Meet the “Big 4”
As a student or working professional, you will run into Big 4 sooner or later. The Big 4 accounting firms – PwC, EY, Deloitte, and KPMG – have evolved into their own ubiquitous brand.
But first thing first, why is the Big 4 known as the Big 4? Well… it’s pretty simple actually. There are 4 for them and they are BIG. And when I say “big,” I mean *BIG.* PWC, EY, Deloitte and KPMG each have a presence in at least 160 countries, employ 220,000, people and generate about $33 billion dollars in revenue on average. Impressive, isn’t it?
For some more context, the Big 4 firm with the lowest revenue is KPMG, with ~25 billion. The next biggest accounting firm only generated around 4.9 billion.
Key point… the Big 4 firms and firm #5 are in different stratospheres.
Within the Big 4 accounting firms, they are alike not only in terms of size but also in the types of service being provided.
The major line of service and the core “moneymaker” in the Big 4 is auditing (also referred to as assurance). Audit work typically generates over a third of total revenue, followed by Advisory and then Tax.
One thing to note is that these firms are continuously evolving and shifting their service offerings to meet client demands (both current and projected in the future), so not all types of projects fit nicely into these boxes.
One advantage from a client perspective of hiring a Big 4 firm is that they can bring an insane amount of both depth and breadth to the table. For example, my team used to do a lot of consulting for big banks on new technology. It was a great selling point for us that we could bring people and experts from across the firm to consider the technology, accounting / regulatory and tax implications of any project. The Big 4 are trying to offer a full suite of services from strategy through execution – which is a rarity among professional services firms.
Diving into the firms
By now you should understand that the Big 4 firms are similar in their size, scope, and service offerings. However, just like four children from the same family, they have their differences and exhibit unique characteristics. It is important to understand those differences, especially when you are trying to land a job at a Big 4 firm, so let’s dig a little deeper into each firm.
Let’s start with Deloitte – colloquially referred to as “the dot’ due to their strict branding guidelines around the color, size, and shape of the dot at the end of “Deloitte” in their logo. In 2016, Deloitte generated the highest revenue of $37.8 billion, beating out last year’s leader PwC. Deloitte employs ~245 thousand people worldwide.
General Info: Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu (yes, this is Deloitte’s full name) was founded back in 1845 by William Deloitte. Going through a number of mergers either taking place in the US or UK with Tohmatsu joining the firm relatively recently in 1990, Deloitte turned into the firm that we know today. Nowadays Deloitte provides some traditional services like Tax, Consulting, Audit & Assurance, and Risk Financial Advisory.
Audit still plays a big role in the company’s profit-generating ability, though Deloitte’s consulting business is second to none. Back in the early 2000s, other Big 4 accounting firms sold or spun off their Consulting practices in the wake of the Enron scandal and subsequent regulations (e.g. Sarbanes-Oxley or “sox”). Deloitte decided to still keep their consulting practice in-house, putting them ahead of the pack once the other Big 4 firms started to re-boot their consulting arms.
Vault places Deloitte’s consulting department right after Big 3 strategy consulting firms (McKinsey, BCG, and Bain), an indicator of Deloitte’s success and effectiveness.
Globally, Deloitte boasts a number of premier clients such as P&G, Boeing, Starbucks, Morgan Stanley, Berkshire Hathaway.
PricewaterhouseCoopers (yes they really smoosh the name like that), PwC, or “p-dubbs” gave up their spot as top dog to Deloitte in terms of revenue but regardless is still viewed as one of the most prestigious Big 4 firms. It didn’t hurt that PwC acquired the firm formerly known as Booz & Co in 2014, bolstering its strategy consulting practice. Due to weird legal mumbo jumbo, Booz & Co. had to re-name post-acquisition, and the firms decided to go with Strategy& (pronounced “Strategy and”, not “strategy ampersand”). A bit unconventional and controversial, but it seems to be working for them!
