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Making the Switch From Public Accounting to Corporate Finance — and Back

June 21, 2018

When it comes to the great accounting questions, “public or private?” is as ingrained in the field as “tax or audit.” But the decision a young accountant makes at the beginning of his or her career doesn’t have to lock them in until retirement. Accountants make the transition from public to private (or vice versa) en masse every year, and it can even be desirable to bring the skills from one to the other.

We spoke with some VSCPA members who had made the switch one way or the other — or back and forth, in one case — as well as some recruiters who had insight on this particular issue. Here’s the VSCPA’s guide to making the move from public accounting to corporate finance and back.

The Pros and Cons

Why do accountants make the switch from public to private or vice versa? Is the grass greener on the other side of the fence? The answer is unique to every individual, of course, but here are some of the general characteristics of each side of the industry:

  Public  Corporate finance 
Education requirements Accounting degree and CPA license required Accounting or business degree required, CPA license helpful
Skills needed  Strong technical and analytical skills Knowledge of business best practices and industry standards
Typical work arrangement Long hours, particularly during busy season. Auditors can expect travel and work with a variety of clients More consistent schedule, less travel
Ideal personality Outgoing, flexible, strong communication skills Dependable, organized, strong communication skills
Professional goal Partner CFO

The good news is that no matter which way you’re trying to go, you’re in demand. It’s a job seeker’s market in both public and corporate finance, and an experienced CPA should be able to make the switch in either direction.

“The biggest issue that most of our clients face is the talent shortage and how hard it is to find good accounting and finance talent,” said Camden Hall, CPA, division director at Parker + Lynch, a Glen Allen-based executive recruitment firm. “The unemployment rate in Virginia is less than 4 percent, and when you break that down for accounting and finance, less than 2 percent.

“It’s hard to find good talent. It’s competitive to get good talent.”

The positions are there, and there’s less of a stigma than ever when it comes to switching careers, with the average Millennial switching jobs four times before turning 32. This movement is much less likely to hurt your career than in the past, and can even accelerate career and salary progression.

“There are even more people who are job hopping in a one-two year timeframe from position to position,” said VSCPA member T.J. Lowden, CPA, vice president of finance and accounting at SCSAC, a musical instrument manufacturer based in Nashville, Tenn. “There is a benefit to that — I don’t think it’s all negative. A lot of people job jump to progress in their career longer than they would if they had stayed in that position.

“I know a lot of people who have been with their company for 10 or 12 years and only moved up a couple of positions, and people who have job-jumped from corporate to corporate have managed to help their titles more. It’s a statement about the environment and recruiters who are helping people move from job to job that maybe weren’t available 30 years ago.”

It's also a statement about the explosion in telecommuting policies. Lowden lives in Leesburg, 900 miles from his company’s home offices in Tennessee. That kind of work arrangement is becoming more and more common in both public and corporate finance, although its impact can be blunted in traditional audit positions that require travel to client sites.

Two-Way Street

Lowden is living proof that it’s possible to move freely between public accounting and corporate finance. He’s gone back and forth three times — he spent five years as an auditor at KPMG before accepting a job as assistant controller for the Washington Redskins while spending his nights to get his master’s degree in business administration. After graduating, he went back into public, spending four years with Ernst & Young as a consultant, before moving to SCSAC in January.

His best advice when it comes to moving in either direction? Communicate openly and honestly, and don’t burn bridges.

“It’s important to be open and honest about the real reasons you’re leaving the firm,” he said, “not badmouthing the firm on the way out the door even if you’ve had a difficult experience. Make sure that you’re open and honest in telling everyone that you’re leaving for the same reason. Don’t tell other people competing reasons.”

The move from public to corporate finance has much more of a track record in accounting, with enough history that there’s conventional wisdom on the best points in one’s career to make the jump. Generally, those points are after making senior accountant (traditionally two to three years in public), after making manager (five years) or after making senior manager (eight years).

