How long should you stay in public accounting?

Interviewee insights & responses

1. Eric Audit Manager Interview

Anonymous interviewee left PWC at 4.5 years. “During those years I never really paid attention to what was out there. I wish I would have kept my options open during that time.”

How long should you stay in public? You should stay at least 2+ years, 2 – 4 ½ years is a great time to go, there are a lot of opportunities! The longer you stay the tougher it is to make that next move. You want to make your move out of public before you hit manager, unless you want a career in Audit.

Traditionally, you move out of public into an audit role. But audit in public is different than audit at a company. In public you have the opportunity to learn the core audit work, and then when you get into a company the company will help you learn more.

Tell me about a rock star friend who left public accounting. A friend of mine left between 2 and 3 years. He did one year of audit, then rotated into another position and is now a senior manager after a couple of years. I think he did so well because he knew when to leave and was very flexible about positions within the company.

2. Left a big four public accounting firm as a second year Senior

This individual left a big four public accounting firm as a second year Senior four years ago. He is currently a Senior Audit Manager at a large financial institution.

Tell me your thoughts on public accounting and the best time to leave

“I feel as if I could have left one busy season earlier. Although things have worked out great, first and second year senior are ideal. It is better to leave prior to a manager title; and, Senior Managers just come in as Managers. A CPA is also a must have, or CIA; something professional!

The big four is a great place to start. It is a great training resource. You get the opportunity to see a lot of different operations which is very beneficial down the road. You also learn a lot of the best practices. Public accounting is a great place to start a career. However, the longer you stay the more of a subject matter expert you become and start missing operational areas. A big difference between public and industry though, is that public is very black and white where industry is greyer.

Ultimately, the best time to leave public accounting is when you have 3-5 years! You can work hard at a new company and be promoted quickly!”

Tell me about some success stories of friends who have left public accounting

“Well, one of my friends was a rock star at a big four public accounting firm and left as a senior. This individual is now a Director of Financial Reporting and has only been out of school for eight years!

Another friend of mine also left a big four public accounting firm as a senior and is now an Audit Manager at a large retailer.

A third friend, also from a big four public accounting firm, left and worked at a large financial institution and is now a controller at a mid-size private company.”

3. Had the intent to leave EY at 3 ½ years

Had the intent to leave EY at 3 ½ years. He saw the big four as the place where smart accountants went. The big four is the best place to get certification (CPA). He worked a lot with SDX and had many clients in both public and private. He is now a senior financial analyst.

Why left. After my first year at EY I had become a senior and I was seeing other people leaving who kept bringing up Thomas Coenen. Initially I just wanted to hear what was happening in the market. The question on my mind was what I would get for staying until Senior II. I found out the answer was nothing, the next big bump is after one year of experience at manager. I knew I didn’t want to stay for three more years. I took the title demotion going in, I figured it is probably tougher for managers going to senior titles. I knew that I wanted a great company but the question was whether I wanted accounting or finance.

What would you do over? If I could do things over, I wouldn’t change a thing. Everything worked great, the only thing is maybe I would have left three months earlier; I didn’t get anything for those three months. If the career change didn’t work out I knew I could have landed somewhere else easily. Audit is a great way into a company.

Why Audit? The number one reason I chose Audit is that it was the role they were hiring for. The second reason was it is a good place to get perspective of the company, understanding. You can succeed or fail with your understanding of the culture. The third reason was cool travel; the company had 8 international trips.

Most valuable experience at Big Four. I learned to work hard, prioritize, and deliver on deadlines. They do what they say they will and detail and accuracy are high. I got all this after Senior I. Taking on project manager role is hard work. Plus, some mid-level managers come in at a disadvantage. People that work there, at the company, feel that their experience is stronger because they grew up within the company. At Big Four I got a lot of audit experience but not as much experience on how to grow a business.

