Is working at a midsize firm right for you?

Smaller firms can offer many advantages.

Kyle DeMus, CPA, began his accounting career as an intern at a Fortune 500 company in Chicago, and realized quickly this was not his desired path. “I got the feel for corporate America, and it wasn’t my cup of tea,” he said. “I’m from a small town and more comfortable in a smaller setting. And I don’t want to live in Chicago.”

So shortly after graduating from Elmhurst College, DeMus ended his internship and accepted a full-time post at Benning Group LLC, a regional public accounting firm with 12 CPAs. Today he is a manager in the firm’s Monroe, Wis., office, where he shares responsibilities with colleagues spread across three locations.

Many accounting majors take jobs directly after graduation at the Big Four and other large accounting firms or in industry, but for some, that environment isn’t a good fit. So before accepting a job offer, determine what experience you want to obtain within the accounting profession and what matters to you, both in your career and personal life. For some graduates, a midsize firm — one that employs about 11 to 21 CPAs — provides the ideal balance.

CPAs who work at midsize firms share what it’s like and why this path is worth considering:

Variety of tasks. At smaller, regional firms, many employees get the chance to work on multiple aspects of the business, while at larger firms, new employees may be more specialized or work in a particular department. For instance, DeMus works on both audit and tax, and his clients span many sectors, including not-for-profit organizations, school districts, and companies. He was also able to spearhead office expansions for his employer.

Opportunities to specialize do exist at midsize firms, but because they have smaller staffs, most employees work with clients in various industries. “In a midsize firm, you are working in more areas, and seeing the big picture of smaller engagements,” noted Jake Thompson, CPA, audit and tax partner at Benning Group in the firm’s Rockford, Ill., office.

Weinberg, Lieberman & Co. CPAs, a midsize firm in Fairfield, N.J., employs a dozen CPAs and runs three separate businesses in-house: accounting and auditing; litigation support and valuation; and a high-net-worth practice, where CPAs work on individual tax returns and provide personal financial planning services.“ In a firm like ours, you’ll get to have input and work in any one of those three areas,” said managing director Jeffrey Lieberman, CPA/ABV/CFF, CGMA.

Direct supervision and training. Whether midsize firms have formal mentoring programs or budgets for in-depth training varies. Benning Group, for example, does not offer a formal mentoring program, Thompson said. Glendale, Calif.-based firm JLK Rosenberger, in contrast, pairs new recruits with mentors of their choice, said tax manager Anna Harutyunyan, CPA.

But one thing with midsize firms is universal: Mentoring and in-house guidance happen organically, as new hires work directly with senior leaders. “You get that real-world experience and a more intimate sort of connection,” DeMus said about collaborating with partners and other supervisors. “I’m working for and working with these people.”

Lieberman said his firm’s senior team brings new staff members on client assignments and teaches them how to bring in business. “That’s how we mentor,” he said.

Local and regional travel. Many midsize firms tend to work with clients closer to home, which can be a plus for CPAs who don’t want to travel extensively. For example, CPAs at Weinberg, Lieberman & Co. travel to meet clients in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, Lieberman said.

But other midsize firms may offer more opportunities for travel. JLK Rosenberger has a Dallas office and clients outside of California, so some of its CPAs travel around the country, Harutyunyan said.

Prospects for advancement. Thompson believes opportunity for advancement happens more quickly at midsize firms, where young CPAs get the chance to work on various types of client engagements across numerous sectors early in their careers. “They get to see the full picture of an audit sooner,” he noted.

Young CPAs with enthusiasm and skill, along with the ability to interact favorably with clients, can thrive in midsize environments, he said. “We put an emphasis on someone who has an outgoing personality,” he added.

And while larger firms often provide established advancement goals — for instance, a firm may specify that a CPA is expected to move up within two years — midsize firms tend to focus less on timetables and more on personality and prowess. “Advancement is commensurate with employees’ ability and willingness to learn,” Lieberman said about his firm.

Benning Group promoted DeMus to manager this year, and he has aspirations to someday be a partner. “What I’ve learned is that there is more to work than a paycheck,” he said. “Where I work, and whom I work with, and the size of the firm is more important to me.”

By Cheryl Meyer, a freelance writer based in California.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien.

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