What are the differences between The Big Four Accountancy firms?

They’re justly known as the Big Four – the accountancy firms everybody’s heard of, with businesses stretching worldwide. While they’ll work you hard, they’re all fantastic places to gain your professional qualifications and start your career. Here are a few tips to help you choose between them.

marc najera 02v6vvdqjbu unsplash

Deloitte, EY, KPMG, PwC… Which is right for you?

A quick overview of the firms

PwC is the largest by revenue and the most prestigious of the Big Four with a strong and established audit client base.

  • Headquarters: London, UK
  • Revenue: $35.4 billion
  • Number of employees: 208,109

Deloitte is just a fraction smaller than PwC. It gets significantly less of its revenue from audit services and more from consulting.

  • Headquarters: New York, USA
  • Revenue: $35.2 billion
  • Number of employees: 225,400

EY is one of the larger companies by staff members, with a comparatively balanced spread of services. In 2015 it had the fastest overall revenue growth of the Big Four. 

  • Headquarters: London, UK
  • Revenue: $28.7 billion
  • Number of employees: 212,000

KPMG is the smallest and most European-focused of the Big Four, with a strong consultancy and advisory side to complement its audit work.  

  • Headquarters: Amstelveen, Netherlands
  • Revenue: $24.44 billion
  • Number of employees: 173,965

Workplace culture

All of the Big Four are keen to tell you their culture makes them stand out. Unfortunately, this can make them sound very similar. The best way to understand the cultural differences is by speaking to people who’ve worked for more than one. Here are a few points to keep in mind:

  • PwC is the most prestigious of the four and people working there know it. The firm’s reputation and solid audit business means there’s a sense of stability you might not find at Deloitte for example
  • Deloitte is smaller than PwC in the UK and keen to catch up. It has a greater focus on consultancy which means it’s always on the lookout for new projects. Together this makes for an ambitious, competitive and results-based culture
  • EY has a reputation for diversity with a comparatively good record for promoting women and a history of supporting LGBTQ rights. It’s said to be one of the friendlier places to work
  • KPMG is well known for its excellent staff development with pass rates for key qualifications higher than the industry standard. Its culture is quirky with less pressure to fit into the stereotypical city graduate lifestyle

What roles are there for students?

All of the big firms offer:

  • Two day residential programmes for first years (or second years on a four year course). They’re a chance to learn more about working at the company and if you do well, you could be fast-tracked for a summer internship
  • Summer internships for students in their penultimate year. These are in the specific area of accounting you’re interested in. Over six to eight weeks you’ll learn the ropes and also work as part of the team. Do well and you could be offered a permanent role for after graduation
  • Work placements for year-in-industry students. A full year placement for anyone who needs to spend a year in industry as part of a four year course

While all of these programmes are very similar, the firms also offer some more distinctive opportunities. Here are a few examples:

  • PwC offers a short Tech Academy for students interested in the technical and IT side of the business. There’s also an eight week Data Analytics Academy aimed at school leavers
  • PwC also runs an Africa Business Group Programme aimed at students interested in developing business in Africa
  • EY offers a role called Student Digital Brand Ambassador – you use your contacts and social media presence to promote the EY brand on your campus
  • KPMG runs a Women in Technology Insight Week aimed at getting female students involved in the technology side of the business

It’s important to note all the firms offer some form of placement or mentorship scheme aimed specifically at women. They'll also be present on campus during career fairs – sometimes offering skills drop-ins, information sessions and even mock interviews.

Who are they looking for?

The key skills each firm highlights on their application pages should give you an idea of where you might fit in best.

  • PwC – Whole leadership, technical capabilities, business acumen, global acumen and relationships
  • Deloitte – A clear interest in business, a sharp and inquisitive mind, outstanding interpersonal skills, a willingness to roll up your sleeves and get involved
  • EY – Excellence, teamwork, integrity, respect for others, and energy.
  • KPMG – A strong awareness of business, a curiosity to find out more and the ability to think of new ways to solve problems

Benefits

There’s little to choose between here as all four firms offer benefits packages an individual can tailor. There’s the usual 25 days holiday with the option to buy more or cash in some for extra pay. You can pick and choose from private healthcare, life assurance, childcare vouchers, gym membership…the list goes on. Importantly, all four offer a graduate loan to help you get started.

Salaries

None of the Big Four publish a graduate starting salary on their website, preferring just to say it will be ‘generous’. They’re all likely to be fairly similar. In London accountant salaries start around £26,000 to £28,000, rising to £30,000 or more by the time you complete your training contract.

There is supposedly some variation in salaries for summer internships. PwC and EY are more generous offering £2,000 to £2,500 per month, whereas Deloitte and KPMG offer £1,650 to £1,850.

The pay ranges for qualified accountants in all four firms are quite wide. PwC is the highest with £40,000 to £55,000 if you stay on after passing your exams – but there’s a lot of overlap. You could be offered £45,000 at any one of the four.

Check out our guide to salaries in accountancy.

Training

Your first few years at any of the Big Four will be heavily focused around gaining a professional qualification. Depending on your area of interest you may become a Chartered Accountant, a Chartered Tax Advisor or a qualified Actuary. If you’re going into consultancy you may not need a professional qualification but you will still undergo a lot of training.

All four firms believe in flexible development and acknowledge everyone learns differently – but they still have slightly different takes on what this means.

PwC works on the buddy system with a slightly more senior colleague showing you the ropes. You’ll also have a partner or director mentor to help you on your way.

Deloitte also stresses mentorship and flexible development programmes alongside your professional qualifications.

As well as using e-learning, EY focuses on teaching through experiences and coaching. It’s the only one of the firms whose training web pages mention using your skills to give back to the community.

KPMG is perhaps the best for guiding you through your professional qualifications and has a trainee community called the Academy to help give training a more social feel.

Discover graduate opportunities in Accounting, Audit and Tax

Now you've met the firms – have you got a favourite? Wherever you decide to build your career, explore accounting, audit and tax graduate programmes today. 

Browse graduate opportunities