Deloitte, PWC, KPMG & EY. Are the Big Four all the same?

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Big Four accounting firms

Are they really all the same?

If you've decided to work for a Big Four accounting firm, you may be ambivalent about which one you go for. After all, they're all pretty similar aren't they? That depends upon who you speak to.

"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." Stevan Rolls, a UK-based partner for global talent at Deloitte, partially agrees: "The Big Four are pretty similar in that they're all large professional partnerships and have a lot in common, but there are important structural and cultural differences too."

Employees who've skipped between the firms say these differences are noticeable when you're on the ground. "When I moved from Deloitte to PwC, I was surprised at how different the culture was," says one UK-based PwC employee. "In the UK, PwC is the largest firm and Deloitte was playing catch-up - that created a very competitive culture at Deloitte, whereas PwC was more comfortable in its skin. There's less pressure to put revenue growth before everything else."

If PwC is less 'competitive' than Deloitte, it also stands accused of being more arrogant and more pleased with itself. PwC is disproportionately focused on the stuffier audit side of the business, while Deloitte (which was the only Big Four firm to retain its consulting arm after the Enron scandal in the early 2000s) has traditionally had a far larger focus on consulting work. Rolls told us this makes Deloitte more entrepreneurial: "Audit has historically been an annuity business, where you keep the same clients year after year. However, in consulting you start each year with a clean slate and need to go out and find the business and start again." People at Deloitte are confident but not arrogant, adds Rolls: "There's a very can-do approach. A huge concentration of quality."

Ultimately, however, most Big Four firms make distinctly similar (and fairly nebulous) claims about their differences. Martin Blackburn, UK People Director at KPMG says KPMG is special because it's a "responsible business," contributing to the "community at large." Maggie Stilwell, EY’s Managing Partner for Talent, UK & Ireland, says EY is special because it "walks the talk" on diversity and inclusiveness, has a clear vision globally, and is growing in the UK. PWC has adopted a "global purpose," which it says is to  "build trust in society and to solve important problems,” and says it offers, "opportunities to grow as an individual" in a place where, "quality and value mean everything."  Only Deloitte touts harder-headed business advantages, stressing its "multidisciplinary nature," and the "breadth and depth" of its operation.

To help cut through all the claims and counterclaims, we've looked at the stats and the awards and the online testimonials of Big Four employees globally. Using these measures, we've assembled the pointers below. We think they're right, but feel free to challenge them in the comments box beneath if you think they're not.

Best for sheer size: PWC

If you want to work for a Big Four firm that's a beast on a global scale, you want to work for Deloitte or maybe PWC....The two firms alternate as global leaders on a revenue basis. In 2016-2017, Deloitte had $38.8bn of revenues globally and PWC had $37.7bn. KPMG has yet to report its results for 2017, but it's pretty tiny by comparison: revenues there were "just" $25.4bn in 2016.

Although PWC may have the highest revenues, Deloitte has by far the most staff - with 27,655 more than PWC. Curiously, EY has a lot of staff compared to the level of revenues they produce. While each PWC employee generates $160k in revenues, each member of EY staff generates $126k.

Best for hiring: Deloitte

KPMG hasn't reported hiring numbers for 2016-2017, but among the firms that have, Deloitte comes top. In 2016 to 2017 it hired a massive 70,000 people globally - or one every eight minutes.

Best for audit: PWC

If audit is your area, PwC is the biggest firm on a global scale. In 2017, PWC made $17bn from its assurance business alone, compared to $12bn at EY. PWC has traditionally been more reliant on its audit business than other firms - although it tried to address this in 2014, when it acquired consulting firm Booz & Co to boost its consulting revenues.

Best for consulting and advisory: Deloitte

If PWC is an audit machine, Deloitte is its consulting equivalent. Although all Big Four firms are now trying to build their consulting practices, Deloitte had a serious head-start after retaining its consulting business in the early 2000s. As a result, Deloitte ranks top in most consulting rankings and is a leader in risk, strategy and IT consulting globally.

Best for prestige: PwC

By all accounts, PwC is the best Big Four firm if you put a premium on prestige and generally impressing other people. PwC persistently comes first in Vault's ranking of the most prestigious accounting firms, followed by Deloitte, EY and KPMG. "PwC has historically been seen as having the best clients," says the UK accounting recruiter (this may change since the introduction of mandatory audit rotations in the EU). The "prestige that comes with working at PwC" is a big reason for working there according to employees who spoke to the Vault. PWC boasts that it works for 84% of Fortune 500 companies. 

Best for working hours: KPMG and Deloitte?

If you work for the Big Four, you may work shorter hours than if you work in banking. But you will still be worked stupidly hard. All Big Four firms are lambasted by employees who complain about the hours they work. The Vault surveys have unearthed people complaining about long hours and stress at Deloitte, being worn down at KPMG, "sacrifices" at EY and "working three weeks straight without a day off" at PwC.

It's possible, however, that PwC's working hours are more extreme than others. "No work-life balance - if you don't mind a 90% work 10% life this is the place for you," complains one employee on Glassdoor.  Another says the work life balance is especially bad between December and April - when audit employees have their busy periods. In PWC's most recent people survey only 65% of its global employees said people there were considerate of life outside work (down from 66% in 2016).

In their defence, much like investment banks most Big Four firms are trying to do something to improve employees' work-life balance. PWC is pushing flexible working and online meetings. In the UK, Deloitte has a, 'WorkAgility Programme' which allows people to work flexibly, including a 'Time Out' scheme, which "enables our people to take a month’s unpaid leave at a time that suits both them and the business." KPMG has something similar - the firm has introduced an "intelligent working" programme in the UK which focuses on outcomes rather than time at work and uses real life role-models to showcase the possibility of fitting life in around work.

Best for pay: Deloitte

If you're working in the UK, figures for partner level pay suggest Deloitte is by far the most generous of the big four accounting firms. This may, however, be because Deloitte has a disproportionate number of partners working in its consulting business - where pay is typically higher than elsewhere.

Needless to say, the rank and file at Big Four accounting firms are paid a lot less than the partners. At PWC UK, the most recent accounts suggest the average person is paid £81k. At EY, the comparable figure for the year to June 2016 was £68k.

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