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Go for the Big 4 or stay small?

May 19, 2016 | Blog

big 4

You’ve made it through your finals at long last. Having spent blood, sweat and tears getting there, you now have your accounting degree.  There’s no time to relax yet, though.  Next up, the all-important decision of where to do your SAICA articles.   A no-brainer, right?  Go for one of the heavyweights – Deloitte, Ernst & Young, PwC, or KPMG. Everyone knows them, they look great on a CV and even those outside of the finance industry know who you mean when you mention the ‘big 4’, so surely, they are the guys to target.

Well, actually, it’s a far less straight forward decision than you might think. It is crucial at this stage of your career, to weigh up all the options in terms of what they can do for your specific needs and circumstance. This means considering alternatives to the big 4, which might actually work better for what you want from your career in finance.

So what is there to consider when looking at a small firm, a medium-tier firm or a big 4 firm? 

Consider where you ultimately want to take your career.  Are you committed to pursuing the CA qualification, looking at doing Honours in your field or simply not sure in which direction to take your studies?

Let’s say you are definitely going the CA (SA) route.  Okay, so you know you want to be a CA. Now consider where you see yourself working once you qualify.  3 years post-articles, do you expect to be a key senior member of the accounting team in a large corporate either in financial services or commerce and industry?  Or do you see yourself more as the Financial Manager of a successful SME or large but non-corporate commercial business?  The experience you gain through articles will impact the direction you take once you qualify.

Doing your articles with a big 4 firm will mean pure audit training with predominantly large listed or unlisted corporates.  Also, you will most likely specialise in either financial services or commerce – if you want to make a career for yourself as a CA in Financial Services, it is almost imperative that you train with a big 4 firm with a Financial Services client base.  Without this training it is fair to say you will struggle to forge a career for yourself in the industry.

Focusing on commercial clients will see you working with a mix of larger corporates from the oil & gas, retail, property, FMCG and professional services industries amongst others.  Examples are BP, Woolworths, Growthpoint Properties and Heinz.  This client exposure will be invaluable when you are applying for a role with corporates of this size within commerce, listed or not.

Medium-tier firms will offer some exposure to listed companies, and may also allow you to specialise in either Financial Services or Commercial clients to a degree, but your client base is likely to include more non-corporate clients.  Working with the smaller clients will often mean you will have the opportunity to be more hands-on through the audit process, at times gaining practical accounting exposure in order to ensure the audit is concluded successfully.

Training through a smaller firm still, will mean you’ll likely perform full audit and accounting services for your clients.  Clients will be non-corporates and SME’s including CC’s and Trusts.  If you are not going to become a CA and plan to stop your studies at degree level, or are considering doing Honours only or even going the CIMA route, then the accounting experience gained at small and medium sized firms will be advantageous to you when taking your first step into commerce.

That said, there is nothing wrong with training with a small firm to qualify as a CA (SA).  There will be businesses out there who would value a CA who has more hands-on, practical, in-the-business exposure.  If you see yourself as a Financial Manager, leading a small finance team at that successful manufacturing concern turning over R20m per annum, then training at a smaller firm might be the best thing for you. In saying that, there are many big 4 CA’s currently working in SME’s.

Whether it be a big 4, medium tier or smaller audit firm, be sure to consider your medium to long term career goals when making your decision.

There are no hard and fast rules, but the information here will give you some idea of what you should consider when you are deciding where to apply to do your SAICA article training. The decisions you make now could make your transition from trainee into a post articles career a lot easier.


Written by Cathy Symmonds who began her recruitment career back in 2004 in the UK, moving back to South Africa in 2008 to specialise in the financial arena for CA Financial Appointments. With a sincere passion for the recruitment industry, she enjoys the variety and challenge of financial recruitment across both the temporary and permanent spectrum.

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