The Big 4 Accounting FirmsEverything You Need to Know [2018]

Look, the Big 4 accounting firms are huge.

You already know that (the clue is in the name…). But what makes them so special? Why are there only four? Is it only about accounting (hint, it’s not!)?

Well stick around because that’s exactly what we’re going to find out in this article (and more).

The best part?

We’re going to dive into why you’d want to join one of the world’s biggest accounting firms (which is probably why you’re reading this, right?!). You can even use the information in this guide during your Big 4 networking conversations  and interview!

Neat, eh? So let’s get started…

Who Are The Big 4 Accounting Firms?

To start with the basics, the Big 4 is a name given to the world’s four largest professional services firms (note I didn’t say largest “accounting firms”). 

The group is made up of PwC, Deloitte, EY and KPMG…and professional services is a broad term for almost any specialist service provided between two businesses.

Ok so there’s four of them. But why are they called “Big?”

Well, their sheer size, reputation and worldwide reach means that they dominate the field.

There are many other firms that provide similar services, but they are tiny in comparison.

Just look at the Big 4 revenue figures below!

But where did they come from? Why only four? To answer that question we must go back to the early 1900s.

The Big 4: A Brief History

The Big Eight Accounting Firms

Let’s start by looking back to 1910. At that point in time there were eight large accounting firms in the world. They were known (surprisingly) as the Big 8. They were:

  1. Arthur Andersen
  2. Coopers and Lybrand
  3. Ernst & Whinney
  4. Deloitte Haskins & Sells
  5. Peat Marwick Mitchell
  6. Price Waterhouse
  7. Touche Ross
  8. Arthur Young

Prior to the Big Eight–during the 19th century–there were thousands of small accounting firms scattered around the world.  This model had historically worked very well.

But as many large UK and U.S. companies began doing business internationally, they needed to work with accounting firms with a similar global reach. As a result the Big Eight were formed.

It was a slow process getting to this point, where each of the slightly bigger firms partnered with or acquired many smaller local accounting firms, and this eventually lead to the Big Eight.

But then, as business intensified towards the end of the 20th century, the bigger firms started viewing each other with greedy eyes.  

Peat Marwick Mitchell officially began the ascent into the Big 4 when it completed one of the biggest mergers to date, joining forces with a then top 20 firm Klynveld Main Goerdeler to form KPMG (the first of the current Big 4 accounting firms).* (*allegedly named because nobody could remember Klynveld Peat Marwick Mitchell Main Goerdeler…).

But that wasn’t the end of the story.  Further expansion and competition led to the creation of…

The Big Six Accounting Firms

After acquiring many smaller accounting firms, the Big Eight realized the potential synergies that could be realized by merging with each other.

In the summer of 1989, the Big Eight became the Big Seven when Ernst & Whinney merged with Arthur Young to form Ernst & Young.

Later that same year, Deloitte, Haskins & Sells merged with Touche Ross to form Deloitte & Touche, and complete the Big Six.

The Big Five Accounting Firms

The Big Six continued on for another decade before the next merger and the creation of the Big Five.  

This time Price Waterhouse merged with Coopers & Lybrand to form PricewaterhouseCoopers, better know as PwC.

The Big Four Accounting Firms

The Big Four as we know them today was completed with the collapse of Arthur Andersen in 2002 following the Enron Scandal.

Though Arthur Andersen was later acquitted of wrongdoing, the scandal ultimately led to the collapse of the firm.

Most of Arthur Andersen’s staff and clients joined the remaining members of the Big Four.  

(Update: Arthur Andersen has been resurrected! Only time will tell if they can rejoin the upper echelon of professional service firms. )

Following a number of re-brands and smaller acquisitions, the Big 4 now officially consists of:

  1. Deloitte
  2. PwC
  3. EY
  4. KPMG

Before we dive into each of the Big 4 accounting firms in more detail, let’s take a look at what they do.

What exactly is professional services?

What Do The Big 4 Firms Actually Do?

You’d better know this if you’re applying for a job (and it’s only the tip of the iceberg…).

It’s not only accounting!

While accountancy still forms a large part of what these firms do today, over the years they have expanded into hundreds of different businesses and industries.

