6 May 2014 03:09pm

The DNA of a Big Four partner

The Big Four firms are way ahead of the “magic circle” law firms when it comes to social mobility, a new academic study reveals

Becoming a partner is open to all rather than being a privilege for those born into wealthy families, the research found. Also, in terms of what makes a successful professional, there are no significant differences between Big Four partners across different cultures.

The research – carried out by Professors Chris Carter of Edinburgh University and Crawford Spence of Warwick Business School – set out to identify the “secret” of accounting partners’ personal success and highlight the logics and values that partners embody, in the light of the increasing commercialisation of accountancy practices.

The academics interviewed 32 accounting professionals in the UK and Canada, ranging from individuals who had not made partner to partners to retired partners, from three of the Big Four (EY did not agree to participate).

Their research confirmed that to be a Big Four partner is to be a member of the elite of the accounting field, since as few as 2%-3% of those entering the firms will reach that level. And not just within the profession: in their own economic and social environment, they are also considered members of the elite.

“This is particularly the case in provincial cities,” the academics say. “Many of the partners we spoke to were clearly well known in their local business community and could be described as ‘local business celebrities’.”

This “celebrity” in one case extended to a national newspaper’s 30 most eligible bachelors listing where "he ranked above a well-known movie star!”.

They are also “fabulously wealthy”. One interview with a retired partner took place in “a magnificent castle in the Scottish countryside, surrounded by manicured lawns and expensive sports cars”.

However, unlike partners in the top law firms on both sides of the Atlantic who tend to come from privileged backgrounds and elite universities, the research found “a strong preponderance of provincial university graduates” among the Big Four partners.

“Accountants tended not to talk about their family background, other than as a quick aside to stress its modesty,” the academics say. “For example, none of the partners made much of their university credentials or pointed to having been high performers at university.

“The UK interviewees came from relatively modest backgrounds – aspirational working class or lower middle class; they were generally educated in the state system and were the children of parents who themselves were unlikely to have had the luxury of higher education.”

One former senior manager (now a corporate financier) told the pair that accountancy firms don’t care about background; what they are interested in is what potential partners have done with themselves and what they’ve achieved.

Another former senior manager (now the owner of a successful tax consultancy) said that the accountancy profession did not attract people from privileged backgrounds because they didn’t want “to work that hard”.

“They are more attracted to careers in finance or law. You will find them more in hedge funds or moneyed type jobs. Or even property…

“Accountants go across all religions and classes… My experience in the Big Four is what matters is how much money you make for the firm. That is the most important factor.”

Interviewees felt that what actually makes an individual partner material was to “be a hunter, a killer and a skinner”, in other words, being good at selling and business development, while having technical abilities and competence. Once a partner, however, the emphasis changes to being the hunter and the killer – technical competence can be sourced elsewhere within the firm. “Being a partner,” it seems, “is about being an all-rounder, having the vision to focus on breadth rather than depth.”

The academics conclude that making partner is more meritocratic than in the past and that social ties and family background are less important than having a "raw, capitalist mentality".

“At the partner level, accountants are the embodiment of commercial logics par excellence,” they add.

Julia Irvine


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