Art of Accounting: CPAs Who Leave Public Accounting

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IMGCAP(1)]Last week I wrote about a CPA going to work for a small client that was creating a controller’s position. Today I’ll talk about going to work for a client that already has a controller or working for a large company.

The company that already has a controller is a much safer bet for a departing CPA. The position is established; the work is integrated with the outside accounting firm that will maintain its role; and there is a place in the management hierarchy. The role is clear and the CPA knows what to expect in terms of daily activity. If there are growth opportunities for the company, the controller could or would be part of them.

When the CPA takes a job in private industry in a larger company, he or she is filling a recognized slot. There is also opportunity for growth based on the size of the company and how well the services of the CPA will be noticed and appreciated. These jobs are many and varied. They range from a step up from bookkeeper all the way to CFO. I’ve seen people become very successful, even rising to top jobs, including CEOs. In some instances in family-owned businesses, I’ve even seen ownership being granted and the CPA becoming one of the successors. I think these present better opportunities than what I discussed last week (see Art of Accounting: CPAs Who Go to Work for a Client).

Overall, from what I’ve seen, and irrespective of some great successes, I believe public accounting offers a much better future and job security. Regardless of how valuable you are to the company, you are still an overhead line item. In public accounting you are a revenue generator—a much more valuable place to be.

In private industry, divisions and job slots get eliminated, companies get sold or acquired, management changes, many executives want to bring in their own people for higher-level positions, and the companies sometimes go out of business.

Industry specialization and age become factors when looking for a new job. People in private industry seem to get pigeonholed in the industry where they worked. For example, someone who was a controller in a health care business would not be desirable for a manufacturing enterprise. While everyone says they do not age discriminate, they do. There seems to be a magic boundary where those over age 50 find it much harder to get a new job. I get resumes weekly from people who have left public practice for the private bonanza and see that they’ve had new jobs every five or so years. Now at age 52 they are virtually unemployable.

Many even try to downplay their experience, seeking to get any job, only to have the prospective employer check them out on LinkedIn and pass on hiring someone as assistant controller who was a CFO at a much larger organization. Some get lucky, but as a rule the future is bleaker for those who have left public practice.

Contrarily public accounting is thriving with a shortage of good people and age doesn’t seem to matter for those with a solid public background. I never get resumes from people in public accounting looking for jobs—they get them quickly. Further, none of the vagaries of an individual company seems to affect job status since the CPA’s skills are portable and readily transferrable within our profession.
In terms of long-term career management, I believe public trumps private.

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is partner at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPAs. He is on the Accounting Today Top 100 Influential People List. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns,” co-written with Andrew D. Mendlowitz, published by and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition,” published by the AICPA. Ed also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at Art of Accounting is a continuing series where Ed shares autobiographical experiences with tips that he hopes can be adopted by his colleagues. Ed welcomes practice management questions and can be reached at (732) 964-9329 or

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