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If you are pursuing a career in taxation, a Big 4 firm may be the obvious choice, but there are many other accounting firms that offer a structured pathway if you are looking to specialise in direct tax or indirect tax.
There can’t be many industries where the global market share is so comprehensively dominated by so few, as it is in the accounting sector. Deloitte, EY, PwC and KPMG are the undisputed rulers of the accounting world.
With almost two-thirds of the global market share and 1,091,332 employees (as at 2019), it is no wonder they are known as the Big 4.
It’s no surprise that so many people setting out for a career in accountancy or taxation set their sights on the big prize – a foot in the door at one of the world’s leaders.
But joining such a huge organisation is not for everyone. There is a strong argument that it is better to join a smaller, regional firm.
There is a lot to be said for working in a company where everyone knows your name (copyright: the classic 1980s sitcom, Cheers). You get more hands-on experience, build closer client relationships and develop a wider understanding of how a firm works. You will probably have a greater work/life balance and feel like part of the family.
Yet it can feel provincial and far removed from where the action is. And while it may suit someone looking for an all-round accountancy education, if your chosen path is taxation, small may not always be beautiful.
But there is another way, where you can get the best of both worlds. Why not consider a Mid Tier firm?
What is a Mid Tier Firm?
As the description implies, Mid Tier firms sit between smaller or regional firms and the Big 4. They are still of a significant size and most have an international presence.
So where is the line drawn between a smaller firm and a Mid Tier firm? As a general rule, most would define a Mid Tier firm as one that appears from 5-100 in the top 100 UK firms (otherwise known as the Top 50+50 Accountancy Firms)
Heading the best of the rest is the trio of BDO, Grant Thornton UK and RSM. Other notable names include Mazars, Smith & Williamson, Haines Watts, Saffery Champness and Creaseys.
All are businesses of a considerable size. For instance, BDO billed £577 million in UK fees alone in 2020.
So where are the differences between a Big 4 and a Mid Tier firm?
Big 4 versus Mid Tier
- 1. The Clients. In 2019, FTSE 100 companies were audited exclusively by the Big 4. PwC took the top spot (29%), followed by KPMG (28%), Deloitte (24%), and EY (19%). The Mid Tier firms do not get a look in. (Source: The Accounting Resources Centre (ARC)
- 2. The Salary. It is widely accepted (but not always) that Mid Tier can never compete with the salaries and packages offered by the Big 4 firms. (source: How to make Partner)
- 3. Making Partner. Proportionally, it is easier to make it as a Partner outside a Big 4 firm. There are approximately 10-20 members of staff to 1 partner in a Big 4 firm, compared to 5-10 members of staff to 1 partner in a Mid Tier firm. (source: How to make Partner)
- 4. Work/life Balance. The Big 4 have notoriously high expectations and you are expected to work long hours. Often very long hours. The work/life balance can be almost non-existent. Junior doctors will understand! It’s not an easy ride at a Mid Tier firm, but the commitment is usually not as extreme.
- 5. The CV. But if you do get through the Big 4 training, it doesn’t look bad on your CV!
- 6. International clients. The Big 4 are truly global concerns and there is often the possibility to travel. Or at least there may be once we get the better of a certain virus.
- 7. The Peers. If you get a place at a Big 4, you will be working alongside the finest calibre colleagues. You can rebound off each other and fast-track your learning. Though being alongside the brightest sparks does create a pressure to perform. There is nowhere to hide.
Big 4 or Mid Tier. Which to choose?
For a tax professional (or someone who wishes to be one), this is the most obvious dilemma.
It usually makes sense to start out in an accounting firm before migrating into industry. And it makes sense to be in a larger firm (ie Mid Tier and above), if you plan to specialise in tax. If you want to dive deeper into specialisms, the Big 4 has teams within certain industries. For example, they have separate teams in financial services, TMT, oil & gas, M&A and many more.
Which route should you take? In truth, if you are in a top 100 accounting firm, you are going to be in good hands. The question is if you want to take the extra step and aim for the Big 4.
It is harder to get into a Big 4 firm, the hours are longer and the pressure greater. In most cases, the rewards are also superior.
If you thrive on pressure and you aren’t too bothered about missing out on some of your social life for a few years, then go big.
But Mid Tier is not a cop out. You will still have to work very hard and be totally dedicated. The hard work will certainly still pay off!
It’s a question of degrees. Either way a lucrative and fulfilling career in tax beckons.
Ed Moore is a Principal Consultant in the Direct Tax Division at Harvey John.
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