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Public vs. Private: What Color Is Your Parachute?

For CPAs, finding their passion often involves transitioning between the worlds of public accounting and the private sector, and, sometimes, back to where they started. 

Amazon reports that the book What Color Is Your Parachute?  is the world's most popular job-hunting guide, with more than ten million copies sold since its debut in 1970. It is described as a “practical manual for job-hunters and career-changers.”  It focuses on finding your passion and identifying skills you like using in a field you enjoy. Your dream job.

While these career moves may offer a change of pace, increased salary or responsibility, or a deep dive into a specific industry segment, those returning to public accounting after a stint in the private sector certainly agree they bring a newfound appreciation for the client perspective.

Shaking Things Up In The M&A Domain

In 2005, Linda Pearson was ready for a change. With more than seven years of public accounting experience under her belt at Sansiveri, Kimball & Co., LLP, and several promotions from staff accountant to manager, she was ready to shake things up and try a new course. “Within a week after I circulated my resume, I had three job offers.” 

In March of 2005, she left Sansiveri to take a position at Clinical Data, Inc., a publicly traded company.  At that time, Clinical Data was a manufacturing and distribution company based in Rhode Island, with $40 million in assets and $51 million in revenues.

After nine months, she was promoted to controller where she managed the entire domestic accounting department, including a staff of fourteen. Beyond the day-to-day requirements of a controller, Linda found herself on the frontlines of the company’s frequent acquisitions.

“There was lots of travel, fire drills and problems to be solved, all very typical in the world of mergers and acquisitions,” explains Linda. During her first year-and-a-half, the company bought several R&D companies out of bankruptcy. They developed many pharmaceutical products, eventually bringing to market the well-known blood thinner Warfarin. 

“I was devoting more and more of my time to accounting for acquisitions. I was charged with pulling it all together after the deal closed. It was incredibly fast-paced and I learned so much but, looking back, it was also very stressful,” says Linda.

By 2007, Clinical Data had sold its Rhode Island-based manufacturing and distribution division, moved its headquarters to Massachusetts and changed its focus. Linda continued as controller, working remotely from her home and traveling weekly.  After the sale of the company, Linda was recruited back to Sansiveri and has since continued to assume more leadership responsibilities at the firm, now as a principal.

“One of the biggest things I learned from working in the private sector is an understanding and appreciation of what my clients do every day. It’s much more than just the month-end close or year-end close,” says Linda. 

“In the private sector, I had numerous people coming at me from all different departments looking for answers and imploring me to ‘just get it done.’ In public accounting, if you have a difficult issue, everyone wants to roll up their sleeves and help you. That’s the personality of people in public accounting.” Linda also likes knowing when she will be busy which allows her to better manage her schedule and her personal life.

Linda believes that maintaining her relationship with Sansiveri was key to ensuring success in her career path. She would often user her former colleagues as sounding boards and she hired the firm to perform Clinical Data’s employee benefit plan audit.  “When my job ended at Clinical Data, it was an easy decision to return to my public accounting roots working at Sansiveri.”

Challenging And Rewarding Opportunity

Andrew Hayes, an audit manager from KLR, had a different experience. After ten years at KLR, Andy was hired in January of 2014 as the finance manager for Summit Partners and then promoted to controller for the management company. He spent a total of about two years in the private sector.

“I wasn’t really looking to leave KLR. Summit Partners, a global growth equity and venture capital firm, was a fantastic opportunity in an industry that I enjoyed. I thought if I was going to make the jump to private, now was the time,” said Andy. “It continues to be a great company and its fast-paced and results-driven environment fit my personal style.”

Andy says it was a challenging and rewarding time, working with high-performing people. “Everyone thinks working in the private sector means doing the same thing every day. But, in my case, every day was different,” adds Andy.

With a young son at home, the one thing that Andy was missing was the flexibility of public accounting. He knew KLR was opening its Boston office and needed someone in a leadership role in the audit group there. In addition, he missed the business development opportunities, the interactions with clients, and the forum to build on his personal brand. 

“For me, there was not that much difference working in public accounting vs. the private sector. If people like building their own client base, public is the platform.” says Andy. “The hours were not different either. At Summit Partners, we were always busy, but we were busier for budgeting in the fall and, of course, at the end of each quarter.”

Now, eight months back at KLR, Andy says “I can better relate to my clients having worked on the other side of the table. When clients ask why I came back, I always enjoy talking about the strengths of KLR and the benefits of my profession.”

A Career Path Characterized By Change

Nancy Williams, an audit supervisor at Batchelor Frechette McCrory Michael & Co., bounced from public to private several times. She started in public accounting at BFMM right out of college after interning there. 

“I worked in public accounting for about two years and absolutely hated it. It was a very confusing time, leaving college and going into the workforce. I went to Fleet bank, in the leasing department. I had completed two sections of the CPA exam and decided to continue taking the exam while in the private sector.” During her time at Fleet, she also got her master’s degree in criminology. 

After three years in leasing, she felt bored doing the same thing every day. “I reached out to BFMM and they took me back. A few years later, I had the opportunity to go to the Wyatt Detention Facility.”

Nancy describes “the jail” as her dream job; it offered the chance to merge her experience in accounting and criminology.  However, there was a lot of “politics” and things were chaotic. Her job actually ended when she was out on leave.

Nancy did some stints in nonprofits and ended up as the controller for a general contractor. “It was all very by-the-book and I was looking for something with a little more flexibility.” Also, at times she found she was working “solo” and missed having colleagues with whom to share ideas.  

I did not think I could ask to come back to BFMM -- yet again, -- but managing partner Ned McCrory personally reached out to me.” She has now been at BFMM for almost five years.

“It does give you a different sense of how to do your job, having been in the private sector. I have much more appreciation for my clients; they are super busy and are not just there for you all the time,” explains Nancy. “At BFMM, I enjoy working with different people every day … and not always being in the same place.”

Nancy reports that there have been several people who have left and come back to BFMM  but “as far as coming back three times, I am the only one. Mine is not your average career experience but I am very appreciative of the opportunities.”

With membership comprised of approximately 75% of licensed CPAs in the state, the Society reports a 60-40% split of public-private sector members. Moving between the public and private sector can certainly provide a unique set of experiences for anyone considering a change. One thing is for certain: It is vital to maintain your existing relationships! You never know when they may be pivotal to the next step in your career path.