If you’ve completed an ACA qualification, you will by necessity have combined your studies with a three year apprenticeship in practice-based audit. This being the case, you are probably now chomping at the bit to move into something more exciting. Like investment banking.
The bad news is that investment banks are far less keen on hiring ACAs than they used to be. When I transferred from a provincial accountants’ office to a City bank several years ago, I achieved a 60% increase in my basic salary. This kind of move is far less easy now.
Nevertheless, ACAs are still wanted by investment banks and smaller boutique firms. The ACA qualification will set you up for a move into classic accounting roles within banks, like Financial Control & Reporting, the slightly less technical Financial Planning & Analysis and the much maligned Product Control.
These areas particularly suit former auditors. They allow individuals with audit experience to apply their technical knowledge and to rely on their attention to detail.
Therefore, if you’re a newly qualified ACA, you can sell yourself at interview and you have some product knowledge, you will be in with a chance of securing work in one of these areas.
In addition, there are dedicated ACA schemes at Credit Suisse and Barclays Investment Bank which recruit batches of newly qualified accountants. These schemes give you the chance to rotate within different areas of the back and middle office. In doing so, they provide a solid grounding for a career within banking. However with thousands of newly qualified ACAs being churned out by the big 4 conveyor belt each year there is heavy competition for places on these schemes.
Be realistic: this is not an easy move
If you are dead set on making the transition from audit to banking, then my advice is to be both realistic and humble. Three years in audit doing stock takes and sifting through invoices in grimy warehouses hasn’t transformed you into an M&A banker.
Admittedly, some ACAs do go straight into front office roles such as equity research or M&A but they tend to have stellar academics, specific banking or transactional experience and good connections.
If you’re a newly qualified ACA and you simply have a solid CV and a tax or audit background, the front office is probably not available to you. Instead, focus on opportunities in finance or product control.
Unsurprisingly, these areas are crammed full of ex-Big Four auditors who generally like to hire candidates with a similar background to their own. This can make it easy to get in if you're coming for the Big Four - but it's a lot less easy if you're coming from smaller, less prestigious accountancy practices. Being in this situation myself, I quickly learnt to go for a hard sell and never to underestimate the ignorance of the interviewers. Each time I’ve attended an interview at a bank, I’ve been quizzed about the top ten accountancy practice I worked for previously - usually along the lines of “So I see you worked for company X, what do these guys do?
Banking work is boring
Once you’ve made the move, set your expectations low.
Working in an investment bank can at times be dull with long hours. You've escaped audit, but you’ll be starting at the bottom of the banking ladder. The early years are a hard slog and you'd be foolish to assume otherwise.
The good news is that you'll usually earn more in banking and that there will generally be plenty of chances to move internally (although, ominously, many accounting jobs have been off-shored in recent years and internal moves may mean shifting overseas). Once accountants escape audit and join an investment bank, very few return.
The author is an ACA working in a large bank in the City. Robert Ridge is a pseudonym.