Another important timing aspect in moving to corporate finance is the time of year you make the move. More specifically, don’t leave your firm in the lurch during busy season. That creates a spot on your resume that, while not insurmountable, can slow your career progression.

But no matter when you leave or where you go, you should be able to explain it in a cover letter or interview.

“When you’re crafting your resume and looking for the next switch, have a story to tell. Have reasons for doing what you did,” Lowden said. “I tell a story on my resume.

“My first move matches up with my MBA, and I tell them that it was short-term in nature and I only took it to be able to stay in the D.C. area and commute to grad school programs. When I went back to the Big Four, I didn’t go back to an audit position. I didn’t double up on my experience with the Big Four. I took an advisory position to utilize my MBA a little better. And when I went back into corporate, it was for a family event and to be able to work from home. It was a continuation of what I was doing at Ernst & Young since they were a client.”

That’s not to say the corporate finance move is always easy for CPAs. In public accounting, CPA expertise is the product. In corporate finance, CPAs are support staff working in the back office to support the company’s goals.

“You’re no longer the product,” Lowden said. “You’re no longer the most important thing in the driving of revenue to the company. Your job is to help the company without hindering the sales growth.”

Jason Navon, CPA, also made the transition from the Big Four to corporate finance. He worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) for eight years before investing in a friend’s landscaping business, Rossen Landscape in Sterling. He’s the chief financial officer in title, but performs many CEO functions for the small company.

“My skill set lends itself more toward setting up processes and systems,” he said. “I now hold the more traditional CEO role even though I don’t know anything about landscaping. But with my skill set, I can lead the operations manager and make sure things are running the way we need.

“It’s the nature of accountants in general. We’re detail-oriented, we like to problem solve and think through the most efficient and effective way to get something done.”

Going in-house with a client is a well-traveled path, and not just in accounting — it’s a popular move in the legal profession and other service industries. The move back to a firm is less well known, but public accounting firms have myriad reasons to consider a CPA returning from a private finance role.

Accountants in corporate finance have greater operational experience with budgeting and forecasting, as opposed to more past-focused public accountants, whose main experience with industry clients involves audit, compliance and reviewing past results. They’ll also develop deeper knowledge of their industry than public accountants, who have less intense exposure to a variety of industries.

“One of our newly promoted managers worked in construction for a while,” said Mandy Nevius, human resources manager at Keiter in Glen Allen. “So when he comes in now, that’s one of his niche areas of expertise. He knows both sides. He has contacts in the industry. He can talk the language, walk the talk, and also help educate our folks on what it’s really like.”

That all must be developed when a CPA makes the move from public to corporate finance. Communication issues that cut both ways must be overcome. CPAs new to corporate finance must learn their new industry’s lingo and best practices while also managing communications and expectations with non-CPAs.

“The skill that takes the longest to develop when moving to corporate is communications when moving across competencies,” Lowden said. “There is a communication gap in the Big Four when you’re talking to an IT professional or something, but at the core, everyone understands accounting.

“In corporate, you’re dealing with lawyers, sales folks, operations, lower-level IT folks. There’s a different type of communication when you’re explaining budgets and performance to a sales professional than when you’re talking about those kinds of things internally.”

Moving to corporate finance does present challenges for CPAs used to a firm environment. The ones who make a successful transition are willing to take on different tasks and keep an open mind to new experiences.

“I would encourage people to make sure they have well-rounded training and experience,” Navon said. “It’s not just about knowing the tax code or the regulations. You have to know how to work with people and problem-solve and understand that it’s a continuous process of improvement throughout your career.

“I’ve learned a lot in the seven years since I left PwC. There’s not a lot you can prepare for except to jump in and be open to learning along the way.”

Going Public

The reverse move is also a viable career path for an accounting or finance professional looking to get into public accounting. It can require more planning, whether that means obtaining an accounting degree or CPA license, if necessary, or getting through the necessary ground work for a sole practitioner.