It is no longer accurate to refer to them only as the Big 4 accounting firms.

While it’s true that the Big 4 do audit all but one of the Fortune 100 companies (well done to Grant Thornton for winning that one…!), audit fees equal only around one third of their total revenues.

So where does the other 66% of revenues come from?

To answer that, let’s take a quick look at the services offered by Deloitte.  Their website lists the following broad categories

As you can see, accounting really does only form a small (but still significant) part of what they do. We’ve also gone even further looked at what Deloitte offers under “Global Business Tax Services.”

Seventeen different services comprising business tax alone! And whose betting that each of these services can’t be broken down even further? There’s hundreds of specialisms that you could work in.

So the Big 4 are not really just the biggest accounting firms, they are professional service conglomerates.

Add this to the fact that Deloitte are also one of the biggest consulting firm in the world (far ahead of MBB), it gives you some indication of just how big these firms really are.

How The Big 4 Firms Are Organized

A little known and interesting quirk about the Big 4 accounting firms is that they are not in facts “firms” at all.  

They are each a network of firms that agree to operate under the same name and general business terms.

EY France is actually a completely separate entity to EY Singapore, which is completely separate again to EY South Africa.

You might see each local firm being referred to as a member firm.

In some cases the bigger local firms, such as those in the U.S., will strategically purchase other smaller firms. However, it is actually within their interest to stay as separate firms to an extent.

The primary reason for the collapse of Arthur Andersen was due to the fact that, unlike the other Big Five, it was one global firm.  When the Enron issue hit the U.S. part of the firm it effectively ended operations for the entire business.

Now we know what they are and how they operate, let’s take a closer look at each firm individually.

Work Culture At The Big 4 Firms

We go into greater detail on this for each firm below, but there are some general themes when it comes to Big 4 culture.

The Big 4 work hard. These are not 9-5 jobs. You will be expected to work long hours and may see some 70-80 hour weeks during busy season or at project close (that’s pretty rare though, you’ll have much more of a life than investment bankers…).

But then again these are the top accounting firms.

This can cause some people to burn out and resent their jobs (have you ever read the accounting subReddit?!).

But luckily for you, here at Big 4 Career LAB we teach you the right mindset  for this type of work (because it’s certainly not for everyone…). The Big 4 firms all have a similar culture, primarily because they do the same work and employ the same types of candidates.

My old firm was very compliance-driven at pretty much every level below partner. So that part felt very much the same at EY. But at EY I was exposed to more large-scale consulting projects. The internal network at EY is also incredible. Even as just some random tax manager, I’m regularly talking to very bright people specializing in transfer pricing, expat issues, quantitative services, etc. Logan Allec

Manager at EY, Owner of MoneyDoneRight

But there are differences.

The most prominent differentiator in culture is not actually the firm but the specific office. It’s surprising to some, but the EY NYC office will be more like the Deloitte NYC office than the EY Seattle office.

Every office (or even each team with the office) has its own atmosphere determined by a few of the most senior partners.

To help us understand this, we asked some of our Big 4 Career LAB alumni to describe the culture in their office.

While we received some interesting replies, these were the most polarized opinions we received about the same Big 4 firm, but different office locations:

“My office is open, fulfilling, team-based, challenging, enjoyable work with a really nice boss. I love it.”
“It’s autocratic, you’re constantly being referred to as a “resource”, there’s backbiting and some unexplainably stupid promotion decisions.”
Now I wonder which offices they work in?!

Why Would You Want to Work for the Big 4?

There are a lot of great reasons why someone would want to join the Big 4 over another accounting or professional service firm.

Working for any of the Big 4, regardless of which, is going to be a major positive for your career.

That’s a given. So long as you can get in…

The names of the Big 4 are known worldwide and valued extremely highly. There is a certain level of prestige that you cannot get anywhere else.

There’s a reason they are the best accounting firms to work for.

There are countless jobs openings out there right now, in public accounting and in industry, that say “Big 4 Experience Preferred” and some even REQUIRE it.

This is because employers know that all Big 4 employees have gone through a rigorous selection and training process.

If they hire from the Big 4 they know what they’re getting:

Top notch talent.

