Sharon Gubinsky and I met on Twitter. She is lucky to be in Maryland, home of the Maryland Association of CPAs and the wonderful Tom Hood and Bill Sheridan. Sharon asked me for some advice when she started her blog. I thought her experience may be useful to some career-changer and experienced hires, as well as new college graduates.
Sharon is an Audit Manager with Santos, Postal & Company, P.C. At SantosPostal, Sharon provides services for audits, taxes, consulting and prevention of fraud with a concentration in the areas of medical, real estate, not for profit, government contracting, retail, hospitality industry and professional services. She received her B.S. and worked for the private sector in finance within the construction/contracting, medical and hospitality industries previous to joining SantosPostal.
In her quest to support the interests of women CPA’s, Sharon is a founding member and serves on the Executive Board for the AWSCPA DC Metro Region Chapter. Sharon has recently been selected to serve on the finance committee for the Eagle Bank Foundation whose mission is to support breast cancer research and treatment. Sharon was selected as one of Maryland’s Top Women Business Leaders in November 2009. She is also affiliated with the MACPA, AICPA, ACFE, AWSA and CREW. She was most recently been selected to serve on the finance committee of the Eagle Bank Foundation. Eagle Bank is a local bank in the DC metro area. The mission of the Foundation is to support breast cancer research and treatment.
Swimming in a Pond, Lake or Ocean
Upon college graduation those entering the public accounting profession have a big decision at hand. What size waterway do they want to swim in? I refer to small firms, regional firms and the Big 4 as a pond, lake and ocean, respectively. The young fish must decide where to call home. In my career I have worked in the private industry and for the past thirteen years with a “pond” firm. As my public accounting experience is limited to only one size firm I reached out to others in my profession to gain their insight into what was learned during their careers by working with different size firms. Several factors must come into play when making a decision of this magnitude. The percentage of entry levels that remain in public accounting at their original choice of firm is minimal and turnover during the first two years of one’s career is high. Is this a result of choosing a firm that was not a good fit?
“I cannot give you one reason why an entry level would start anywhere but a large firm.” That is a strong quote in favor of starting within the Big 4 or large regional firms. So what can a larger firm offer that a smaller firm cannot? To name a few, firm written methodologies and training manuals, public company and fortune 500 company exposure, diversity and incentives training and programs, travel and stationing abroad, and let’s be honest, having a Big 4 listed on your resume doesn’t hurt. From a smaller firm perspective, entry level employees are the most expensive to employ. We look for new employees with large firm experience to join our team for just this reason.
With these great potential employment perks, why wouldn’t everyone want to work for a mammoth firm? The main reason is that people and their needs are as different as individual accounting firms. Some people need the smaller firm environment. Within a small or mid-size firm you know all of your coworkers which relates to an extended family comfort. At a smaller firm you have client continuity and get to know your clients well. Within a larger firm you may work with a client once and never again. You may never see the entire picture, rather work only on a portion of the project. Entry levels in a smaller firm gain exposure to both audit and tax and are not pigeon holed into one particular industry. The main complaint I heard on the larger firms was being assigned to a particular industry and never gaining exposure to any others. The partners in a smaller firm tend to be more hands on and can directly review your work. The partners in a Big 4 firm most likely will not know your name or that you even exist.
I would have thought that cutting edge technology would have been a pro for the larger firms until we hired a young woman looking to leave KPMG for a smaller firm. My firm is paperless for audit preparation and surprisingly KPMG still does audits via paper. If technology is important to you going bigger doesn’t always mean more being technologically advanced.
If I was starting my career over and was entering public accounting at the age of twenty I would choose a large firm. For me, the main reason would be the travel and the possibility of working abroad. What a great time in your life to explore the world while embarking on your career. Would I have stayed for my entire career? I don’t know. I thoroughly enjoy my work at my “pond” firm and have established meaningful relationships with my clients over the years. I am not convinced I would have that swimming in the “ocean.”
When offering advice to those who ask where to start I say “Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in an ocean?” In the economy right now most will take whatever is offered to them. In the event an applicant is fortunate to choose between employment offers I would suggest a bit of personal reflection on what their ultimate goal is and what environment they need in order to succeed.
I would like to acknowledge the following for their time to discuss their experience in public accounting with different sized firms: David Holmes, CPA; James LaGrone, CPA; Maura Lange, CPA; Charles Postal, CPA; Merle Postal, CPA; and Joseph Scolaro, CPA.
Sharon Gubinsky, CPA