General Info: PwC started its journey back in 1848 with Samuel Lowell Price setting business in London. The main development of its professional history happened in 1998 when PriceWaterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand merged to start PwC that we know today. PwC’s present line of services includes Audit & Assurance, Tax, Legal and Advisory.
While PwC’s bread and butter are still audit and assurance services, they carefully monitor global trends (or as they call them – megatrends) and expand into practice areas they see fit for significant growth like Big Data, Advanced Analytics, Sustainability, and Climate Change, etc.
Across all lines of service PwC can boast an incredible list of companies being served such as the Oscars (yes, the one from Hollywood), Disney, IBM, Exxon, Morgan Stanley, Cisco, Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson, Ford, Chevron among countless others. In total, ~85% of Fortune500 engage PwC across some line of service.
EY (Ernst & Young)
EY, the middle child of the Big 4 comes, is the perennial third-place firm in terms of revenue.
General info: Ernst and Young is another company that was formed by way of a merger. In 1989, Arthur Young merged with Ernst & Whinney and this resulted in the Ernst & Young that the world knows today. Like any company that has been running for a long time, the company has a long history of providing only the very best services and this means they choose people who are equipped with only the very best skills and those that have integrity, enthusiasm, motivation, teamwork, professionalism, and respect – the very values that drive the accounting firm. The company also provides training and development for the professional growth of its employees.
EY has an impressive client list that includes the tech giants Google, Amazon, and Facebook. On the flip side, if you’re looking for a more tangible and delicious client… they also have McDonald’s.
KPMG (Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler)
Last but not least is KMPG. Unlike Ernst and Young, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Deloitte…. no one ever actually calls KPMG Klynveld, Peat, Marwick, and Goerdeler.
General Info: KPMG’s history started back in 1818. There are 4 different names in KPMG (Klynveld, Peat, Marwick, and Goerdeler), which means that there were more than enough mergers in the history of this company. The last major merger happened in 1987 when PMI (Peat Marwick International) merged with KMG (Klynveld Main Gordeler).
KPMG is the smallest one out of the Big 4 accounting firms, generating *only* $25.4 billion in revenue and employing only about 180K people (compare with average numbers mentioned earlier). Remember, this is still ~5x bigger than the #5 accounting firm, RSM.
While the revenues may be smaller than the other Big 4 firms, they still boast a number of high profile clients, such as PepsiCo, Rolls Royce, Wells Fargo, GE, Pfizer, Hershey, Deutsche Bank, etc.
Also, a fun fact: KPMG audits Accenture.
What is special about Accenture? Remember Arthur Anderson (“AA”), the firm that reduced the Big 5 into Big 4? Well, when AA was being destroyed because of Enron, its consulting line of service decided to leave the sinking ship and turned into Accenture through some massive re-branding effort. Now we can say that AA’s legacy is still living through Accenture, and KPMG is supporting this legacy through auditing Accenture. Well, let us hope it will not make the same auditing mistakes AA made with Enron, though this situation will be full of irony in case of happening.
While this overview was written through a global lens, keep in mind that the Big 4 accounting firms are present in ~160 countries around the world, and each firm/country has its own flavor, feel, and specializations.
Cultural and geographical differences can shape the unique business environment and working atmosphere in all 4 firms. PwC Russia can differ from KPMG China, but PwC Russia will also be different from PwC India.
In one forum, a user described Big 4 firms in his location as:
“EY is regarded as the elitists, PwC the sweatshop, Deloitte the frat stars and surfer bros, and KPMG is the party firm”.
In another location a user posted:
“EY is regarded as “condescending career monsters”, PwC as “overly proud audit robots”, Deloitte as “not as smart for other Big 4s”, and KPMG as “cute cozy harmless consultants”
Stereotypes can be dangerous and you shouldn’t generalize too much, but the point is Big 4 firm offices can have a drastically different vibe in every country, and within each country, the offices in each city can vary in terms of specialty, culture, norms, etc.