Accounting industry scales down

Steve Tripoli Oct 16, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: One has to wonder what the accountants at Credit Suisse are saying about that derivative loss. Nothing nice, I’m sure. These aren’t easy days to be in charge of the books. What used to be the Big 5 accounting firms are now the Big 4. Arthur Andersen essentially disappeared after Enron.

But there’s a new model in the accounting business. Twenty-two mid-size firms opened up shop today . . . Jointly. Something resembling a single, larger company. It’s called Baker Tilly USA. And the fact that it exists at all speaks volumes about accounting post-Enron. Marketplace’s Steve Tripoli has more.

STEVE TRIPOLI: When Arthur Andersen blew up the Big 4 had a decade’s worth of new business to digest overnight. Then Congress added to the load with the Sarbanes-Oxley rules mandating even more accounting disclosure.

Allan Koltin of the Chicago consulting firm PDI Global says the workload had big firms dumping their smaller clients. He says that even today the Big 4 internally debate the wisdom of doing that.

ALLAN KOLTIN:“If you talk to the auditors that are handling the Fortune 500, their belief is that you can’t get rid of these accounts quick enough. If you talk to some of their partners in the tax and middle-market practice, they will tell you that they believe the firms are making a huge mistake.”

Who’s right remains to be seen. But however you slice it now it’s meant a big opening for smaller firms. That’s where this new Baker Tilly group comes in.

Howard Wolosky of the industry newsletter Practical Accountant says Baker Tilly’s just showing potential clients they’re big enough to take on complicated work.

HOWARD WOLOSKY:“There’s plenty of business to be had and they’re very well aware of that. That’s why they’re going into it. But it’s not the Big 4 they’re really competing with it’s that second tier that they’re going after.”

But Wolosky and Koltin both say the competition may spread back to the Big 4 soon. For one thing, if Sarbanes-Oxley is scrapped or modified the big firms could suddenly have less to do. Then they might come calling on customers they’d been shunning.

Upstarts like Baker Tilly are moving now to capture those customers in case the big guys reappear. And the word is that more groups of smaller accounting firms will come together to claim that turf while the claiming’s good.

I’m Steve Tripoli for Marketplace.

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