Public Accounting vs. Industry—Control of Information

In the Public Accounting vs. Industry blog series, NCACPA member Abby Smith outlines how a career in public accounting is different (or in some cases, not so different) from one in industry when it comes to: work-life balance, technical resources, training, development of business acumen, human capital, control of information, and stress level. Abby offers a balanced perspective, drawing on her experiences in both worlds.

A new post in the series will be added every Tuesday through the end of April.

By: Abby Smith, CPA


There are two aspects to control of information that differ between public and industry—timeliness and accuracy. One benefit I thought would be a sure thing by moving to industry was enhanced control of the timeliness of information.

In public accounting, I was completely reliant on clients to deliver information, and many long nights working were due to late receipt of information. I tried sending quarterly request lists for transaction documents to my larger clients but receipt of information was hit-or-miss. I thought that by being in the company with the information, I would certainly be able to better plan my workday and prioritize gathering information as necessary. I have been quite surprised at my lack of control in this area. I have only slightly more weight by being in the company than being an external service provider. Many tax directors I spoke to disagree with my experience and feel like they have more control of information, while several other tax directors said they were shocked about how hard it is to get detailed information.

Being in tax, I am reliant on the financial accountants to complete their trial balances before I can begin work.  It doesn’t benefit me to pull trial balances from our general ledger system because I depend on the financial accountants to finish the monthly, quarterly, and annual closes first. This has been touch-and-go over the last year, so while I negotiate better timelines for one project, it seems that timelines slip on one another.

One thing I am beginning to control is the collection of transaction documents at least up through the fourth quarter of the year. It takes a couple of months for documents to enter our electronic systems so I can collect the documents for a single transaction. At least I can focus on the collection as the year progresses rather than waiting until preparation of the tax return begins. So when my company acquires or disposes of a property, I can begin the process of gathering the sale and purchase agreements and closing statements. Or, if a new fund launches, I can gather the investor subscription agreements, withholding certificates, and other valuable information more timely than if I was an external service provider. This has improved greatly just over the last few months as I’ve started to compile better template requests to send to our financial accountants, asset managers, and my associate who helps me gather data. I consider control of timeliness of information an overall work in progress, but not incredibly different between industry and public accounting.

The second difference between public accounting and industry in controlling information is the responsibility for the accuracy of information. One of my colleagues commented—and I wholeheartedly agree—that in public accounting, you push off the responsibility for the accuracy of information to your client. If a client provides inadequate information or leaves out necessary details, the public accountant can caveat the advice they provide or agree with the client on certain assumptions that will be made. As long as the information is not conflicting or large details are not missing, public accountants can reasonably move forward with a project.

A considerable amount of time is spent in industry fact-checking or “slogging through to try and get good information” as one colleague put it. Communication is often lacking and it may take several meetings with a particular group of people to gain an understanding of a transaction and fully understand what documentation is necessary to support a position. In public accounting, whatever the client provides is seen as pure gold and goes in the file as supporting documentation.

Stay tuned for next week’s post when I cover personal marketability!

Abby SmithAbby’s career began in 2005 at a small public accounting firm in North Georgia, where she largely worked with clients in the music and entertainment industry, as well as in real estate. In 2007, Abby joined a regional public accounting firm based in South Carolina, where she focused on pass-through entity taxation for partnerships and subchapter S corporations in the health care, real estate, agricultural, and not-for-profit industries. Abby joined KPMG in 2010 to focus on alternative investments, a melding of pass-through taxation and not-for-profit unrelated business taxation. Since 2014, Abby has worked with TIAA assisting with US tax compliance, structuring objectives for alternative investments, and specifically building out TIAA’s REIT expertise and US tax analysis of financial instruments.