Sunday, May 31, 2009

Interview with the Partner

Upon the request of my interviewee, I have kept his identity confidential. I have written this interview to the best of my ability capturing both the essence of the interview and the personality. I hope you find this interview useful. Regards, The Accountant.

Me: Thank you very much, John, for taking the opportunity to speak with me today. I speak on behalf of all the readers at “I want to be a CA” that we really appreciate your time today.

John: It’s a pleasure. We can skip the formalities (with a chuckle). How can I help?

Me: Can you please give background information to our readers about who you are, when you attained the CA designation and CFA Designaiton?

John: Absolutely. My career started probably more than forty years ago. I did my undergraduate at U of T back in the days when a bachelor degree was often enough. I was already considered highly educated at the time, and opted for no further education after that. You could probably find a nice middle class income if you just had a strong back in those times. Higher education was considered an enhancement as opposed to a necessity.

When I was about 22, 23, I was working at a factory assembly line. The hours were long, and the job was tough but it paid for the car, and the alcohol. Those were teenager things you did at the time. I was pretty content with my job at the time, but I couldn’t vision a future as a factory worker. I started having lots of tough moments contemplating what I was going to do with my life.

Around 25, when I saved enough money, I decided to travel in Europe. I figured I might as well spend my youth wisely. I visited Rome, Italy, Spain, France, Switzerland and a bunch of different other places that would shape my future.

Around 27 or so, a good friend of mine got me curious in the CA designation. You must remember that the CA Designation in the past is not exactly the same as the CA designation today. Things have evolved so dramatically. I decided to go for it, and at age 33, I got my CA designation. I was working for the equivalent of KPMG at the time before its merger with Peat Marwick.

I worked in professional services for six years, before I got bored of it. At the same time, I was studying for the CFA designation and was awarded the charter sometime in my late 30’s. I quit KPMG at 36, and went into the financial banking industry. It was a great career decision at the time, and I was rewarded with a wealth of contacts and experience.

When I was forty two, I returned to KPMG and slowly climbed the corporate ladder. At age 45, I became Partner. I spent a good 15 years at KPMG before calling it quits at the tender age of 60.

Now I’m bird watching and spending way too much time with my wife. (with a chuckle) I hope that answers your question.

Me: Thank you John, that was extremely helpful. Now, I’d like to ask you what are your thoughts on the CA designation at the moment?

John: The CA designation is still an extremely powerful designation, but it means a lot less now than it did in the past. My personal belief is that it is over marketed and starting to become saturated. I have a CA. I was a partner at KPMG. I’m retired. I have nothing to hide, so I might as well give you my personal opinions. I’ll spare you the sugarcoating.

This doesn’t mean that the CA is bad. But, marketing for the CA is bad and misleading. I read somewhere in your blog about the flock to IT careers in the computer boom. I almost completely agree with you. We’re going to start having a problem 5-10 years down the road when everyone has a CA. Here are some personal thoughts that I have:

1) Every young bright person wants to become a CA.
2) CA marketing promises huge demand but I just don’t see it happening. The economy is shrinking. The days of reckless spending are over.
3) Average CA salaries are highly misleading. The 180K average is probably for CA’s in their 40’s. Not freshly minted 27 year old CA kids. Please keep this in mind.
4) You simply cannot ignore economics. There is supply and demand. The supply of CA’s will keep getting higher at this rate, and demand will lag behind. This means that we have to start seeing a much larger demand for CA’s or we will have much lower supply.
5) Current CA’s are in a great position today. You don’t know if you’re in a great position if you’re 5-6 years away from it.

Me: *see previous post for follow up question*
John: *see previous post for follow up answer*

Me: Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. So, tell us, and I mean actually tell us, how do we get into the Big 4?

John: (chuckles) Know someone. I won’t tell you exactly how our picking methodology works as that is confidential information. But if you know someone in the big 4, you’re shots improve dramatically. I have been involved in the recruiting process and I’ll tell you a secret.

Understand the concept of reciprocity. That’s all you need to know.

If you’re not having success getting into the big 4, consider how you handle recruiting events. At recruiting events, everyone surrounds me and the HR manager and we have junior staff accountants and co-op students who no one talks to. You’re losing out a huge advantage. Your odds of developing a relationship with me are much lower than with the other people.

You’re not getting anything special from me. You don’t really impress me. I see kids with super averages and presidents of accounting societies all the time. I’m used to ass-kissing. If you’re kissing my ass, I don’t really remember you. The HR manager doesn’t remember you either. We’re use to that stuff. We’re watching how you interact with other people and who other people recommend to us.

Me: Are there certain personality types or attributes that would favor someone in the hiring process? Marks etc?

John: Marks don’t matter as much as you think, but more than what you might hope. Lets be honest. If you’re peers are dropping 90’s and you’re dropping an 80, it doesn’t really help your case. If you have anything less than a 75, I’m worried about you. Anything over an 80, you won’t be disadvantaged. There are loads of other factors. I see lots of kids with accounting society experience. I see lots of kids with tons of outside employment experience. The more you know, the better chance you have. I don’t really care if you’re an introvert or extrovert. That doesn’t matter really to me. What matters is that you demonstrated the ability to get the job done. Teams need different people. We’re not looking for all Type A leaders. We want people who can fit into any team and get going.

I especially love kids with sales experience. You take a look at the most successful people in the world. Every one of them has sales experience.

Me: Ok, thank you. Thank you. So lets talk working in Big 4. What are your thoughts on eating time?

John: (laughter) Eating time is an unspoken tradition. No one wants you to eat time, but if you eat it, they are happy. (more laughter)

Really, this is more a problem in the senior, manager levels who are looking to impress. The bottom line is important to partners, especially junior partners. I won’t lie to you. Any partner who tells you otherwise is flat out lying through their teeth.

