Are The Big Four Accounting Firms and Grant Thornton as Great as they Seem?

Date: January 3, 2017 12:40 pm
Author: Etan Neiman

There is a harmful perception which is pushed at accounting students in colleges across the country and Yeshiva University is no exception. Students, professors and others are all complicit in allowing the advancement of this terribly false narrative. For various reasons, those with a voice who are aware of this inaccurate perception decide not to speak up. I am no longer willing to be one of those people. It is time to say what many won’t: Working at the Big Four accounting firms is not all it is cracked up to be.

Students are trained to eat, sleep, and breathe four glorious firms by the names of Deloitte, EY, KPMG, and PwC. If a professor references a firm in class, it is one of those four. If a speaker is brought in, he or she will be from one of those four firms. Students dream of calling their parents with the news that they will be beginning employment at a Big Four firm. All that this amounts to is a tremendous disservice to many accounting students who zero in on a firm or firms which are not the right fit for them.

Though I am about to present some harsh and perhaps over-the-top critiques of the Big Four and later on Grant Thornton, make no mistake about it: These firms have some indisputable positives  and absolutely represent great fits for many aspiring accountants, just they are not the right choice for everyone. Please do not miscategorize this article as an attack piece. This article’s purpose is to highlight the importance of finding the right fit in one’s employer and not necessarily flocking to the shiniest names. To enable that mindset, I feel it necessitates highlighting some of the usually not discussed negatives which can come with working for a Big Four firm or Grant Thornton. For the sake of transparency, much of this piece should be classified as opinion and not taken as absolute fact. Though I am confident in the information I have gleaned over my time as Commentator Business Editor, the nature of this piece makes it tricky to provide concrete facts or sources.

Some of the reasons a Big Four recruiter may cite as to why their firm is the best are the opportunity for varied experiences made possible by their variety of large clients, scheduling flexibility, strong firm resources, and the network of brilliant partners to learn from. To systematically debunk or clarify these supposed advantages one-by-one, though it is true that the Big Four impressively boast clients littered across the Fortune 500, a very common experience working for these firms as an associate is to spend all of one’s time working in the same industry for the same client. Even worse, in many cases, one will not be allowed to as much as glimpse the client until he or she has been working for the firm for many years. Citing her reason for leaving KPMG after spending just one year as an associate and enjoying her time with the firm, a companion at a Shabbat lunch table remarked, “I asked to switch to a different client and was told no.”      

Regarding the claim two high ranking employees at Big Four firms made to me about the tremendous scheduling flexibility enjoyed at their places of work, the Big Four are notorious for their unforgiving hours and demanding superiors. Working on weekends is common practice, while associates will depart the office as late as midnight during busy season. To be fair, the claim of these employees was in reference to flexibility in regards to taking time off for religious holidays and it is true that one will not find any problem leaving for Shabbat and holidays at the Big Four. However, I believe it is fair to say just about any company or firm, particularly in New York, allows an employee to drain away their vacation days on religious holidays.    

Make no mistake about it; the Big Four firms have top-notch resources. A tour of PwC’s midtown office will show a gorgeous (not kosher) cafeteria, stunning décor, and the most up-to-date technology. However, the important resources to one’s success can as well be found at midsize and even small firms.

To address the learning opportunity from the network of partners supposedly made possible at a Big Four firm, while it is true that there are many brilliant partners and minds at these firms, often times associates report that upon beginning employment the partners are understandably largely inaccessible due to the partners’ own demanding schedules. This is in stark contrast to the open door policy enjoyed at many midsize firms such as Anchin Block & Anchin, where the office doors of partners are literally almost always open. In fact, one high ranking official at a Big Four firm reported in a previous Commentator article that one would be ill-advised to leave their firm or similar firms before they become manager (which generally takes about five years) because staff members “do not learn enough in only two or three years.” On the one hand, this quote was in the context of the firm’s understandable desire for associates not to quickly leave. On the other hand, it does suggest that meaningfully growing one’s accounting knowledge may take several years at a Big Four firm.

