Why Practice Trumps Industry

Big claim but having interviewed a number of Partners and Directors in the local market over the last month I’ve good reason to believe it.

How about a much quicker route to business ownership and less chance of getting stung by redundancy to kick us off? Or the way your sales and people skills replace more and more of your technical duties with every promotion? And what about industry being an increasingly lonely career path the more senior you get?

Why haven’t we heard this stuff before?

Misconceptions

Say the words ‘accountancy practice’ and most people picture a stuffy, wood panelled office filled with grey haired men hunched over their desks in eerie silence. It’s boring, it’s mindless, you need to be good at maths, you work long hours and it doesn’t pay as much as industry. With the odd exception, I found this to be overwhelmingly untrue.

Natalie Bracey is a great contrast to those misconceptions herself; Natalie studied AAT straight from school with Hart Shaw and made Partner 6 years after qualifying with ICAEW. Natalie has buckets of personality and talks a lot about how important that was in the modern profession. “When hiring we look for someone with motivation, someone who’s on board with what we are trying to achieve, and personality. We can teach the rest”.

In fact, every one of the 9 Directors and Partners I spoke with mentioned personality when asked what the key attributes they look for when hiring. “Personality, personality, and personality”- Gary Olding, Tax Partner at Hentons. Unsurprising given how quickly cloud accounting software is automating compliance. With the boring bit removed, the job becomes purely about your ability to advise and influence – isn’t that what most accountants want?

Lisa Calvert, Partner at Ford Campbell Freedman is another great role model. Lisa has built a successful career with a young family in tow. “We’ve taken a modern approach in that we’ve introduced dress for your day and implemented core hours so you can start early finish early and vice versa”. Lisa went on to say, “You get a lot more flexibility in practice, I have lots of friends from university that did accountancy and went into industry and they’re always complaining they can’t take holidays before or straight after month end”.

The point is there is a lot more colour to practice than people think, there’s been a big push on modernising office spaces and that’s to reflect the modern professionals working within them.

Benefits of remaining in practice

So, we’ve dealt with the outdated stereotypes but why specifically is practice a better option than industry? And for who? 

The first key difference is the ongoing environment of support. If you run into a tricky issue with lots of ambiguity, in practice you will always have a ‘sea of experienced colleagues’ to seek advice from claims Natale Bracey. You just don’t get that option in industry; being the FD of a business can feel pretty lonely when you have a big decision on your hands. In practice you’re always a desk away from someone just as experienced as you are to lend their view. Maybe they’ve already dealt with the same issue with one of their clients?

Variety is also something commonly overlooked. Yes, you’re doing the same work but you’re doing it for different businesses in different industries and for lots of different people. What’s so appealing about joining one company and preparing the same set of accounts, for the same people every month? Industry accountants are always longing to get away from the dreaded month end but for the vast majority it will be an inescapable feature of their entire careers.

Post qualification in practice is where is starts to get interesting… although most miss out on all of that because they’ve already set their hearts on industry. Setting your sights on getting promoted or moving to a managerial role in another practice is where a lot of accountants will find the change and remuneration they’re looking for. 

“The first 12 to 18 months after qualifying is when you learn the most. You have more opportunity to work with bigger clients, you gain more responsibility, and you get involved in new areas”- Stella Cooper, Partner at RSM.

Not only that but the higher you get the better the reward. Almost all the Partners and Directors I spoke to mentioned that money became less important to them upon reaching manager level and many Partners will surpass their peers in industry on earnings.

“Its short-term pain, for long term gain” Chris Calverly- Tax Director at Simpson Wood

Speaking of rewards, there’s more to it than money. Visiting clients and repeatedly seeing more movement and more growth and seeing the value you’ve added and the difference you’ve made brings a lot of job satisfaction. 

Job security is another thing to consider. You’re less likely to be exposed to redundancies and restructures within practice. 

“I went through 2 restructures and a redundancy while working in industry” says Michelle Frost, Practice Director at Shorts 

And remember “You’ll always pay taxes” as Gary Olding, Tax Director at Hentons, pointed out. 

Size matters 

“Not all practices are the same”- Susan Seaman- Partner at Sagars, one of Yorkshire’s largest independent firms.

Susan was referring here to the increased flexibility that they offer in comparison to the Big 4 for example, but she’s right, they’re not. Sure, working at the Big 4 is great if you like working with large businesses, you don’t mind the bureaucracy and the money is good. However, if you’re someone who likes to make quick decisions and are more interested in working with entrepreneurs, then you’re unlikely to get that exposure – or be that marketable to those businesses in the future.


Working at a Top 20 or a large regional practice is similar to working in the Big 4 in that they tend to have better structure, systems, access to lots of resources, high quality training and development. The difference is you get to work with both owner managed businesses and larger corporates. Compared to the Big 4 you’re going to feel much more part of the busines, it’s less stressful, less pressurised and there’s less hours but decisions will still take time and don’t forget that the bigger the practice, the more competition you have for promotion.

The next tier down we have the smaller regional practices. Here you’ll find the teams to be smaller but the support is still there, the culture tends to be much less bureaucratic, lots of opportunity for progression and growth as you’re less pigeon holed in comparison to larger firms and you can build your own network within the region. 

“You can get a lot of exposure which can really help you identify what you want to do”- Susan Seaman, Partner at Sagars. You’ll get a rounded skillset which would be extremely useful if you have designs on starting your own business in future.

Finally, we have the independents. Here it can be a lot more personal, it’s usually a 1 to 1 experience where you’re helping small local businesses grow. Smaller teams mean you get to be part of the decision making and have an influence at all levels and everything happens a lot quicker.

“The swiftness of making decisions is the key difference here. We can make a decision in the morning and start working on it in the afternoon, and if it’s wrong we just change it”- Mary Beavis, Director at Sunley & Co, who came from a 12-partner practice so knows all too well how slow it can be. You’ll need to rely on yourself a lot more for development but if you’ve always been one to create your own luck rather than wait for someone else to offer up what you need, then a smaller practice is a much better fit. And don’t forget how much closer you are to Partnership in a small practice either – if you’re confident, self-motivated, and good with people, you could find yourself taking home a very satisfying profit share as a fully-fledged business owner and Partner in no time (something accountants in larger practices should explore more often before they become too expensive).

Conclusion

The key things to take away are: working in practice can be a quick route to business ownership, it works well with family life, you get to work closely with lots of different entrepreneurs giving you great exposure, you’re more shielded from redundancy, you’ll be utilising your sales and people skills a lot more than your technical skills in the long run, and money can easily surpass industry equivalents. Are you thinking of following the crowd into industry without exploring your options? Practice is always evolving so once you move to industry it can be difficult to return so my advice would be to keep an open mind, see the outdated misconceptions for what they are and make the choice that’s right for you. 

Ross Wallace is the Practice specialist for Headstar – a finance recruitment consultancy owned and run by Finance Directors.

If you’re a practice accountant looking for an increase in your salary, a step up or simply some advice on what your options are please get in touch on the details below: 

Ross Wallace

Consultant – Practice

ross.wallace@headstar.co.uk

Ross Wallace

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