And whatever you do after the Big 4 (unless you stay and make partner that is) you’ll be able to command a higher position, a better salary, and more opportunities than your non-Big 4 peers.

Another thing that is often overlooked is the quality of talent that works at the Big 4. It’s a known fact that working with young, like-minded, ambitious individuals will help push you to achieve your personal and career goals more effectively.

The Big 4 are great places to work that will reward your hard work. With that being said, we believe there are 3 general categories of employees in the Big 4 (and also public accounting).

  1. Those who absolutely love it and stick around forever
  2. Those who absolutely hate it and leave as soon as possible
  3. Those who understand what they want and either stay or leave for another opportunity, but do so with a clear mindset without complaining and a smart, thought out plan

Your Golden Ticket to Securing a Highly Respected and Prestigious Career at One of the Big 4 Firms

(Discover the secret hiring process used by the Big 4 Firms – narrated by a former Senior Manager at Deloitte)

In-depth Analysis of PwC

PricewaterhouseCoopers, doing business under the name PwC, is the second largest professional services firm in the world by revenue and third by number of employees.  In 2016 it was the fifth largest privately held company in the U.S.

PwC is headquartered in London, U.K. and is chaired by Bob Moritz. This is our “PwC wiki.”

PwC Revenues, Clients and Global Reach

PwC operates in 157 countries from over 700 locations.  It employs 223,000 people, with a whopping 58,081 people (more than a quarter of their workforce) joining in last year alone.

That gives you some indication of the hiring potential of the Big 4 accounting firms!

PwC’s revenues were $37.6 billion in 2017, an increase of 7% on the prior year.  Most of this (76% to be exact) was earned in the U.S. and Western Europe.

This chart shows PwC’s split of revenues by service line over the past few years.

Unlike some of the other Big 4, PwC focuses more heavily on audit services.  In fact almost 43% of its revenues were from audit related services. Advisory ($11.5 billion) and tax ($9.1 billion) make up the remainder.

During 2017 PwC assisted 422 (84%) of the companies in the Fortune Global 500 list, and 410 (82%) of those in the U.S. Fortune 500 list.

PwC Work Culture

Vault Accounting 50 ranked PwC as the most prestigious accounting firm in the world for seven consecutive years. Does that mean something?

PwC are certainly the masters of the accounting world with the largest audit fees and biggest number of Fortune 100 audit clients.  They focus a significant proportion of their business on this.

PwC is renowned for being the more fastidious, older and slow moving organization.  

While they react relatively slower to changes in the business world than others within the Big 4 they have a very strong core of clients.  This is a positive if you’re a detail oriented person who like the hierarchical nature of an organization.

In summary, PwC is the classic Big 4 accounting firm, with lots of accountants doing accounting for some of the world’s biggest companies.  They have less of a focus on consulting and entrepreneurial businesses.

In-depth Analysis of Deloitte

Deloitte is the largest professional services firm in the world both by revenue and number of employees. Deloitte is also considered one of the top consulting firms in the world by revenue and market share.

Deloitte is nicknamed the green dot due to the period in its logo.  Deloitte is headquartered in New York, U.S., and is chaired by David Cruikshank. This is our “Deloitte wiki.”

Deloitte Revenues, Clients and Global Reach

Deloitte’s revenues were the largest of the Big 4 in 2017 at $38.8 billion, an increase of 9.0% on the prior year.

Deloitte is also the largest Big 4 accounting firm employer. It employs 244,400 people, with a huge 71,800 people hired in 2017.

Deloitte’s workforce increased 16% on the prior year, with an average of 53 applications received for every position (less than 2% hiring rate….crazy, right!).

Deloitte is a true professional services firm and focuses less on audit than the other firms. Only 25% of its revenues relate to audit. On the flip side it’s consulting revenues were $14.3 billion in 2017, over a third of the total.

Deloitte services more consumer and industrial products businesses than the rest of the Big 4.

Deloitte Work Culture

Deloitte has consistently been named the best place to launch a career and one of the the best places to work.

While the two firms continuously vie for the top spot in the Big 4, Deloitte is the opposite of PwC in terms of culture.

Deloitte’s audit practice is 40% smaller than PwC’s, which means that it has to concentrate on its other services.  This is primarily consulting, which as noted above is its biggest service line.  