Advice. What level does one want in public? If you want partner track, then go for it. Otherwise the stages are Senior then Manager. They are just different titles. You need to know what career path you want. The longer you stay the more likely you will end up with the accounting path. You must also consider what you’re trying to get at and where you want to go or what you want to do.

4. Worked at KPMG for 4 yrs

This individual graduated from the University of Minnesota, worked at KPMG for 4 yrs., SUVERVALU Corporate, and Carlson Travel for 5 yrs. He is currently at a Medical device company as a 5 year audit. He leads IT Audit and the business across the board with a team size of 12 individuals plus himself. Personally he is the father of two kids, six and seven years old.

Thoughts on Public Accounting. I was at KPMG for 4 years and feel that this public experience provided me with many great growth opportunities including getting responsibility in different industries, while working on multiple projects and learning time management. I was able to work with different people, move up to supervisor quickly, and interact with high level people!

Public is a great place to start, but I knew it was not a long term play. If the right opportunity arose I wanted to take it. I looked at a few things and knew I wanted to be a part of a company where I could add value; I wanted to be a partner that could see a project through.

How long should you stay in public? You should at least stay for three years. Three years is the most beneficial point, at this point you are in charge of the opportunities and what you choose to do.

What would you do differently? I was too specialized. If I could do things differently I would be more proactive about making sure that I was getting exposure to different things.

What levels are important? The Medical device company that I work at, I know, hires at Sr level on financial side and promote from within. IT Audit on the other hand is a tougher market and it varies.

Why the Medical device company? I chose to go to the Medical device company because it was a good culture fit; they were looking for someone that was aggressive, successful but also a team player, a reasonable player, smart, knew how to best partner with businesses, got how things worked, had good communication, proactively took charge, showed interest in company and had an internal audit interest.

The culture is family friendly, growing, stable, and offers a tangible product (medical devices).

At the Medical device company I am a partner that adds value. I have great relationships and am in a well-respected department. They offer strong movement from Audit group with a three year rotation. I manage multiple projects and a good size team. I also interact with higher level clients and firms at the 3 yr. – 4 yr. mark.

Why hire from big four? Status, exposed to larger companies, larger engagement, best training, and resources. However, we also hire from Grant and McGladrey.

5. Left at five year mark and would do the same again

Left at five year mark and would do the same again. It’s a low risk decision, if it didn’t work out could have gone back. Decisions set you free. Don’t waffle. Live with consequences. The more he talked with senior executives and got informed the more comfortable he felt with his decision.

Perceptions of Big Four. The model is to work to death for low pay. However, big four teaches you to think and can teach the skills. What you learn in two years at the big four would equal 4-5 years corporate. However, in the big four you never get to see how decisions effect the business long term. People have different expectations, clients, managers, and partners. When people leave the big four they are then big four ambassadors. When thinking about leaving you’re dealing with the known vs. the unknown. If you spend time to learn about the company and people that work there, you can make that a known as well.

Appropriate time to leave. Do you want to hit manager before leaving? It depends on what you want to get out of public accounting. You have to chart your own path, there are so many variables. What are you happy with? What is missing? What kind of opportunity fulfills that? It comes down to who you are and what you want to gain. In terms of experience, senior is a good time to bail. If you get senior manager then you should be trying to hit partner. New senior/experienced senior are the sweet spots. 3-5 years ideal; 5 year more executive presence skills. As a manager you have paths in corporate. Senior level can enter as low level management. As time goes on you get diminishing returns; you become less marketable as you pass the sweet spot of the big four. Senior managers have a tough road.

I was on partner track, and was not really interested when got first call from (Fortune 500 company), but met with ABC company to be nice. It doesn’t hurt to talk with people and hear options. There are no guarantees to make partner. Big four burns out most people.

Governing principles. Money and/or titles are a factor, but not good key reasons. Money will never be enough if job doesn’t satisfy. Don’t get hung up on titles they can limit long term growth. It can be hard to step into a new company as manager, better to learn the business first. Things move a bit slower in industry, but you can act like a Bull in a china shop, you can make a couple of quick wins but will be a long term disaster.

