Halfway through my English literature degree, I realised that I was going to need a job when I finished university and a friend mentioned that the Big Four each hired more than 1,000 graduates every year. At that point, I even had to ask what they did.
But after some research, and against the backdrop of a great deal of turbulence in the world economy, I became very interested in business and financial services and I decided that the Big Four route was one that I was interested in. I educated myself by reading the Financial Times, I researched and wrote an article on the financial crisis for the student newspaper, and I managed to secure myself a summer internship in operations at an investment bank.
The way in
I was offered a job after my internship, but I decided to apply for corporate finance at Big Four firms. The Big Four are known for their core financial work (audit, tax) and their more commercially-focused consulting services. Their fourth offering, corporate finance, combines the accounting acumen of audit and tax with the strategic and market focus of consulting. What falls under the corporate finance umbrella varies between the Big Four firms, but as a rule it's a term applied to restructuring, transaction services, debt advisory and mergers and acquisitions (M&A) advisory.
Applying for corporate finance was a bit of a gamble as the intakes are much smaller than in audit and tax. Thankfully, my commercial awareness, which is one of the things you are thoroughly tested on during the interview process, was pretty good by then. But my maths, which I hadn't done since GCSE, needed work. Nevertheless, after swotting up on percentages, ratios and data interpretation, I passed the two interview rounds and the psychometric tests to make it on to the corporate finance graduate programme in London, where I specialised in restructuring.
Joining one of the largest financial services firms in the world was daunting and my degree provided very little insight into how business worked. However, the people at my firm were all incredibly friendly and supportive - even senior people were almost always willing to take time to explain difficult (and sometimes embarrassingly simple!) concepts to me.
Restructuring incorporates both insolvency and advisory work, with the aim of the latter generally being to help prevent the former. Like transaction services (another area of corporate finance), restructuring is very deal-focused, with work broken into discrete projects, rather than being a "business as usual" day-to-day role. The aim is always to achieve the best outcome for the client - in restructuring these clients are usually the banks that had lent money to the distressed business, while in other areas of corporate finance it can be a potential buyer or seller of a specific business.
The project-focused nature of the work means that it can be varied and you have to be proactive to seek out work that you're interested in - if you can make a good impression early on with directors and partners in areas that you want to work in, you'll stand a good chance of being picked to work on the most interesting projects.
I had the chance to get involved with both types of work, which helped to develop quite different skill sets. Insolvency work required organisation, a willingness to get your hands dirty, and significant interpersonal skills - for example, I had to deal with lawyers, creditors or stakeholders that stood to lose their jobs or significant sums of money. Meanwhile, advisory work required financial modelling skills and the ability to think critically about a business, especially where forecasts were concerned. Both require attention to detail and an ability to think about the bigger picture.
While there's a lot of interesting work to go around, there's also a lot of grunt work to be done: inputting historical financials from accounts into a spreadsheet or drawing out company group structures in Powerpoint, for example. The nature of the Big Four hierarchy is such that this work gets pushed downwards, often leaving the more experienced managers and directors to do the sharp end of the transactions. Nevertheless, you'll be invited to sit in on meetings and calls, and seeing the partners at work can be very inspirational - these are incredibly smart and experienced people and learning from them is one of the biggest intangible benefits of working at the Big Four.
A massive upside to picking a career at the Big Four is that you are put through the ACA Chartered Accountancy qualification. This qualification makes you incredibly valuable in the business world, and achieving it will give your CV real clout for the rest of your career, helping to alleviate the fear of job insecurity as chartered accountants are always in demand.
For me, the ACA was the best possible course to segue into a career in business and finance, and, after a lot of stressful hours spent studying for the exams, I'm now comfortable with a wide range of financial concepts. College was also a place to meet people from other service lines (I found there was limited opportunity to meet graduates in other areas of the firm while working), which was good for making friends and building a network.
The way out
Although I enjoyed my time at the firm, upon finishing the ACA I left to join a bank. My interests had changed in three years and I wanted to gain greater exposure to a side of finance that the Big Four couldn't offer.
I was surprised to find the number of doors that were open to me with a role in corporate finance at a Big Four firm and the ACA on my CV. I was able to successfully interview at some very prestigious institutions for roles that I could never have dreamed of when I finished university.
Furthermore, many of the senior people that interviewed me were ex-Big Four and there was a kind of tacit acknowledgement about the experience that gives you immediate credibility with them. The Big Four offer some great opportunities and an unparalleled education, and it was a fantastic place to start my career.