Deloitte was the only Big 4 firm to retain its full consulting capability following the Enron crisis. This turned out to be a very good decision! It’s really the only one that can be called a true Big 4 consulting firm.

While audit is an annual process that requires long standing and deep client relationships that sometimes last for decades, consulting is more project based and oftentime new projects must be won and delivered each year.  

This is reflected in Deloitte’s culture which is the most entrepreneurial and fast moving within the Big 4.

Deloitte also invests heavily in its people, including making huge investments in facilities like Deloitte University.

In-depth Analysis of EY

EY is the third largest of the Big 4 and the 9th largest privately owned company in the U.S. EY officially changed its name from Ernst & Young in 2013.

EY is headquartered in London, UK and is chaired by Mark Weinberger. This is our “EY/Ernst & Young Wiki.”

EY Revenues, Clients and Global Reach

EY earned revenues of $31.3 billion in 2017, an increase of 9.2% on the prior year. Like PwC, EY is very focused on audit, with over 39% of its revenues coming from its assurance service line.

In addition to audit, EY also has the second largest tax practice after PwC.

Despite lower revenues, EY employs more people (230,800) than PwC. They also increased their headcount by 9.2% in 2017.

EY audits 23% of the Fortune 500 and provides some level of service to almost 80%. While still a network of individual firms, EY is the most globally managed of the Big 4. They retain a strict structure across the world with a Global board overseeing all policy and consistency of service.

EY Work Culture

EY is in many ways a mini-PwC. They are a more traditional accounting firm than either Deloitte or KPMG. EY is highly focused on their core competencies of audit and tax (they have the second largest audit and tax practices after PwC).

Like PwC, EY has significant long term relationships with many large clients. They pride themselves on the length of their relationships, some lasting more than 70 years.

EY would be a good fit for anyone also considering joining PwC.

Another good point to remember about EY is that they structure their graduate hiring programs a bit differently too. New hires typically do rotational programs for 1-2 years in different specialisms.

In-depth Analysis of KPMG

KPMG is the smallest of the Big 4 firms by both revenue and number of employees. Smallest is relative though as KPMG is still three times bigger than the number five accounting firm (BDO LLP).

KPMG is headquartered in Amstelveen, the Netherlands and chaired by John Veihmeyer. This our “KPMG Wiki.”

KPMG Revenues, Clients and Global Reach

KPMG has more than 700 offices in 152 countries and globally employs almost 189,000 people.  

While employees numbers are significantly less than the other Big 4 accounting firms, KPMG is second when it comes to revenue per employee (just behind PwC…Deloitte and EY are much further behind).

KPMG earned global annual revenues of $26.4 billion in 2017, which was an increase of 8% over the prior year.

Like EY and PwC, KPMG also has a large audit practice as a proportion of total revenues, coming in at almost 40%.

KPMG also has the second largest advisory practice (at $10.18 billion in revenue) after PwC.

KPMG Work Culture

KPMG is the smallest of the Big 4 but is typically considered the best in terms of work-life balance. What it lacks in prestige it makes up for in employee engagement.

KPMG suits employees who value both their career and their personal life. Whereas some of the Big 4 have an “up or out” culture, KPMG attempts to retain employees (and has the lowest churn rate as proof).

KPMG is somewhere between the old-school accounting firm (PwC) and the more high tech, agile consulting firm (Deloitte). While audit still form a substantial part of what they do, their assurance practice is growing rapidly.

KPMG is also known for its sponsorship programs, sponsoring sports professionals like the golfer Phil Mickelson.

The Future of Big 4 Accounting Firms

In all likelihood the Big 4 accounting firms are going to keep on growing. Their current growth levels of around 7% – 9% per year will continue as fees for existing projects increase and their service offerings expand.

There are two factors that could change all this though. They could completely reshape the audit and accounting landscape.

What are these factors?

Auditor independence and crypto-accounting.

Auditor Independence

Auditor independence states (among other things) that an external auditor of a company must be free from any financial relationships with that company that could impair their objectivity. It is the reason why audit firms cannot provide certain services to their audit clients (also known as attest clients). This includes preparing financial statements.

