also be the one to roll up my sleeves and do much of the heavy lifting to complete a project.

Lauren Johnson: The most difficult challenge for me, in the beginning, was dealing with the pace of activity that exists in private industry. There is this sort of urban legend that those in public accounting talk about which is that private sector is slower-paced than public. I can say that it’s absolutely not true; private is not slower-paced than public, and that’s not a bad thing.

Senad Mustafic: I like diversity—not only in terms of race, ethnicity, or gender, but also in terms of educational backgrounds, ways of thinking, and approaching problem-solving. In industry, it’s been refreshing to work with people from different professional disciplines. When it comes to diversity, the public accounting environment is monotonous—people have the same educational background, a lot of them went to the exact same college, and their career goals are similar.

The real challenge on the industry side, in my opinion, is you fully own the numbers. You see exactly where they come from, how they’re generated, and you’re fully responsible for their accuracy and completeness. I don’t think I appreciated the full science behind that process while I was in public accounting.

Matt Nelson: The biggest adjustment has been a greater appreciation for the operational side of the business, but it’s also been the most rewarding. In public accounting, there are rules to follow for almost everything. If there’s a question, there’s probably a guide where you can look up the answer. In industry, you have to figure it out. You make hard decisions every day.

I’ve also learned how to be a better communicator. In public accounting, you generally work closely with other finance and accounting professionals who understand what you do. In industry, many of the people you interact with each day think all accountants are tax professionals, and April 15 is the busiest day of the year.

Mitra Rezvan: Perhaps the hardest part of the transition was learning the hands-on operational accounting. It’s one thing to audit and provide technical guidance, but it’s another thing to build a process, know what reports you need, and work with technical teams to build systems for running the business efficiently.

Paul Starrantino: It’s a different experience to sit on the other side of the desk and close the period, prepare financial statements, perform acquisition due diligence, forecast, or plan the year. Accounting or controllership touches all aspects of an organization. As a result, some of the challenges stem from other departments approaching matters from a different lens and the need to balance an approach within a GAAP environment without sounding like an accountant but rather a partner in a mutually beneficial situation. However, I believe the biggest challenge is change management—large organization change—and the ability to partner, persuade, and obtain buy-in with others.

Christopher Sullivan: The transition was a very positive experience. It was fun and challenging to figure out how the sausage gets made, beginning with booking transactions in the general ledger all the way through to the end result of financial reporting and improving that process. The technical accounting foundation that I gained while at EY has made me comfortable with SEC reporting and the technical accounting knowledge and research skills needed in my role as controller.

GC: What’s one thing you’ve taken from your experience working in public accounting that has helped you the most in your job as a controller?

Fred Butterweck: As an auditor, you have to be able to quickly sort through a lot of information and key in on what’s important in short order. I feel this has helped me become a quick learner and hone my ability to identify key business issues and risks and stay focused on what’s important.

Tony Combs: The work ethic you get in public accounting. I had a lot of confidence in my capabilities coming out of public; I felt I could take on any type of project.

Lindsay Gorang: Managing teams effectively, by setting a high bar and providing frequent feedback to help my team achieve lofty goals.

J.C. Gum: KPMG taught me to be an owner. From my first audit when I was assigned cutoff at my client, ownership was critical to my success in public accounting. I quickly learned no one else is assigned to my areas, and the more I owned it, the more responsibility I was given. Similarly, industry accounting requires you to fully own all aspects of your job.

Drew Hester: The sheer variety of companies, clients, partners, staff, technical accounting issues, tough deadlines, and challenges I encountered. While navigating all of that, there is an inherent breadth of experience, required adaptability, and development of a sense that you can find a successful outcome in any situation that quietly accumulates. It makes for a very solid foundation when dealing with the more focused challenges that working for a single enterprise presents.

Lauren Johnson: Public accounting teaches you the “why” behind the process and the numbers, while private industry teaches you the “how.” Understanding the why has helped me tremendously when answering technical questions, problem-solving, and implementing process improvement.

Will Majic: There are tight deadlines and numerous demands at accounting firms that cause you to make good use of your time and work a few extra hours here and there at night or on weekends. That has taught me to be effective with my time during the day and has also given me an appreciation for putting in extra hours when required.

Senad Mustafic: I learned a lot about people management at Deloitte. Working on different audit engagements, one gets exposed to different management styles. I remember one year, as an audit senior, I reported simultaneously to six audit managers. Seeing their different styles helped me understand the style I wanted to have for myself and the style I wanted to avoid.

Stay tuned for more from these controllers in a future article where they offer advice to CPAs about making the jump from public accounting to industry.

Image: iStock/oculo