Making the move from Public Accounting to Private Industry

You’ve got your CPA and a few years of experience under your belt, now what? Stay at the firm and work your way up? Or, make the leap from Public to Private? And if you do make a move, where to?

Making the decision to join a Public Accounting firm is a typical route after graduation. It’s the obvious path for most aspiring CPAs to get their certification and experience. But after two or three years, and some stressful busy seasons, many young accounting professionals start to think, “what’s next?”

So, what do you really want to do next? Should you go work for a big company? An investment/real estate firm, media or big tech? Should you go to a startup and help build something? Or, you could always stay at the firm, work hard, move up, and become a partner one day…

 

If you’re grappling with these questions, well, you’ve come to the right place! We speak to huge numbers of CPAs, accounting/finance professionals and CFOs every month to learn about their career journeys and about the opportunities available. So, here’s what we know:

 

Your path changes depending on your aspirations and how quickly you want to move up.

The Large Company Route:

 

A pretty common path we see young CPAs taking is to stay in Public Accounting for three to four years and then move to a large, established company. There are a lot of roles at large organizations and plenty of opportunities for mentorship and development.

 

The Pros?

  • Support & mentorship: Large accounting/finance departments can mean lots of people to answer questions and support your growth.

  • Clear development path: There are typically clear routes for accounting professionals with opportunities to learn new roles and get promotions.

  • Stability: Big companies aren’t known to change very quickly, so you’re likely to continue doing the job that you got hired to do and change will be slow and stable. You’ll probably have a decent idea of the next step for your career progression.

  • Salary & benefits: Most private industry roles offer market value salaries (based on experience) and good benefits. You might find there’s not much wiggle room for salary negotiations, and only within an approved salary band, but you’re also likely to receive extended benefits and other perks.

The Cons?

  • Slower growth: While there are many opportunities, you may have to wait for annual reviews or follow a specific trajectory in order to get the promotion you’ve been working towards.

  • Less access to senior leadership: In public accounting, you probably get some access to senior leaders, but switching to private industry may put you lower in the org chart. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as you’ll have many mentors, but if facetime with execs is essential, you might feel the gap.

  • Total compensation: Large companies have established rules for raises and compensation. You’ll have opportunities to negotiate, but HR frequently holds the reins.

The Small Company (start-up) Route:

How will your experience differ at a start-up or early-stage growth company? Let’s start with an analogy – a building analogy. Let’s say you want to build a shed. If you work at a large enterprise, somebody will give you the blueprints, and you’ll have a team of expert contractors to supervise and support your work. You’ll still have to gather the materials and do the hard work, but there are lots of people invested in ensuring that your shed looks exactly like the drawings.

 

So what’s it like at a start-up? You’ll get a pile of materials and no instructions in sight. You’re given the opportunity to figure out what you want to build and how to do it. It’s yours to design, plan, and execute. You may get some helping hands, but the team supporting you doesn’t know much more about shed construction than you do. But, once you figure it out, you become the expert. You get the credit. You become the leader.

The Pros?

  • Ample opportunity to learn: At a scale-up, there’s plenty of room to figure things out and learn new skills.

  • Unlimited growth: There are no set times between promotions, and the growth of the company means there are no boundaries to your next step.

  • Access to senior leadership: A small team means you’ll be working directly with leadership to get what you need.

  • Salary & benefits: Salaries can differ, largely depending on the size of the company and how much funding they’ve secured. But as they grow, you will too. You might even be able to negotiate equity as you grow with the company, and that can deliver major gold at the end of a rainbow.

The Cons?

  • High volatility: Start-ups often need to pivot, so your role might too. You might have to jump in to support projects that seem out of scope.

  • Few extended benefits: Startups don’t typically prioritize extended health benefits, but often make up for that with flexibility and good vacation policies.

My experience, having placed countless CPAs over the course of multiple decades, is that it is generally best to build your career in private industry starting with a well-known company in your chosen industry (real estate, media, consumer products, etc.) – you can always make the move to a smaller company, such as a start-up or pre-IPO firm, once you’ve established yourself with a combination of public accounting and private industry experience.  In other words, if your first move out of public is to an early-stage company, but then decide you’d prefer to be with a large enterprise, it might be difficult to make that leap.  It is easier to go from a large company to a smaller company than it is to go the other direction without already possessing big company experience.

 

The Public Accounting Route:

So, what about staying in public accounting? That can be a great career path for somebody that loves building client relationships and wants to go the partner route. If you like sales and working closely with clients, then this might be the best fit for you.

 

At the end of the day, the best thing to do is start by asking yourself a couple of questions:

  • What are you looking for in your career? Stability? Growth opportunities? Big challenges? There’s more stability in the large enterprise route, but your growth and compensation might be limited (at least in the short term).

  • What type of learner are you? Do you like to figure things out yourself? Try different techniques and solve big problems? Or do you prefer to be shown how to do something the first time?

No matter what your choice may be, we can help you find your next big role. The first step is to simply set up a time to chat - I'd love to share my experience and insight with you.

Contact us today.