Within financial services, investment banks hire accountants, as do retail banks, hedge funds, private equity firms, insurance companies and fund managers. Companies in all other sectors also need accountants to help them tot up profits and losses.
Alternatively, you could work for an accountancy firm providing independent audit services to other companies. The best known are the Big Four – Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).
Roles and career paths
There are several options open to you in an investment bank.
Product control — Keep an eye on the profits and losses made on products bought and sold on the trading floor.
Financial control — Analyse the bank’s overall performance and produce regular reports.
Internal audit — Responsible for checking that financial systems and controls within the organisation are being complied with.
Regulatory — Ensure the bank reports its financial activity according to the legal rules of the countries it trades in.
Treasury — Structure the bank’s financial affairs so that sufficient cash is available to meet its liabilities.
By comparison, if you start as a graduate trainee in a Big Four accountancy firm, your career will be more limited: about half end up in audit and assurance departments, where they handle the accounts of publicly traded companies and independently validate that a company’s accounts are correct.
Big Four firms also conduct advisory work, which can include corporate finance, reorganisation services (offering advice on everything from restructuring or insolvency to simply improving a firm’s performance), or forensic accounting (investigating improper practices). They also run consulting arms offering advice on the business case for everything from technology to economics.
There are other accountancy opportunities in industry and commerce for financial and management accountants.
Pay and bonuses
Accountants earn more in financial services than in any other sector. Basic salaries are higher and there’s the potential to earn lucrative bonuses.
An internal auditor with more than five years’ experience working in banking and financial services in the UK can expect £85k-110k, while in the US a senior vice president typically earns $140k-225k, according to Robert Walters. By comparison, an internal auditor in a large firm in industry or commerce in the UK earns £50k-65k.
Most large accountancy firms will demand a finance-related degree but the first few years in the job are spent undertaking an accountancy qualification. Increasingly, though, the Big Four firms are open to applications from non-finance related disciplines, and some even have schemes set up for school leavers.
If you train as an accountant in London, most firms will expect you to take the exams run by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) or the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), while banks and Big Four accountancy firms tend to favour qualified associates of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ACA). This qualification is internationally recognised, but different countries also offer their own options.
In France, there is the DCG (Diplôme de Comptabilité et Gestion), equivalent to a three-year degree, and the DSCG (Diplôme Supérieur de Comptabilité et Gestion), equivalent to a Master’s degree. In Germany, accountants qualify through vocational training with an employer for two or three years or through university studies, which usually take six years.
In the US, the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) qualification is key but there are also the options of Certified Internal Auditor (CIA), Certified Management Accountant (CMA), and Accredited Business Accountant (ABA) qualifications.
The national industry body in Australia is the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia, and to become a member it is necessary to complete the Chartered Accountants Programme. Singapore is currently making moves to establish its own professional accounting qualification and the Hong Kong Institute of Public Accountants runs its own CPA programme.
Accountancy firms don’t always expect you to have all the technical skills, however. They look for raw talent.
“We look for students who have the ability to build relationships, are good at teamwork, have integrity and strong analytical skills,” says Melinda Woodlock, national graduate recruitment manager for Australia at Ernst & Young. “We need people who are inquisitive about businesses and how things work. These skills, along with enthusiasm and personal drive, will help students achieve success in this field.”
Everything in a Big Four firm, from audit to consulting, involves working with clients – even at a junior level – so employers always look for evidence that graduate recruits have excellent communication skills and a commercial focus.
“Candidates who are able to demonstrate that they are well rounded in their experiences are most impressive,” says Scott McQuillan, national campus recruiting leader for Deloitte & Touche in the US. “This includes skills they have acquired or gained from their experiences such as leadership, technical skills, and the ability to multi-task. We are not looking for ‘cookie cutter’ candidates but appreciate and value varied experiences that would benefit our organisation both personally and professionally.” Most banks would expect you to come armed with some academic training in accountancy, but it’s not a prerequisite.
“Accounting skills represent one of the core building blocks for a successful financing practice – but we don’t insist on an accounting background,” says Andrew Blincoe, managing director secured debt markets at Royal Bank of Scotland. “We are hugely supportive of recruiting talent from a diverse pool of skill sets and backgrounds, including accounting.”
“The accounting profession requires skills that include critical thinking, teamwork, flexibility and problem-solving in a fast-paced, client service setting. Anyone working in a client service profession needs to understand, manage and deliver on client expectations,” adds McQuillan.