Mistake. Kept it secret talking with a company. Would have brought partners in earlier. It came as a shock to them and some feelings were hurt. Chance to explore options but there are risks in doing this. Asked for forgiveness later and the relationships are great now. People remember bridge burners. Be honest when leaving firm. Keep the bridge intact. My thought was to give it a year, if it didn’t work out, I could always go back to public accounting.

Audit is entry point. Learn the business, then write own ticket. Company makes it happen and has a track record of doing this. Audit group extremely respected. Audit says something, business does it. The business sees them as trusted advisors.

For him money and title are not a big topic. Its not about the money; money is a wrong reason for moving.

Terry Schwagel- Audit Senior Manager at General Mills

Interviewed on January 27th, 2012

“I was with McGladrey initially, three years, moved to Minneapolis and decided to make my break from Public accounting. I left at a Senior level. Here at General Mills we hire 3-4 seniors from Public accounting a year. We probably hire one person at the Mgr. level every three years. That’s true for both the Audit and SEC group. Managers typically come with some obstacles to overcome. They have to get over taking a title reduction, and they also have to do 2-3 rotations before hitting the manager title again. A new mgr. in the Big Four is a Senior Financial Analyst at General Mills. The sweet spot we look for is the 3-5 year audit senior, pliable and not overly deep technical skills.

We look for people with an ability to understand the business. Adaptability, our rotational program is all about adapting. Someone that can influence without using positional authority. Executive presence. When to leave public accounting? Depends on their career objective. If they want to make the Controller path, then stay till Mgr. or Senior Mgr. If Corporate Finance is the goal, then get out of public quickly. The further down the Public path you get, the harder it is to get into Finance.

Compare a three year person to a five year auditor. 5 year’s tend to be more broad thinking. 3 years tend to be more tactical. We prefer the Internal auditors; they tend to have more ‘out of the box’ thinking. The external auditors tend to be more ‘check the box’ type of mentality.

Public accounting people should self-access themselves, what is it that I am interested in doing? Audit is a great place to start, chance to see the organization before deciding on the next move. “

Andy Dahl- Audit Director at Polaris

nterviewed on January 26th, 2012

“I left Deloitte at a Senior Mgr. level a couple of years ago. Big Four is great experience, perfect career for someone post-graduation. Working with young talented professionals. Senior executive interaction is great!”

Why left at Senior Mgr. level? Didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. As long as I still loved Public accounting I just kept my head down. I got to a stage in my career where I needed a plan ‘B’ in place. Always wanted to make Mgr., could have left at that level. I balanced internal options versus external options. The Partner track door was very narrow. Some of my old peers are still with Deloitte, and I’m surprised that some of them haven’t made Partner. I left because the company was compelling, am part of a mgmt. team, tangible product. A chance to broaden my knowledge base of business.

What levels does Polaris hire from Public accounting? We hire at the 2-5 year level mostly. 4-5 per year. We will randomly hire a Senior Mgr., maybe once every two or three years. We look for people that take ownership, process improvement, continuous development, assertive, and relationship oriented.

If you did Public again, what would you do differently? If I had a strong feeling about a particular company that I wanted to work for, I would find out what type of candidates they profile for. Would be very mindful of this, some companies want people in the 3-5 year mark, if I wanted to work for them I would make sure I didn’t miss my window of opportunity. It’s a lot easier to get into a particular company at a lighter level.

Most successful person you have worked with? One of my friends made Partner after 12 years. The top person I know left Public accounting after 3-4 years and went on to become the Controller of UHG. He got bored with Public and was ready for his next challenge.

If I had kids sooner, it could have changed my perspective. Probably would have left sooner than Senior Mgr.

Do I regret leaving Public? No never, not even for one minute. I used to feel guilty for not working in the evenings. Really excelling at my home life now! Not just work.

Most valuable thing you learned in Public? People management, working with people.