One supposed advantage of Big Four firms which, in fairness, recruiters do not claim but is still a perception is that the Big Four pays handsomely more. That is flatly untrue. Taking EY for example, according to PayScale, starting salaries for EY staff accountants oscillate greatly and have a national median of $55,133. Certainly though, that number is higher in New York City due to the inflated prices and salaries of the city. Even after adjusting for the city’s price inflation, this salary figure is right in line with the starting salary one can expect at many midsize or even small firms. When factoring in the additional work hours necessary at a Big Four firm as opposed to midsize firms, the salary does not very much compete with that of midsize firms.      

There is, however, one unquestionable advantage of working at a Big Four accounting firm and it appears on one’s resume. If one is looking for what is likely to be a temporary job for a year or so, the Big Four offers invaluable name recognition which can help in securing one’s next position. At a Big Four firm’s “Super Day”, a pair of recruiters even boasted during a presentation that their employees are constantly getting calls from competitors or various companies trying to poach them. However, It did seem as though it was almost a selling point about how easy it would be to one day leave that firm, if one were to accept their offer.

In contrast to the drawbacks a Big Four firm can offer, there are tremendous midsize firms which present what could be better fits. Some examples of firms which may for various reasons be a better fit for a YU student than a Big Four firm are Anchin Block & Anchin, Brand Sonnenschine, Citrin Cooperman, CohnReznick, Loeb & Troper, and WeiserMazars. Brand Sonnenschine and Loeb & Troper offer the unique advantage of not having to take vacation time for Jewish holidays. Anchin Block & Anchin and Citrin Cooperman are maybe the most devoted firms to fostering a growth environment and open-door policy. A second year associate at Anchin reported that only five people of his entire starting class were no longer with the firm. CohnReznick and WeiserMazars, near the top end of the midsize firm class in terms of revenue, offer a comfortable balance of growing within the firm and boasting impressive clients of their own. In addition to these, countless other midsize firms offer the trademark midsize qualities of an environment where an entry-level employee could likely spend many happy years, exhibit tremendous growth in their accounting knowledge, enjoy a variety of different types of work exposures, and have reasonable hours. Again, this is all available at salaries which are largely very comparable to those of a Big Four firm. Of course, the most noted downside of a midsize firm is that the household names which look best on one’s resume lie with the Big Four.

An important clarification which must be made is that though the popular term is the Big Four, there is in actuality one additional firm which is popular amongst Syms students and worthy of some of the drawbacks detailed above: Grant Thornton. They brilliantly and deceptively brand themselves as having the advantages offered at both midsize and large firms. (I am paraphrasing to reflect my opinion.) I myself at one time fell for this sneaky marketing and even wrote an article last February which in part detailed many of the advantages Grant Thornton can offer. For the first and hopefully last time in my journalistic career, I retract every single letter of that article as it pertains to Grant Thornton and cannot ask enough for the forgiveness of my readers for publicizing this untrue narrative. I have taken down the online version of the article so it cannot do any further damage.

While Grant Thornton is technically classified as a midsize firm due to their steep drop off in revenue from the Big Four, they are certainly still very large with revenue in excess of $1.4 billion according to Vault. To my point, I have found over my years speaking with members of the industry that Grant Thornton offers similar downsides to the Big Four in areas such as work hours and being tied to one client or industry, only without the same level of legitimate prestige which a Big Four staff member benefits from. Though some, particularly those employed by Grant Thornton, may offer possibly fair arguments to this characterization, working at Grant Thornton is in some ways a lose-lose.

In spite of the harsh assessment offered above of the Big Four and Grant Thornton, I cannot stress enough that they truly do have many positives and represent a tremendous fit for many accounting students. That is what this article is about at its core: the extreme importance of finding one’s own right fit for employment as opposed to letting general perceptions dictate one’s right fit. Since the narrative is not often shared for various reasons, I felt it to be of paramount importance to outline in detail some of the negatives the Big Four and Grant Thornton may represent.

I implore every accounting student, from a 3.00 to 4.00 G.P.A., to explore with an open mind which firm is right for them. Maybe one will decide the advantages of the Big Four outweigh the drawbacks. Maybe one will find that some of my claims above are exaggerated or not consistent with reality. Regardless, deciding on the ideal firm where an accounting student will start his or her career is one of the most important decisions he or she will make. It’s time to break the harmful perception that the Big Four accounting firms are the best fit for everyone.

Tags: , ,

Categorised in:

This post was written by Etan Neiman

Leave Reply