CPAs in public accounting sometimes wonder what it would be like working in business and industry. While every workplace is different, this article brings together the experiences of five CPAs who work for private companies, Alan Duncan, Elsa Jacobs, Givenson Piard, Rachael Sarson-Smith, and Austin Schuerg, graduates of the AICPA Leadership Academy, discuss the sometimes-surprising aspects of being a CPA in B&I.
It’s not always easy to make the switch from public to B&I. Experience gained in public accounting is useful in business and industry, say CPAs who’ve worked in both, but that doesn’t make for a seamless transition. Some of them find the move much more of a challenge than they had anticipated.
Schuerg moved about a year ago from a CPA firm to working as a treasury manager for Simms Fishing Products in Bozeman, Mont., and it has taken him that long to feel he has mastered the technical challenges of his current job—including the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.
You’ll need to change the way you speak to colleagues. Moving to business and industry often means adjusting to a very different corporate culture and having to learn a new business language. Duncan, a controller at RCP Companies, a boutique real estate company in Huntsville, Ala., noted that his perspective on what he needed to know changed when he moved out of public accounting.
“Coming out of public accounting, I was acclimated to an environment that operated in an arena that was an inch deep and a mile wide,” he said, “whereas my stepping into industry brought me in to a new arena that was a mile deep and an inch wide, in many ways.” That meant Duncan spent a lot of his time in his first year on the job learning “industry terms, KPIs, and the general thought process.”
It may feel less structured. Duncan was surprised by the comparative lack of structure he experienced with a young, fast-growing company. “I think most of this shock came from my transition out of a highly structured environment and into an environment where everyone kind of set their own agenda and priorities,” he said.
You may have to adapt to new ways of working. Software and other tools vary widely from company to company. Jacobs left a Big Four accounting firm in 2011 to become manager of tax compliance with insurance company Asurion in Nashville, Tenn., and found her new employer had a very different approach. She is now a senior manager in tax accounting.
“When I came over, they were still working with paper, and I was used to doing everything paperless,” she said. “Thankfully my company is really accepting of change, and doing new initiatives and becoming more efficient, so I was able to get us on a paperless system for tax returns.”
There are benefits to working in business and industry. Positives the CPAs noticed can include ample time for family and life outside work, colleagues with a broad range of experience and professional skills, and flexibility. Jacobs enjoys having a more flexible schedule and a more relaxed dress code.
The route to the top isn’t as clear. CPAs who transition to business and industry may discover that the line of career advancement, which in a public accounting firm moves fairly linearly from staff to manager to partner, branches in multiple directions in the private world.
Sarson-Smith is a corporate staff accountant at national hotel-management company White Lodging Services, based in Merrillville, Ind. She has learned that opportunities in business and industry may lead to a job in another department, such as asset management or human resources. “In public accounting, the end goal is partner,” she said, “which is a great goal to have, but in industry there are definitely a lot of options that I have as I learn more about my company and develop.”
It may be harder to advance. Piard left a Big Four firm in 2014 as a manager, worked in business and industry, and is now a consultant for BlackLine, an accounting software company. Corporate structure can be an obstacle to advancement in business and industry, he said.
“You might find yourself stuck in a position for many years because the natural progression of the role would require the person above you to retire or get a promotion or move someplace else,” he said.
Jacobs offered a similar perspective: “Some people may have to change jobs to move up.”
While the people we spoke with generally found satisfaction in their moves, they all found positives on both sides of the public-private divide. Duncan takes comfort in knowing the bridge over that divide has traffic moving in both directions.
“I love public accounting, and I’ve got a great respect for it,” he said. “It may or may not be something that I’ll do again someday. I’m having a blast doing what I’m doing now, and I’m very grateful to know there’s another side to the profession out there that I absolutely love doing.”
Eddie Huffman is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C. To comment on this article, email senior editor Courtney Vien.
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