The 2015 compensation survey

Turns out that having a CPA designation is quite lucrative. Here’s how you rate.

Matthias Li loves animals — the more exotic they are, the more interesting he finds them. As deputy CEO of Hong Kong’s Ocean Park Corp., a huge theme park featuring animal and marine attractions, his introduction of several giant pandas to the park — two couples over the past 15 years — was quite a coup. Many other endangered species top his list, but given his professional credentials as a CPA, the animals that most tickle his fancy are ones with which he can truly be hands-on. Hence his recent visit to the South China Sea and an impetuous decision to leap off his observation ship and take a long dip with six massive whale sharks so he could better contemplate whether his organization might introduce a few to the park. “You could literally disappear in one amazing gulp,” he says with awe, although he notes that the sharks are not dangerous to humans. While such an act might be considered unexpected for a former recruit at Arthur Andersen and head of financial analysts at BMO, he clearly loves the thrill of his job.

The 2015 CPA Profession Compensation Study depicts a triple-legacy accounting profession swimming confidently with the sharks in 2014. Mean compensation for traditional and nontraditional roles rose 7% to $151,000 in 2014 from 2012. The median increase came in at 3%. Although the profession is not experiencing double-digit percentage increases in salaries, its members enjoy excellent compensation and have taken on impressive roles in practice and a range of industry sectors.

Li has no complaints about his salary or benefits (and certainly not those that include cuddling year-old pandas). He will not divulge his monetary compensation, but the 2015 study reveals that members working abroad earn far more than home-based CPAs with similar years of experience. US and overseas mean compensation was reported at $284,000; for Hong Kong, it was $331,000.

As explanation for this disparity, John Tabone, principal, member value and research services at CPA Canada, says that those who take or are offered work abroad provide a unique set of skills. “I think we’re building off the success that all three legacy designations have had internationally,” he explains. “The fact that we’ve pulled them all together — even though it’s a new brand — [lets] people know it’s going to build upon the existing brands and become something even better.”

“Ah, money,” Li laughs. “My view is that, for one thing, it certainly depends on supply and demand. There’s a need for more professionals, so they will pay more in Dubai or Hong Kong.” As chair of CPA Canada’s Hong Kong chapter, he meets a good number of the profession’s new arrivals. And he likes what he sees. “These people also may be posted here because they are considered premium candidates. There are opportunities for Canadian-born CPAs here. Hong Kong is a relatively open economy, so if you qualify, if you have value, you go higher.”

Owner compensation

The lure of overseas big bucks holds no sway for Michael Sedigh. Nor does a move into a nontraditional position. Residing in Markham, Ont., he chose to earn his recently acquired credits toward his CPA at nearby York University and then to partner with his CPA mother. The two have been making steady progress in building an accounting practice at offices in downtown Toronto and in Richmond Hill, Ont. “At this stage, it’s a family business,” Sedigh says. “But I’m looking to evolve and bring on more people, people who can sit down with the client and establish a social rapport — that friendly face accounting firm where clients can actually learn about their finances.” He believes that these close interactions lay the foundation for lasting success and greater compensation. “Satisfaction translates into value,” he says. “The pleasure of helping people who took that risk of developing their own business — just like myself — well, it’s hard to put a number to that.”

Looking through the study, Sedigh’s expectations for the future rise as he reviews the salaries of practice owners. Owners of accounting firms reported $211,000 in mean compensation and within this category, sole practitioners earned $136,000, while partners reported $276,000. “I want the monetary part as well,” Sedigh says, “but when you feel you’ve helped add value to clients’ business and work, it’s quite rewarding.”

A MORE EXCITING PROFESSION

Peter Jeewan paid his dues in public practice, then moved to TD’s new business development arm in 1998. Always of an entrepreneurial bent, in 2000 he recognized an exponential growth potential and became a headhunter specializing in placing accountants within industry. Now president and CEO of Lannick Group, a professional recruitment firm in Toronto, his staff greets more than 800 candidates per week. Reading the survey, he thinks back to 2010 and the CICA’s recession-ravaged compensation study: “Those were pretty shocking times. I was just reflecting on what’s been happening over the last five or six years, and in 2009 our business fell off 97% in that January, if you can believe it.” Turning to the study’s industry section, he sees that his prediction, dating back to the mid-1990s, was spot-on: nonowner employees would seek greater specialization and spread the brand throughout industry. “I mean, they’re everywhere,” he says, looking at the study’s Industry of Employment chart.

“It’s a more exciting profession to be in today than it was when I was in public accounting,” Jeewan says. “It’s opened up, and you can find [CPAs] in many management functional areas.” And with specialization, both in Canada and abroad, compensation rises with marketable expertise. “I think that’s really helped individuals who want to specialize in areas that may pay more,” he says.

Nonowner compensation

For Jeewan, comparing the profession to designations only (such as the MBA) is not particularly useful. As past compensation surveys have shown, looking at years of study and compensation throughout a career is more revealing than a comparison with the salaries of new MBA graduates. Still, it is somewhat illustrative to look at MBA graduates and the salaries they can earn. Western’s Ivey Business School revealed that 2014 graduates commanded salaries (with bonuses) of $98,205. McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management saw graduates earning a median of $81,694, with an average $10,000 signing bonus for 22% of survey respondents. The University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business reported graduates’ starting salaries (with bonus) at $90,502.

In 2014, nonowner CPAs reported an average of $141,000 in total compensation, including bonuses and benefits.

The survey has three main purposes, says Paul Long, manager of marketing and market research at CPA Canada. “One is members wanting to benchmark where they are — how their peer group is being compensated and to have a sense of where they fare in that,” he says. As well, the survey serves employers, giving them a sense of the market. “And it’s also for students who are working toward their CPA or are considering being CPAs. It just gives them a glimpse down the road of what the earning potential is for the CPA profession.”

Looking into the future, the majority of respondents were bullish when it came to increasing compensation.

Understandably, only 45% of those in the oil and gas sector expected to see compensation rise in 2015 — with 21% braced for a decrease. For Li, a long-term mind-set is what’s needed. The accounting profession, although not immune to economic vagaries, can weather both calm or storm: “It gives you a ticket to the world.”

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About the Author

Robert Colapinto


Robert Colapinto is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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