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Five Major Differences Between Small Accounting Firms and the Big 4

Ed. note: The following was submitted by a reader of Going Concern who wished to remain nameless. As a casual fan of Going Concern, and a senior auditor of a small to mid size local firm, I feel the site is quite comical and a vast insight into the world of "bigger and better" feelings. I read the site for humor, comparison, and overall knowledge on the country's accounting bureaucracy. I would like to dive into some of the obvious differences between the big boys and us local mid-market droids.

Busy season – For most, January 5th is the start date and lets up by April 1st. Busy season is usually the hours of eight-thirty to seven-thirty. The midnight coffee runs are infrequent and somewhat discouraged. (That might be just our firm, so if yours is different, chime in). Busy season does not end with a celebration, spot bonus, or dinner; we get an e-mail saying thank you for making us (the Partners) rich.

The Rank and File – The caliber of employees is different. We get a few people that could of have gone Big 4 but primarily our employees are the ones who worked through college, made mostly B's drizzled with some C's, or they went to Big 4 and then realized it wasn't a good fit. A fair amount of the staff obtain the CPA license but hardly ever do they walk in with it. With that, some might think the staff is seen as not equivalent. I differ from that viewpoint. This leads me to the next difference.

Responsibilites – The degree of responsibility of a Big 4 staff auditor and a mid-size staff auditor are drastically different. It appears the people we hire from the Big 4 know a specific section of the audit to a tee but when it comes to another section they are a lost puppy. For example, the small time auditor has to draft the engagement, complete ninety five percent of the fieldwork and finish with all the management representation letters, disclosure checklist, etc. It’s a complete engagement overview, not just the cash section. This might be because of the size of the engagements but regardless, when it comes to closing the deal, the small time auditor seems to perform like Jeter in October. You might argue this is because our niche is smaller but on the SEC engagements we tackle, the same criteria takes effect. Staff do the work, manager reviews, and partner signs. No middle ground to speak of.

Money – I constantly look at GC to see what the salaries in the rest of the country appear to be and honestly, we don't come close. It's very much a disappointment. We probably all start off close to the same (50k plus or minus 5k), but in all actuality, the bigger accounting firms bump people up a lot faster than us local guys. Again, this might parallel to the caliber of employees we hire, or it might not. I tend to think we follow a very specific old fashion business model. We pay our staff just enough so they are complacent, and the partners bring the money home to afford the private schools, three plus luxury cars, the farms, and the multi million dollars home. If someone doesn't want to put in the fifteen to twenty plus years it takes to get there, then tough, we will find someone else. The door is a constant revolving machine. No emotion goes into it what so ever.

Pick up a tax return! – The last item is the close ties between audit and tax. It is very common for someone in my shoes to finish all my audit responsibilities by mid-March, and then pick up the married couple with two kids tax return. It's merely done for enjoyment and to help out the overall firm. This also helps with keeping on your toes when talking to clients about what your firm can offer. We get an incentive for bringing in clients and since our niches are smaller, it's easier than bringing in a 100k plus job. Bottom line is that it’s a different culture. I guess it's always up to the staff if they like the eleven o'clock coffee run, sleep deprivation, 65k salary, or if they like the 58k salary, have a life, and come home at seven-thirty careers. It really just depends on the person. Some people strive either way but nothing should be taken away or discouraged because of the decision. I would just know what you're getting into when you walk in the door. If you go to a smaller firm out of college, don't expect the huge pay increases, or the spot bonuses, just expect to work and not get much for it.