What are the Big Four? And are they all the same?

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Big Four differences

There are similarities

If you want to work in finance and you’re thinking of applying for a job at a Big Four firm, you might be onto something. Although people in banking often disparage Big Four jobs, these jobs come with one huge advantage: their abundance. Every year, the Big Four hire tens of thousands of people – many of them new university graduates.

In 2018, for example, PWC hired 64,766 people globally and Deloitte hired 77,000. KPMG hired 39,000 people into graduate or other entry-level jobs. Even EY – the smallest Big Four firm – had 260,000 employees globally.

The Big Four are a literally huge source of job opportunities. They’re also growing fast. It might be argued that you’d be foolish to ignore them.

What are the Big Four?

The Big Four are four professional services firms: PWC, Deloitte, EY and KPMG. They’re all privately owned partnerships and they all make their money in similar ways – by selling their services to large companies. These services typically include audit and assurance (preparing companies’ accounts and assuring that the numbers provided are correct), providing tax and legal advice, advising on M&A deals, and offering consulting services around areas like technology and risk.

In some ways the Big Four firms are all very similar. "They're all much of a muchness," says a London-based Big Four recruiter. "They'll all work you hard. They all work with big clients. They're all global.” Insiders, however, say the four firms can be very different culturally.

What’s Deloitte?

Measured in terms of revenues, Deloitte is the biggest Big Four firm. In 2018 its global revenues totaled $43bn and it employed 286,000 people. Deloitte is massive.

Like most Big Four firms, Deloitte splits its business into different areas. They are: audit and assurance, consulting, tax and legal, financial advisory and risk advisory. Deloitte is particularly well known for its consulting arm, which grew at a rapid rate of 16% last year and is itself divided into a technology consulting arm, a strategy and operations arm, and a ‘human capital’ (ie. Managing people) arm. Deloitte’s focus on consulting can be traced to the fact that it was the only Big Four firm to retain its consulting arm after the Enron scandal in the early 2000s. 

Stevan Rolls, a UK-based partner and Deputy Global Talent Leader, says Deloitte tries to, “foster an environment that encourages authenticity” at work and that the firm is, “focused on making an impact on our clients and society.” Last year, for example, it produced a study of the social and economic value of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

Some say that Deloitte’s bigger focus on consulting gives it a more aggressive culture than some other firms. Deloitte insiders dispute this and say simply that the firm is more entrepreneurial.

What’s PWC?

PWC is the second biggest of the Big Four professional services firms. In 2018 its global revenues were $41.3bn and it employed nearly 251,000 people worldwide.

PWC’s business is split into assurance (which includes audit), deals, tax, and consulting.

While Deloitte is known for its strong consulting arm, PWC’s strength has traditionally been in audit. In 2018 PWC worked with 429 of the Global Fortune 500 companies.  "PwC has historically been seen as having the best clients," says the UK accounting recruiter. This is probably why it’s usually seen as one of the most prestigious (if not the most prestigious Big Four firm to work for).

PWC is big on inclusion and diversity. Although women only accounted for 20% of partners (vs. 49% of new joiners) in 2018, the firm is trying to offer more flexible work to all employees. It’s also working hard to increase social mobility by, for example, changing the way it interviews students in the UK. – Interviews are now based around 'future focused' scenario questions which assess candidates' potential, instead of experience-based questions, which focus on past work experience.

What’s KPMG?

KPMG is sort of like a smaller PWC. Like the other Big Four firms, KPMG works across different service areas, including: audit, tax, pensions and legal, deal advisory and consulting.

In 208, KPMG’s global revenues totaled $29bn and it employed 207,000 people.

With roots in both Europe and the U.S., KPMG has a reputation for being more rooted in Europe than some of the other Big Four firms. In 2018, 25% of KPMG UK’s staff worked in audit, 24% worked in consulting, 24% worked in business services, solutions and digital coverage, 10% worked in deal advisory and 17% worked in tax, pensions and legal.

What makes KPMG special? Anna Purchas, Head of People at KPMG UK, says the company invests heavily in learning and development. Last year KPMG UK spent £27m on formal learning and development, not counting what it also offers informally in terms of mentoring and coaching.

Like Deloitte, KPMG is also big on authenticity: “Being comfortable bringing your whole self to work at KPMG is really important to us,” says Purchas. It’s also big on diversity – and not just in terms of gender and ethnic diversity, but ‘diversity of thought.’

KPMG is expanding fast. Last year, it hired 2,000 experienced people in the UK – a third more than a year earlier.

What’s EY?

EY is the smallest of the Big Four firms. Predictably, it’s not really that small at all.

In 2018, revenues at EY totaled $34.8bn and it employed 260,000 people globally.  Huge numbers of people want jobs at EY (as is probably the case at other Big Four firms). – 1.8m people applied to work at EY in 2018; ‘just’ 62,405 of them were successful.

Like most Big Four firms, EY has a big emphasis on diversity and getting more women into its top ranks. Also like other Big Four firms, it hasn’t been entirely successful yet -  only 20% of partner and principal level staff were women last year.

EY’s business is split into four main groups: assurance, tax, advisory and transaction advisory. Transaction advisory professionals help with things like M&A and strategy advice. Mere advisory professionals include things like risk advisors, IT advisors and people who help make ‘performance improvements.’

As the smallest, EY might be thought as the coziest of the Big Four firms – except that 260,000 people isn’t really all that cosy.

EY is pushing strongly into technological consulting. It’s created an EY Global Innovation Garage (yes) in California to ‘foster innovative solutions for EY and its clients.’ And it already employs 20,000 data and analytics practitioners (of whom over 2,000 are actual data scientists) globally.

Justine Campbell, EY’s managing partner for talent in the UK & Ireland, says: “The exceptional EY experience lasts a lifetime, however long you stay for." EY has built a, " high performing, inclusive culture," says Campbell. This includes a financial wellness hub for employees and special paid leave for those experiencing domestic abuse.

What’s a partner in the Big Four?

If you’re going to work for the Big Four, you’ve got to know about partners. They effectively own the Big Four companies. – The Big Four aren’t publicly listed entities with shareholders who buy and sell stock: they’re companies owned by their most senior employees.

You can sometimes get hired into the Big Four as a partner, but this is still pretty rare. The best way to become a partner is to work your way up over time. When you become a partner you’ll have to stump up some money (‘member’s capital’) and you’ll only get it back if you resign or retire. This might sound like a bad deal, but partners get paid a lot (see the chart below) and receive a share of the profits.

How much do you get paid at the Big Four?

The chart below shows pay at the Big Four in the UK. Partners earn anything from £601k ($761k) at KPMG to £832k at Deloitte. Rank and file employees earn a lot less – around £73k on average seems to be the norm.

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