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“Big 4 vs Mid Tier – which will be better for my career?” It’s a question that has taxed many graduates. To answer it, I previously wrote about the differences between working for a Big 4 firm and a Mid Tier Firm, however, I specifically compared to Mid Tier firms below the top 10 accounting firms only. In this article, I revisit those thoughts to highlight the key differences between the Big 4 and Mid Tier firms towards the top end instead.

Big 4 vs Mid Tier: Is there a difference?

What’s the fuss? An accounting firm is an accounting firm, right? Wrong! The Big 4 (Deloitte, EY, KPMG, PwC) are very different beasts to even the national firms in the UK accountancy top 10-20. Even within the Mid Tier, there is a large difference between working for a BDO or Grant Thornton and a top 10-20 firm.  Since I wrote my previous article, BDO and Grant Thornton have become Big 4-lite firms. Like the Big 4, they are building their consulting capability (on a much smaller scale) and have very structured talent management and career progression processes. It is for this reason, that I’d like to explore the differences between Mid Tier firms towards the top end and Big 4 firms to show you the distinction between Big 4, Big 4-lite, and Mid Tier firms. 

Don’t Big 4 firms have a broader range of specialisms and larger clients?

In my previous article, I wrote this: Whilst recent audit reforms mean that more Mid Tier firms get to audit FTSE 100 and FTSE 350 companies than before, it is fair to say that the Big 4 – EY, KPMG, Deloitte, and PwC, tend to work on clients at the top of the mid-market through to the largest multinational and international firms. If you work for a Big 4 firm, you are pretty much guaranteed to work with the largest companies and richest private individuals. However, for a few years now, PwC and KPMG have introduced very competitively priced services and specialist units for small businesses, so you may find yourself working in a smaller market sometimes too even at a Big 4. After the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002, the Big 4 firms sold their large consultancy arms. Over the last five years or so, they have been rebuilding their consultancy practices by diversifying their offer, whilst retaining their traditional accountancy, tax and advisory services. After all, given the unprecedented access most of the Big 4 firms have to large businesses in the UK and globally, it makes sense to be able to offer a complimentary consultancy service.

Both apply to top Mid Tier firms too.

The rapid rise of cloud-based accounting systems, such as Xero, have enabled The Big 4 to become an attractive proposition to SMEs – traditionally the market occupied by Mid Tier and small firms. Previously, you could say that the Big 4 worked on large corporates and listed companies, BDO, Grant Thornton and the top of the Mid-Tier focused on the Mid-Market and larger of the privately owned businesses, and the rest of the Mid Tier focused on SMEs.  That isn’t the case now; the market has moved on. The Big 4 are encroaching more and more on the Mid Tier and small firm market place, and the larger Mid Tier are reaching higher. For example, KPMG has a small business and an enterprise division catering to the needs of small and private businesses, while BDO and Grant Thornton are nibbling away at the corporates and listed companies. If your goal is to move from Mid Tier to Big 4, this may just be food for thought for you.

Working for the Big 4 still means a bigger salary – right?

In my previous article, I talked about the salary difference between the Big 4 and the lower Mid Tier firms: In Mid Tier firms (below the top 10 accounting firms in the UK), it is widely accepted that they can never compete with the salaries and packages offered by the Big 4 firms. If you are lucky enough to get a role in a Big 4 firm you can expect a ‘market-leading’ salary and benefits. Of course, you will be expected to work extremely hard to earn these. Read my post about what it really means to make partner. What’s changed is that there is a massive shortage of talent across the accountancy profession in the UK. This means there is less of a gap between salaries at the top of the Mid Tier, i.e. BDO and Grant Thornton, compared to the Big 4.

Mid Tier vs Big 4 – salaries not that different.

From research using Glassdoor reports, I found that at trainee through to manager level (for audit in London) there was no meaningful difference in salaries between BDO, Grant Thornton and the Big 4 – EY, KPMG, Deloitte and PwC. Apart from trainees, the actual lowest salary figure quoted was a Big 4, not BDO or Grant Thornton.

  • Trainee: £26 – 35k
  • Senior: £39 – 46k
  • Assistant Manager: £43 – 52k
  • Manager: £55 – 71k

From my findings, it is fair to say that – as soon as you go outside the top 6 firms, you will see a more discernible difference between salaries between the Mid Tier and the Big 4. When you’re just looking at top Mid Tier vs Big 4, the salaries aren’t actually that different at all.

Does a Big 4 firm feel more corporate?

In my previous article, I wrote: Whilst the Big 4 are still Limited Liability Partnerships, they are much closer to a corporate than any of the Mid Tier firms below those at the top of the Mid Tier (such as BDO and Grant Thornton (GT)). This means there are generally more established processes and systems within Big 4 firms than in the Mid Tier. In fact, some of the firms in the UK Mid Tier are currently spending huge amounts of time introducing a consistent way of working. This is becoming more and more true as time goes on and the gap between Big 4 and Big 4-lite firms is lessening. From what we are seeing with our clients from the top 10 UK firms, there now seems to be a similar level of rigour in how promotions are made from senior manager to director and director through to fixed share partner.  To give you an idea of just how much this is the case, now all top 6 firms expect their senior managers to prepare a business case for director, as well as the more normal business case to go from director to partner.

In summary – what to know about Big 4 vs Mid Tier.

Many graduates will still want to start their accountancy career with a Big 4 firm. They are still great names to have on your CV, regardless of how long you stay. However, it is worth noting from this article that the gap between BDO, Grant Thornton and the Big 4 is lessening. If you opt for a top 6 firm you are likely to get more opportunities, challenges and benefits than if you opt for one of the other Mid Tier firms. Therefore, a lower Mid Tier to top Mid Tier jump may be just as beneficial to your career as a Mid Tier to Big 4 jump. What hasn’t changed, however, is that these additional opportunities and higher salaries are still likely to come with the cost of longer hours, more competition, and a greater personal sacrifice. Listed below are links to more posts that will help you understand what you are getting into when you go for partner, and remember to download your free career kitbag, which is packed full of advice to help you progress your career.

Further Reading

Making Partner – what does it really mean? The Pros and Cons of Making Partner. How do I become a partner at a Big 4 firm? What size portfolio will I need to build as a Big 4 partner?

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