Which makes sense if you think about it. If Deloitte both prepared and audited the financial statements of a company they would effectively be checking their own work. That’s a true conflict of interest.

Auditor independence is becoming stricter all the time, which is impeding the Big 4 from providing a variety of (often more valuable) services to their clients.

So, while auditing half of the Fortune 500 may seem great, it actually prevents you from providing many other services to those companies, some of which may be much more lucrative than auditing.

This is an issue for all of the Big 4, but particularly PwC and EY who are focused heavily on their audit practice.

Crypto-accounting

The second issue faced by the Big 4 accounting firms could be even more of a challenge.

Have you heard of cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin? They work by providing a completely secure record of all transactions ever completed and so are in essence “unhackable.”

The success of cryptocurrencies has lead cryptographers to begin thinking about alternative uses for the blockchain technology.

One of these is the creation and management of internal company financial data. That’s the data which is ultimately used to create financial statements.

So if you have a completely reliable and unhackable system for collecting and recording transactional data, where does that leave auditors, whose job it is to check this data?

Not in a good place. That’s where.

Now there will always be a requirement to check the accounting methodologies applied to the financial statements (like should a cost be classified as gross vs. operating) and investigate human-instigated fraud, but much of the manpower requirement during an audit will be reduced.

Here’s to hoping the big auditors, PwC and EY, have these factors on their radar.

But where does this leave Deloitte and KPMG?

Well, KPMG do have a fairly significant audit practice, but their tax and assurance businesses are also strong. They do not have the core audit relationships of PwC or EY and so would be in a slightly better position should the above factors hit hard.

Deloitte on the other hand wants these changes to come as quickly as possible. For starters Deloitte has the smallest audit practice of the Big 4 and so stands to lose the least.

But secondly and more importantly, they have a giant consulting business.

And guess which Big 4 service line is perfectly placed to help businesses implement crypto-accounting? Yep, consulting.

There’s some interesting changes coming soon. Even firms as large as the Big 4 aren’t immune to the changing economy.

How Can All This Information Get Me Into The Big 4?

I hope you now know the Big 4 inside out.

But how does all this information help your career?

Well, first off you can use this knowledge in an interview. If a recruiter asks “what are the biggest market risks for PwC in the next 10 years,” you already have the perfect answer.

You also understand the significance of the Enron crisis to the history of these firms (which is a great way to impress a partner who will have lived through it).

Secondly, you know exactly how the Big 4 can help you achieve your own personal goals, whether it’s ultimately within or outside of the Big 4.

Whether you’re currently in accounting, finance, business or something else, joining the Big 4 is one of the best career moves you can make.

Are You Looking to Land a Prestigious Job at One of the Big 4 Firms?

In our FREE group you’ll discover:

  • The Proven step-by-step process which has already helped over 200 people secure jobs at the Big 4 (and how you can skip the traditional hiring process entirely…)
  • Getting a job at a Big 4 Firm seems impossible? I’ll reveal the ONE SKILL that makes Big 4 HR managers go “Yes or No” during your interviews
  • TWO Real Stories of my clients who landed highly-prestigious jobs at Big 4 Firms (despite getting rejected the first time around!)

21 Comments

  1. Hi,
    I am interested to understand which of the Big 4 firm has a better scope for Organizational Change management (Consulting). I have good 7 years of experience in IT (SAP Finance Functional consulting)
    and 4 years into Finance and couple of years in project / Change Management.

    Reply
    • James Whittaker

      Hey! So Deloitte are really the only firm that retained a true consulting practice after the Enron crisis. However, as we mention, some of the others also have similar practices to a much smaller scale. I would therefore always suggest Deloitte, but you can definitely research into whether the others do offer Organizational Change Mgmt as a service.

      Reply
  2. I’m loving every article on this website and James appreciate your detailed analysis top big 4 accounting firms, such useful info in a comparative form and with figures. definitely it will help people and Congrats also!

    Reply
    • James Whittaker

      Thanks Nanuk!

      Reply
  3. Hi, James. I am a foundation student. I would like to ask to enter this Big 4 company should i need a professional certificate (like ACCA etc) or an accounting degree would be enough?

