This article was first published in the June 2015 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Once upon a time, a meeting with any of the Big Four was a rather staid affair. But now things are changing. Across Asia, the biggest accountancy firms are reshaping themselves into more dynamic and modern players, in touch with the fast pace of business and life in the largest cities in Asia – cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei and Kuala Lumpur. These days, meetings with firms like KPMG are quite likely to take place in more informal settings, like the clubhouse KPMG has built for its staff in Singapore. 

The change is telling of a shift within accountancy firms themselves, particularly the Big Four, which have been working hard to rebrand themselves as exciting and fluid purveyors of employment that goes far beyond the safe and steady routine of auditing work. This shift has helped ensure that the Big Four remain the largest and most attractive employers for accountants around the world. 

The trend is particularly visible in Asia, where name recognition counts for a lot. Rachele Focardi, senior-vice president of employer branding and talent strategy for Asia Pacific at international employer branding consultancy Universum, based in Singapore, has noted this tendency. 

Career advancement

‘Employment with the Big Four is not just associated with flexible work hours, with work-life balance, with variety of assignments,’ says Focardi. ‘One of the key reasons why in Hong Kong students choose these firms is that they look extremely good on a résumé and offer good opportunities for advancement.’

A survey by Hong Kong Business noted that the Big Four employed more than two thirds of the 14,000-plus staff working for the 25 largest accountancy firms in the city. KPMG is the smallest of the four, but with 2,000 staff it still employs twice as many people as fifth-placed BDO, and almost five times as many as RSM Nelson Wheeler, which was the fifth largest firm in the city. 

Smaller firms have their attractions. The work can be more varied. Some firms find themselves operating in special geographic or industry niches and may allow for a greater degree of flexibility. Older accountants may find it more interesting to build their own businesses in small and medium practices (SMPs).  

Hong Kong’s CWCC is a good example of a firm that has explored new areas and built new niches. Launched in 1986 by three accountants who remain in the four-partner firm to this day, CWCC specialises in audit, assurance and business advisory services. For the last few years it has been building a Latin desk, focused on working with firms from Latin America that want to enter the China market.

This is the kind of initiative that entrepreneurial accountants who may shy away from audit work might find interesting. It is certainly the type of thing that founding partner Thomas Wong likes to undertake. 

A more rounded career

This sort of initiative shows the flexibility that can be found working for a small or medium-sized firm like CWCC, which now employs around 180 people. 

‘Number one is flexibility. I can do a lot of things that other people cannot do or will not do due to limitations,’ says Wong. Accountants working for firms like CWCC may be able to get exposure to a wider range of fields in a shorter period of time and become more rounded, maybe by necessity. 

‘Nowadays, you have to be a businessman rather than just an accountant,’ says Wong. ‘We have the chance to meet clients directly and be more all-rounded.’

Still, despite the proliferation of such boutique firms, the rankings suggest the Big Four remain the most desirable employers. In Asia, the corporate name on a business card counts for much, and careers can be made by a line in a CV with a name like PwC, EY, Deloitte or KPMG. 

The Big Four typically top employer rankings. The Vault Accounting 50, which tracks best accountancy employers in North America, was led in 2015 by PwC, EY, Deloitte and KPMG in that order. Most second-tier firms follow. Size, it appears, matters quite a lot. 

Accountancy firms do not do as well when compared with firms in other spaces. One has to go down seven spots to come across a Big Four firm in  Vault’s rankings for consulting firms in Asia Pacific. Deloitte comes in seventh place and PwC Asia 10th and the difference in votes is astounding. McKinsey & Company Asia, in the top spot, earned 79.6% of the votes from those surveyed. Deloitte received just 5.3%, KPMG’s Asia consulting practice was at ninth with 5.6%, and PwC at 10th got 4.42%. 

In Asia Pacific, in places like Malaysia, Indonesia and China, the big firms have recognisable names but are less visible. Still, accountants in those markets want to work for the Big Four. For them, the large but second-tier firms BDO and Grant Thornton, however successful as businesses and acceptable as employers, have marginally less allure.

Young accountants in particular will try almost anything to get in the door of a Big Four firm, says Elaine Tan, who trained as an accountant and worked in the business side of the profession for some years. Tan, who lives in Malaysia, completed her studies in the late 1990s when jobs were scarce in any profession, recalls her schoolmates making a beeline for the Big Four firms.

 ‘They all want to work for the Big Four. The promotions and salary raises are well set up, almost automatic,’ she says. ‘If they can’t get into auditing they will try to get into translation or anything that will get their foot in the door.’

And yet, this is one of just two places in Asia – the other being Singapore – in which accountancy firms top the rankings of desirable employers. Last year, EY was voted in one survey as the top employer in Hong Kong. KPMG and PwC were also close to the top. All four were in the top 10. Now, in other countries in the region, accountancy firms are much further down and are dropping (see box).

‘The Big Four are still very respected. They have a great brand, especially for young people,’ says George Huang, partner-in-charge of Heidrick & Struggles’ Beijing office. One of Huang’s areas of focus is professional services firms. 

However, despite the seemingly vast differences of perception and appeal, the second-tier firms have been gaining some ground by offering a variety of experience and the opportunity to work in niche specialisms.  

‘At the end of the day, they are fantastic employers,’ says Focardi. ‘The training and development is almost second to none.’

Alfred Romann, journalist