There is no way around this problem. If I say I don’t want you to eat time, you’ll say I’m lying. How can I be unhappy with a bigger cut of the profit? If I tell you to eat time, cause I’ll write you a good review, you’ll think I’m a greedy SOB. So how can I possibly look good? Either way I lose.

Really, Partners want the all star managers to be partners. If you’re not an all star manager, eating time is one way to make that appearance. I won’t talk about the ethics or so behind that. It’s climbing the corporate ladder. You earn your stripes in a difficult way in any organization.

Me: If you were to go into KPMG today as a young student, which division would you choose, Audit, Tax, or Advisory? What department? Why would you make that specific choice over all of the other services that KPMG offers?

John: Go into Audit first. Audit really opens your mind up in terms of what you see in other industries. There is no particular department that is better than the other. It is personal preference, but you will not go wrong with Audit.

Me: What are your thoughts about specializations (ex: CA-IFA, CA-CBV)? Is it worth the effort to get a specialization? If yes, then which of the 6 specializations would you recommend and why?

John: It depends on what you are getting your specialization for. Ask yourself? Do you need this? If not, then don’t waste your time. If you are getting it simply for more prestige and money, don’t bother. If I had to choose, I recommend the CA-IFA. Forensic accounting is extremely interesting, and is very nice experience.

Me: Do you feel that the effort is justified to get the CFA designation (ex: attempt to pass all 3 levels of exams if you have a CA designation) given the potential rewards?

John: Again, the incremental benefit of a CA or CFA when you already possess the other is smaller than if you had no professional designation. I got my CFA because I absolutely loved finance. Studying for the CFA was fun for me, and I loved every part of it. It is absolutely not easy to pass all three exams. The amount of time, dedication and sacrifice that you have to put in to get a CFA when you are already working is astronomical. Unless you have the time and dedication, don’t bother unless you love finance. If you’re doing the CFA for the same reason you’re doing the CA, it is a huge mistake.

Me: Do you believe that the Big 4 will keep their consulting divisions? BearingPoint, for example split off of the KPMG.

John: BearingPoint was a great core business but ran into issues with financing the past few years due to a few bad decisions. It was quite disappointing to see something with such a long history go out like that. With that said, I feel consulting will remain strong in the future.

Me: What qualities should aspiring CAs have in order to be successful throughout University and, eventually, the workforce?

John: The most important quality is the ability to take rejection and failure. Everything else is second hand. If you can’t take rejection, you won’t take risks. If you can’t take failure, you won’t capitalize on opportunities when they present themselves. The best thing to do when you’re young is to do things where you are sure to fail. Learn how to handle failure. It is the single biggest curse of society.

Me: Do you see any changes in the demographics of partners at the big 4 firms? Are we likely to see more women and visible minorities within the next few years or will the glass ceiling continue to exist? Any tips for these groups on making it to partner level?

John: The only tip I have for you to become partner is to become very very good at what you do. You cannot be average and expect to make partner regardless of race or sex. There tended to be a bias that partners were all tall, white males in the past. I feel this is changing so I do believe the demographics will change in the next few years. There is no reason to think that you won’t make partner if you excel at your job.

Me: 4.) Other than accounting, what other sets of knowledge would help us in our career?

John: Again, I highly advise getting experience in sales and marketing. I can guarantee that you will fall behind if you don’t. This means that even if you were a sales person at best buy, you have an edge up over the next guy.

Me: Were the women at big 4 hot during your days? *wink* (someone actually emailed me this question.. I felt I had the duty to ask)

John: (lots of laughter) Yes. They were also quite pretty back then. Actually I met my wife at KPMG. I was a senior and she was a junior at that time. I guess all the extra help I spent with her was worth it. So you never know. Treat your seniors and juniors nicely.

Me: Let’s talk basketball. (John was a former high school basketball player) Who’s going to the finals?

John: Kobe vs. Orlando in the finals. Kobe in 6. Kobe is the most complete basketball player in today’s game. He can kill you from anywhere. Inside. Outside. Kobe is hated, much like I was hated as a partner. I got my job done. He gets his job done. You have to respect that. Orlando is too inexperienced to win the finals this year despite Dwight Howard in the post.

Me: Allright John, Thanks so much for your time. Any closing thoughts?

John: My only advice to young people is to do as much as you possibly can when you are in your 20’s. You don’t need a 60K Big 4 job when you’re 24-25. You’re not considered a failure. You don’t need to start your career at the Big 4. You can survive in life with or without your CA. Don’t make the CA something it is not. I am a CA, but my name goes before it. If you are good in business, your name is the only designation you will ever need. Don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t be afraid to try new jobs. Figure out all this stuff before your 30. Your 20’s is way too early to chase the corporate ladder and climb something you don’t want to be a part of. Don’t waste your 20’s. Find out your passion and give it a shot. Those were the best years of my life.


  1. That was a great blog post! Its really nice to get some honest, no bullshit answers about the things you want to know. Looking forward to seeing how this blog progresses.

  2. ^ Couldn't have said it any better.

  3. Excellent interview! Some of the most straightforward answers I've received about this career path. It's given me lots to think about...

  4. I highly disagree that there's a glut of CA's. The number of writers has remained at a low level relative to the 1980's numbers. Besides, I think most young CAs now are considering specialization as their means of ensuring job security.

  5. This is great. So much insight, can't believe I did not come across this before.

    This should be printed and hung from the doors of every accounting undergraduate program in Canada. So many people out there aspiring to live the dreams others set out for them.

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  8. Thanks so much for this, very insightful!

  9. I really love what he said for the "closing thoughts", thank you very much. very useful

  10. If 'John' is retired, has 'nothing to hide', then why does he prefer to keep anonymous?