    Reply
    • James Whittaker

      Accounting degree should be enough!

      Reply
    • Although you only need an Accounting degree, typically Big 4 won’t hire you unless you are eligible to sit for the CPA exams. The requirements to sit for the CPA exams vary state by state, but all states require that you have 150 college level credits.

      Reply
      • James Whittaker

        I agree with Jose for our U.S. friends, but ACCA is a UK accounting designation and so I assume Jeannie is from there or a similar country. I know for countries other than the U.S. there is no college hours requirement.

        Reply
  4. Thank you a million times for this info, I am into tax consulting in Uganda, and one of the challenging part is to understanding our competition (big 4 ) cause they are like all over our proposed clients lips.
    What you have done above, adds to me many ways that you can possibly imagine.
    Great day Sport!

    Reply
  5. I’m an article student in a reputed audit firm in Bangladesh. I’m keen to know that, if any firm out of this Big 4 firms searches for my profile several times in Linkedin, what does it refer? Would you please enlighten it!

    Reply
  6. Thank you so much for writing this article! I currently have two offers, PwC Risk Assurance and EY assurance and I’m having trouble deciding which to choose. From my understanding, risk assurance has bit more variety of work but not as wide exit opportunities. I really like the people at EY but I’m more interested in the risk assurance work and growth potential at PwC. I’d love your opinion on which may be a better option!

    Reply
    • James Whittaker

      Go with EY if you like the people. You’ll be with them everyday!

      Reply
  7. Hi James,

    I’m loving every article on this website.
    But I have a question, could a CPA be hired as a consultant and if so, then for which areas in consulting?

    Reply
  8. James appreciate your detailed analysis on Big4 this helps a lot for anyone want to join this community.

    Reply
    • James Whittaker

      My pleasure as always! It’s my personal mission to help as many people as possible secure a Big 4 career.

      Reply
  9. Hey James and thanks a lot for this article !

    I’d like your opinion on career choices, I feel completely lost and I fear that I will regret my choice later on if I make the wrong decision.
    I’m a soon to graduate student and I’m torn between two career paths, I’ve received two offers from the big accounting firms, one is audit and the other is consulting (technology). Many people say that audit is a soul crushing career, others say that it’s a safe, secure career that pays a lot in the long run and one that would allow to get highly respected designations such as the CPA. On the plus side I know exactly what to expect from audit and there also are exit opportunities such as working in the industry, for banks or for the government. Whereas in consulting, I honestly don’t have a clue as to what their job is, every consultant I’ve talked to boasted on how the job was cool because they basically do something different every day and there’s never a routine (hard to believe) i don’t know anything about exit opportunities either, what do they do once they want to move out of the big4 firm ? I feel like audit might give long term skills whereas consulting appears to be some kind of shady, “bullshit” job that doesn’t require any skill and with no value creation. I also know that an auditor might become a consultant but the former might not become an auditor. Still I’ve heard a lot of people complain about audit… Is it that terrible?

    I’m the kind of person that enjoys to plan their career and know their options well ahead so my concern with consulting is the exit opps

    Please enlighten me !

    Reply
    • James Whittaker

      Hey Stephan! So first of all congratulations on getting two job offers. That’s more than most people dream of. You have summarized both jobs pretty well, aside from calling consulting “shady”, which it most definitely is not. I would argue that there’s more scope for value in consulting than audit, which at the end of the day is typically compliance until you get much further in your career. Your choice comes down to this: audit will be more a structured, regulatory, compliance based job. Consulting will be more fast-paced with less following existing rules and more strategizing. Whichever of those sounds better to you then go for that. Exit options are pretty good either way. The only other comment I would give is that consulting is definitely a more sought after position and you’ll likely earn more. But honestly I wouldn’t worry about the future that much, just concentrate on which career sounds most appealing for the next 3-5 years.

      Reply
  10. Great!! Thanks to James for providing such useful info in a comparative form and with figures.

    Reply
    • James Whittaker

      My pleasure Shabareesh!

      Reply
  11. This page was…how do I say it? Super relevant!! Finally I have found information about the Big 4 which really helped me. Thanks a lot!

    Reply
    • James Whittaker

      Any time! Thanks for commenting John

      Reply

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