The Big Four are the world's largest accounting companies. They are made up of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu (Deloitte), Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler (KPMG) and Ernst & Young (EY). Although they are all probably best known for their audit work, they also provide tax, corporate finance, strategy and actuarial services to name just a few.
The Big Four audit the entire FTSE 250 between them. They are truly massive companies, employing thousands of staff with a global reputation based on providing the very best accounting services anywhere in the world.
After graduating from university, I was fortunate enough to be accepted on to the graduate scheme at one of the Big Four in their Financial Services audit team.
Although I have now moved on, I gained valuable insight into what is was like to work for a Big Four firm.
If you choose to work for one of the Big Four you will almost certainly make some great friends and have a lot of fun. You will occasionally have to work long hours and earn much less than some of your friends working elsewhere. Yet if you can survive the three years, then you will be a highly qualified individual with an excellent company on your CV.
One of the biggest advantages of joining the Big Four is that they all fully sponsor you to undertake a professional qualification. In most cases, PwC and KPMG allow you to complete the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales (ICAEW) whilst Deloitte and Ernst & Young opt for the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Scotland (ICAS). Both qualifications are globally recognised and allow you to use the letters ACA or CA, respectively, after your name. They are completed over three years and are a mix of exams and work experience. The Big Four place a lot of emphasis on passing the exams and so they will meet all costs, enrol you in classes taken during work hours and provide generous amounts of study leave which is not taken from your annual leave. You will not find this level of support at somewhere like an Investment Bank. Additionally, once you have completed the qualification you can expect to see your basic wage rise to between £40-50k at the Big Four, potentially rising to £60k if you decide to move into an Investment Bank after your three years.
Possibly the best part of working for one of the Big Four is the people that you will meet - they will all be like you. After spending a few weeks in classes studying with the rest of your intake you will undoubtedly make a strong bond with those people - and we are talking around one hundred plus people if you are working in London. You will be seeing most of these people for the next three years and will be in classes with them for a few weeks every year until you have qualified. Not only will you be making some fantastic friends, but you will also form a formidable network. However, it is not just people from your intake who you will meet. Part of the attraction of auditing is that you are given a portfolio of clients each with their own team. This will mean that across the year you will constantly be meeting new people. There will be a lot of hard work being done but the camaraderie (especially on a small client) will mean you will be laughing at the same time.
Tied into this is this vibrant social scene all at the expense of the company. Expect charity events, sports teams, post-audit lunches, monthly drinks for each division and several Christmas parties always involving at least one black tie event at stunning locations ranging from London Zoo to the Tower of London. The following day banter when one person inevitably turns up worse for wear at 11am is not to be missed!
Another bonus of working for the Big Four (in the audit team) is that you will get client interaction. You will be based at the client site, spending only a couple of hours a week at your own office. The job entails that you sit down with the client spending time understanding the processes and financial controls in place. You will often be involved in meetings with high ranking individuals, such as Chief Financial Officers and the Company Secretary. As you progress through the ranks, your client interaction will develop into more managerial type meetings involving deadlines and how the work will be completed. Eventually you may be involved in pitches for new clients.
Working for one of these companies provides the prestige of working for one of the world's largest organisations. When you tell people that you work for one of the Big Four you will get the instant respect that comes with working for a global market leader. Although being an accountant comes with the stereotypical notion that you are a boring, numbers obsessed individual, the truth is that it is a well respected profession.
The final positive is the job security that you will have. Current financial conditions have seen hundreds of Investment Bankers lose their jobs in the City as a result of the Credit Crunch. However, the Big Four have remained relatively unscathed. Business has continued to grow - after all, it is a legal requirement for financial institutions and PLCs to have an audit.
Possibly the worst part of working for the Big Four is the actual work especially if you are in the audit division. You will be given sections of the balance sheet to investigate and obtain evidence supporting the numbers. After collecting the evidence you will have to make photocopies and then tie in all of the numbers back to the balance sheet. All of the numbers have to be referenced on both the balance sheet and evidence and then filed. You may have to also get explanations for the numbers to ensure that they can be considered as reasonable. This process is repeated on every client you will audit thereafter. The repetitive nature of the job, to put it simply, is boring and referencing and photocopying can potentially take hours. If you are unlucky, managers may also pass on their photocopying duties to you. Additionally, all of the numbers have to be cast to ensure they have been calculated correctly. This is particularly tedious as it is just punching a lot of numbers into a calculator. This is essentially all that you do for the first three years.
One of the arguments for the lower wage is that you are working fewer hours than someone, in say, M&A. However, this is not always the case. January-April is known as "busy season". During these months expect to work from between 9am-8pm as the minimum and the occasional weekend. Personally, the worst that I experienced was when I worked for 10 days in a row mostly from 8.30am - 11pm and clocking up 16 hours on the weekend. Other horror stories that I have heard included working 8am-2am for two weeks (although no-one worked the weekend). After April, though, most people will work 9am-6pm but this depends on your clients. If you are booked on continuous year end audits you can expect to work 9am-7 or 8pm every night. Each audit has a deadline and it is essential that it is kept to avoid fines and ensure good relations are kept. This means that they you will work whatever hours are needed to make the deadline.
The wage at the Big Four is not amazing. A fresh graduate joining the 2008 intake can expect to earn £27k with no signing on fee or bonus. Whilst this is still a very good wage, it does not compare to the £40k starting salary plus signing on fee and bonus that a new starter at an Investment Bank can expect to earn. To compensate, small non-cash extras might be offered such as an extra day off around Christmas.
It is also inevitable that at some point you will have to go to a client based outside of London. Whilst many people enjoy this aspect, I did not. My naivety meant that I was expecting that I would be eating out every night in the city's finest restaurants and I would be exploring parts of the country that I had not visited. The reality is very different. If you are working out of London then expect long hours based on the fact that if you are away from home you probably will not have any plans in the evening. If you are lucky, the team that you are working for will go out for dinner in the hotel or somewhere nearby. If you are unlucky, expect to be ordering room service on your own every night..
The organisational structure is very hierarchical and rigid which might not suit everyone. At the bottom are the 1st, 2nd and 3rd year Associates, then the Executives, Assistant Managers, Managers, Senior Managers, Partners. If you are highly regarded it will take you around 14 years to get to Partner. However, out of an intake of a few hundred only a handful will make Partner.