Friday, August 27, 2010

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

“I’m a senior manager in a Big 4 firm. I was told that I am being groomed to become a partner of this firm in two to three years’ time. I am married with a kid and my husband and I are doing fine financially. Problem is I received a very generous offer from a private company if I resign from this firm and move there. Should I accept it? Or should I stay and wait until I become partner of this firm?”

The above is not an email, by the way. It was one of the questions my friend and I discussed when we met for lunch. She’s still in the Big 4 firm and she posed that question to me.

I’ve seen a lot of things written about working for the Big 4 in the Internet. But seldom do I see (or I haven’t really been looking hard enough) posts about becoming a partner, or how much a partner really receives from the firm. So whatever I write in this post, it’s based on my observation and what I’ve heard from the ‘office grapevine’.

For one, salaries of partners in Big 4 firms (and even in small to medium – size accounting firms) are not definite.  Can anybody give me a sure figure? $200,000 a year? $500,000 a year? How about a million dollars (or more) a year? Is it lower than what you will receive if you become a controller or a CFO or a VP for Finance in a big or small private company? Or is it way beyond the said positions’ compensation package?

Put it this way, and as I’ve told my friend, it’s kind of hard to compare a private company’s offer with a figure that can range from six to seven figures a year! The partner’s salary is one of the most closely guarded secret I’ve ever known – at least where I came from but I don’t think this situation is unique. But personally speaking? I would say the compensation is far greater for a partner in a Big 4 accounting firm than for a CFO or a VP or a controller.

That takes care of the salaries (or does it?). What about the time spent in the office? Are the hours if you’re a partner the same or higher or lower than the hours spent when you’re in a private company?

We all know that the hours in the accounting firm can be hellish. I’ve seen partners who work from 8 in the morning to 12 midnight, 7 days a week during busy seasons. I’ve seen partners who are no-shows after 9 or 10 in the evening and even during weekends, and this is during the busy season. What about during the not-so-busy season? Again, it depends. Some partners go from 8 in the morning to 10 in the evening plus a Saturday. Some partners go home by 6 in the evening and you don’t see them around during a Saturday.

Admittedly, the hours are easier if you’re in a private company. But if you’re part of the group that closes the books, you can be sure you’ll be doing a lot of overtime during the month-end. I’ve seen some CFOs work their *ss off during year-end closing and FS finalization stages. Still the hours are less than those you will spend during the busy season, even for partners.

What about the risks? Which is more ‘risky’? I would interpret ‘risky’ here as which job has a higher probability of pulling you down into the mud if you or the firm or the company fails to address an issue that blows up all over your faces. Before the Enron debacle, I would have said being a CFO or a VP for Finance is more risky than being a partner of a firm. If you fail as a former, chances are you’ll be booted out (and may even be blacklisted) but if you fail as a partner, there’s still a chance you might salvage your position (only they will do some ‘revamping’ meaning you will no longer be allowed to sign off on financial statements). But after Enron, and watching a whole accounting firm go down, I’m on the other side of the scale. It is riskier to become a partner of a firm (and a Big 4 at that) than to become a part of a private company.

What about work challenges? Gee, this one is easy (at least for me). It’s the reason why I never contemplated working for a private company. I think there are more challenges if you work for an accounting firm than for a private company. In an accounting firm, unless you get stuck with the same client year in and year out (for the next 10 or 20 years); chances are, you’ll be resolving a lot of (different) accounting and auditing issues.  The same cannot be said if you’re in a private company. But then again, this is me. It really depends on one’s appetite for such challenges. And I’m going to stop at that.

So what did I tell my friend? In the end, I told her it all depends on her and what she wants in life. Higher or lower salary aside, more hours or challenges or not, it all boils down on whether she really like what she’s doing. Kind of ideal, yes? But then again, I think it’s as simple as that.

If you’re my friend, what will you do?


  1. Good post, and i would agree with your big picture conclusion of sticking with the Big 4 employer. However one ball i would hit back in your friends court is the question about compensation of partners. Surely if she is being groomed to be one in a few years, she has good relationships with Partners at the firm. I am quite positive she will know exactly how much she can make as a 1st yr partner right up till a 10 year partner. At her level im sure this informtion is not too opaque.

    On another note in terms of work life balance i would provide my two cents that private co's arent that great in this aspect. Exactly like you HL, they upper management works pretty late during month ends. In addition as an auditor of a couple such companies, there are tons of times we are not the last ones to the leave the building.

    Big Picture: Reach the pinnacle of partner and reassess from there.

  2. I would jump ship and become the Controller of Facebook (private company). If the private company isn't Facebook or a future Facebook "to-be", then I'd consider staying at the firm and becoming a Partner. =)

  3. Hi,

    I enjoy your blog.

    I'm curious if anyone can answer my question:

    If you pass the UFE but leave accounting before you get all your hours, will there eventually be a point in time in which you will have to re-write your UFE if you ever return to accounting?

    Also, if you get your CA designation but leave accounting and pursue non-accounting related entrepreneurial activities and do not pay the annual ICAO fee, will there be a point in time when you will have to re-write your UFE if you ever return to accounting.

    Thanks a lot!

  4. ^
    From the time you register as CA student, you have 10 years to complete all your hours and exams. If you don't, then you need to re-do everything all over again.

    If you don't pay your ICAO fee, then you will be disqualified.

  5. Really eh...

    what does disqualified mean, and how much does it cost?

  6. What did she decide on??

  7. For me (and I'm just starting out in this profession, so no doubt my ideas will change by the time I'm her age) the biggest factor would be time.
    Both jobs will pay well enough for you to live comfortably, I imagine. Depending on the private company, even if CFO position gets very stressful at year end, or even month end, the impression I get from clients is that generally the people working in industry have better hours all around.
    Also, in terms of riskiness, although Andersen did go down as a whole firm, many of the partners transferred directly to partner positions at one of the other 4 firms. After the "end" of Andersen, so many Andersen partners moved to Deloitte that there were more former-Andersen partners than original Deloitte ones. At least, that was the case in the office where I interned. So, it seems there's still demand for your talent if you make it to that level, as long as you personally don't screw it up? (I hope.)

  8. This was actually what I was looking for, Great blog post. and I am happy that I finally came here! This for giving out and keep up the excellent work. I will suggest my friends to read this.

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