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Kill or be killed: BRW Top 100 Accounting Firms
Published 30 October 2013 08:25, Updated 30 October 2013 09:09
Like all the big four accounting firms, Deloitte Australia suffered a drop in revenue. But CEO Giam Swiegers is philosophical: ‘It’s not the end of the
world.’ Photo: Michele Mossop
Deloitte’s chief executive Giam Swiegers has a dire prediction for the future of accounting firms. For some years he’s
been warning that accountants are doomed unless they respond to the threat of “digital disruption”. “It will get worse
and worse and worse, and then when you think it can’t get worse, it will continue to get worse,” he says.
The BRW Top 100 Accounting Firms 2013 survey found that “poor economic conditions” was the key reason clients
pulled back spending with firms in 2012-13. Redundancies also featured heavily, with at least one in three firms in the
top 100 admitting to making staff cuts. The middle tier faced big revenue drops as fierce consolidation characterised
the accountancy landscape, with partners jumping from firm to firm and the mid-tier gobbling up smaller firms to keep
growth coming. The fight to retain talent means almost all – 94 per cent – of top 100 firms say they expect to increase
staff salaries in 2013-14.
After a tough year when all big four firms saw revenue dip as transactions and merger and acquisition activity dived,
domestically, the outlook is slightly healthier. The C-suite at the top four firms are seeing signs of business confidence
returning, largely, they say, thanks to a new government that has promised to cut red tape.
“You’re already seeing signs of increased activity, in both marketplaces and the consulting and advisory world,” KPMG
chief executive Gary Wingrove says. “Post-Christmas, that will [create] opportunities for firms like ours. It will lead to
opportunities for growth rather than any major issues around contraction.”
Still, the global picture remains volatile and clients are demanding more competitive rates on fees.
“Most firms will do it tough and it’s unlikely that the green shoots some are seeing in the economy will benefit the
majority,” says Beaton Research and Consulting executive chairman George Beaton.
Swiegers says volatility, coupled with digital change, will continue to challenge firms. “The volatile economy is
probably going to be around for another few years. We’ve prepared our organisation to expect that.”
Multi-disciplinary roles
Just as it was last year, consulting was the key to growth in 2013. Tax advisory and business advisory remained the
fastest-growing areas for top 100 firms
(/brw/p/professions/accounting_the_fight_for_the_top_5LMrIBVlMqTF4JS2A9MpAK) in 2013, and tax
compliance and business advisory were the biggest fee contributors.
As firms become less traditional and move away from straight auditing,
it may not be long before they are forced to split their audit and
consulting arms.
“My money is on the likelihood that, within the next decade, we will see
a split,” Beaton says.
“The lobbying power of the big four is such that they will hold this off
for a while. But firms have been racing to acquire assets [for]
diversification and that’s preparing firms for an eventual split of their
audit and consulting functions.”
For now, top 100 firms will continue to aggressively move into new
service areas outside the realm of straight audit and tax advice. These
include wealth management (particularly self-managed super fund
advice), real estate advisory, digital consulting and data analytics, just
to name a few.
In fact, 76 per cent of firms say information technology system
upgrades will be their main capital expenditure in the next 12 months.
Most of these are expected to be on cloud-based accounting systems.
Whether it’s digital investments or otherwise, diversification of services
will continue. “The big four can’t grow by taking market share in audit
or tax without getting into price wars,” Beaton says. “We will see the big
four diversify in areas such as engineering, marketing communications
and digital.”
The “next eight” second tier firms will produce a series of winners and
losers, he says. “A few firms will really rise to the top, and challenge the
big four. I won’t name names, but some will shrivel and fade.”
There will also be newcomers into the top 30. “It could be consulting
firms or multi-disciplinary firms – and by that I mean accounting-law,
accounting-engineering or accounting-wealth management
combinations,” Beaton says. “We may well see accounting-law
combinations acting as incubators for start-up businesses.”
The remaining smaller firms will also diversify.
“We will see a rise of more and more specialist boutiques, focused on areas such as the commercialisation of
intellectual property,” Beaton says. “We will also see a rise in virtual firms – those that have outsourced all their back
office [functions] to get professional work done by offshoring.”
As well as moving into new areas, firms will be under pressure to cut costs. Most firms still operate under old billing
models: almost 72 per cent of firms surveyed by BRW say they charge clients by the hour.
Beaton says there will be continuing pressure on fees, and in the future we will see a lot more firms moving to the
fixed-fee model.
“Clients have an appetite for discounts,” he says. “The average price point in the accounting profession has fallen for
the past six years – it’s quite a dramatic shift.”
Focus on digital and Asia
PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the nation’s largest firm, saw revenue drop 0.6 per cent to $1.47 billion. Chief
executive Luke Sayers says the firm’s advisory practice is growing, and “traditional strengths such as audit, tax and
consulting will remain a critical part of who we are”.
But the firm’s heaviest investments are in digital areas and data analytics. “Firms that thrive will be those that build a
culture of constant renewal, enabling them to stay ahead of market disruptions and client needs,” he says.
“We need a global mindset and the ability to work seamlessly across borders. Asia is on our doorstep and presents
huge opportunities, but many businesses still underestimate what it takes to form successful relationships in the
region.” By mid-2016, the firm will increase the number of partners of Asian background to 5 per cent
The newly-rebranded EY (formerly Ernst & Young) remains Australia’s second-biggest firm. It saw revenue fall
0.49 per cent to $1.12 billion. EY chief executive Rob McLeod says to help lift revenue in the next year he is pushing a
“big focus” on financial services, government, real estate, power and utilities, media, telecommunications and
technology, oil and gas and mining and metals industries.
KPMG, at third place, saw revenue drop 0.6 per cent to $1.113 billion for the year ending June 30. Wingrove says this
was due to “muted demand from corporate clients and reduced transaction volumes – particularly larger transactions
(/brw/p/professions/with_four_accounting_firms_feel_08ufbhLulVMvPaIcczKrfI)”. The firm has traditionally been
working against rivals in the realm of entrepreneurship and innovation. Wingrove wants to go harder. “There’s more
we can do to be seen as innovative and cutting edge,” he says.
Deloitte is still in fourth place, but is catching up to the others. It also saw revenue decline, by 0.7 per cent to
$1.092 billion for the year ending May 31. Swiegers says the drop was “disappointing, but it’s not the end of the world”
given Deloitte had almost 18 per cent growth the year before. “The market tested all of us [big four firms],” he says.
“The biggest difference for [Deloitte] was protecting the clients we had gained [a year earlier].”
In the past year, Deloitte acquired Brisbane-based property specialists Capland Real Estate Advisors and Queensland
web content management consultancy, Digicon. It’s also formed interesting alliances, including teaming up with
Silicon Valley start-up Kaggle in a bid to expand its $2 billion global data analytics business (/brw/p/techgadgets/deloitte_australia_partners_analytics_rXz3tc1c11zGUI5hXMstlL). Then there are alliances with strategy
consulting firm 10EQS and design-thinking firm, Second Road. Perhaps the biggest partnership of all came this
month, when Deloitte joined with engineering group WorleyParsons to work together on major projects in the oil and
gas, mining and infrastructure sectors.
More technology-related acquisitions will happen in the next two months, Swiegers says, although the future will