VSCPA member Dan Berlin, CPA, was in the first boat after working as a supervisor for a landscaping company after graduating from Virginia Tech with a business degree. While part of his responsibilities had him running crews in the field, some of the lessons learned in that business translated to his online studies for his accounting certificate at Strayer University and his subsequent passage of the CPA Exam and employment as an audit associate at Yount, Hyde & Barbour in Richmond.

A lot of the stuff we do in accounting is contract-based,” he said. “You have a certain job you have to get done and get it done in a certain amount of time and be profitable. Working in finance and trying to find creative solutions has translated really, really well.”

VSCPA member Tim Counts, CPA, was in a different situation. He spent a successful career in corporate finance, most recently at a plastic bag manufacturer then known as Hilex, and worked on such high-profile projects as the development of Route 288 in Chesterfield County.

Counts began doing tax work on the side in 2007, seven years before he left corporate finance for good to open his own office in North Chesterfield. That experience, as well as his local reputation for his work on Route 288, was crucial in the launch and development of his practice.

“I’d been a controller since 1997, and I’ve always been in charge of budget and finance,” he said. “What I’ve seen over the years is more and more focus on the bottom line and less and less focus on employees…I’d seen enough of that over the years that I was ready to leave industry.”

One main way Berlin and Counts differed in their experiences was in the area of institutional knowledge. Berlin joined an established firm with a support system in place. Counts struck out on his own, and while he had abundant technical knowledge, he found some growing pains in the area of firm administration. When it came time for his first peer review, he was dinged for not having the proper resources in place to comply with Statement on Standards for Auditing and Review Services (SSARS) No. 21.

“Going from industry to firm, it’s a pitfall, because you haven’t been exposed to it before,” he said. “…As painful as it was for me, it helped me to become better doing my job for the public. Peer review isn’t out to discredit you. If you’re totally terrible, yeah, you should probably get a warning first and then lose your ability to do attestation if you continue to be terrible. But that keeps us all consistent in the way that we do things.”

That learning curve is one reason why accountants who switch from corporate finance to public sometimes have to drop back a level in experience or make a lateral move. Just as there are difficulties in learning a new industry when going private, not all experience in corporate finance translates directly to public accounting.

“They’re typically going to come in at a lower level of experience,” Nevius said, “because a manager in industry doesn’t necessarily translate to a manager in public accounting. It is a plus if they have managed people or managed projects or if we’re looking for a particular industry type of experience.”

Nevius also said that a CPA license, or plans to obtain one, are essential to corporate finance accountants looking to go public. Berlin also stressed the importance of getting the CPA as quickly as possible, before, as he put it, “life gets in the way.”

While Berlin did join an established firm, he did have some similar experiences to Counts because of his online accounting education. While he got the technical knowledge he needed on a schedule that worked for him, he was on his own in terms of networking and making the connections that lead to jobs.

“I knew a few people at church who worked at different firms in the area,” he said. “I met with a few people I know and got some contacts from them and ended up applying in a lot of different places.”

Counts also leveraged his church connections in making the successful transition to public accounting. He leaned heavily on that and networking opportunities from the VSCPA and the local Chamber of Commerce in building his client base.

“My name is pretty known now,” he said. “It’s nice when I go to an event and people know who I am. But that didn’t happen overnight.”

It’s Who You Know

No matter which direction you move, making connections is crucial. Tim Counts built an impeccable reputation with a career of strong work in corporate finance, and he still needed to hustle and network to build his book of business. Dan Berlin worked tirelessly to get his name out when moving into public accounting. Jason Navon found his career working with an old friend. And T.J. Lowden has leveraged connections each time he’s made a career move.

“I think even being in touch with people you’ve worked at jobs three or four positions ago has enabled me to get references or recommendations into new companies. On the flipside, I’ve been able to give referrals and recommendations to people who worked or me, even back at KPMG, to get new positions in their career,” Lowden said. “Stay in touch, and if people ask you to do things to help their career, say yes. You might need assistance from them in the future.

“You never know when you may need to hire someone to your own company and use those references and those people to fill a position.”

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