If working in private industry is your career goal, consider a few years in public accounting first. That’s the advice of former CPA and recruiter Jane Durant, partner in the accounting and finance search division of WinterWyman in Massachusetts.
In the past year, three out of four of the firm’s placements for positions as company controller or vice president of finance had backgrounds in both public accounting and private industry. Senior management teams want CPAs, but the optimal experience level is three to six years in public accounting before moving to private industry, says Durant, who worked in both until being recruited to recruit.
“You don’t get your feet wet until you’re there at least three years and begin getting more client contact,” she says. “At six years, you’re approaching manager status. But beyond that, unless you want to stay in it and make that your career, it’s a difficult lifestyle.” Sure, you can make a lot of money as partner but “busy season,” as she puts it, means mega-hours at the desk. Or, in Durant’s case, long hours when it came to Dec. 31 year-ends.
What’s more, a private company seeking a senior accounting manager wants someone who already has made the transition , Durant says.
“Private industry is a different world, and if you make that transition during your three- to six-year public accounting mark, your move will be well-timed,” she says. “You’ll have the chance to acclimate to private industry while gaining the experience you need for a senior-level role.”
Durant offers these four takeaway points about why the private sector prefers a combined public-private work history.
- Greater operational experience. The public accounting focus is on auditing and reviewing past results, analyzing systems and testing for compliance. In private industry, accountants focus on strategies to support the business: budgeting, tax planning, forecasting and benefits management. Public accountants typically aren’t involved in the details of the operation.
- Better systems skills. Accountants at private companies have better knowledge of enterprise resource planning (ERP) apps. You might need to develop a pivot table or review a manufacturing resource plan run from an ERP system. That doesn’t usually happen in public accounting.
- Deeper industry-specific knowledge. Public accountants handle many clients from a variety of industries. But their work limits how deeply they are exposed to those industries. On the private side, you’ll get operational experience in an industry.
- Expanded people management skills. Public accountants work with teams of auditors with similar backgrounds. Private companies want executives who know how to deal with employees at all levels in all departments.
Durant emphasizes that none of this is a criticism of public accountants with more than six years under their belts or that they are doomed in their goal to reach private industry. It’ll just take them longer and they’ll face tougher competition, she says.
“It’s a different world when you go to the same office every day, see the same people and get involved in system issues and things you don’t even know exist in public accounting, “ she adds.
About Terry Sheridan
Terry Sheridan is an award-winning journalist who has covered real estate, mortgage finance, health care, insurance, personal finance, and accounting and taxation issues for newspapers, magazines, and websites. A Chicago native and former South Florida resident, she now lives in New England.