• September 22, 2023

Attributes of top-performing firms revealed

By Jeff Drew

Double the revenue per partner. Double the profit per partner. Double the compensation per partner.

Those are three of the revelations about how top-performing accounting firms compare with their peers, as measured by the 2021 National Management of an Accounting Practice (MAP) survey from the AICPA Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS).

The survey, fielded earlier this year, drew responses from more than 1,000 U.S. accounting firms on a series of questions about dozens of financial and other firm benchmarks. The MAP survey had been conducted biennially since it was launched more than 20 years ago, but it was pushed back a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the massive amounts of work accounting firms took on related to tax changes and government relief programs.  

Because the 2021 MAP survey collected results during a period significantly different than the one captured in the 2018 MAP survey, this article compares the attributes of all the participating accounting firms with those of the 25% with the highest net income per partner. Full survey results are available on the AICPA website to PCPS members and firms that participated in the survey.  

The PCPS team will publish an in-depth analysis of the survey results early next year, but a quick comparison of top-performing firms with their peers finds the following differences of note. When compared with the overall survey results, the results of the top 25% of firms in terms of net income per partner showed that these top performers had:

  • Median net client fees per partner of nearly $1.25 million, compared with a median of $556,654 for all firms.
  • Median net remaining per owner (profit) of slightly above $490,000, compared with about $208,000 for all firms.
  • Median partner compensation of just under $400,000, compared with about $167,000 for all firms.

A full list of net client fees and net remaining per owner can be found in the table “Revenue, Profitability, and Performance.”

Revenue, profitability, and performance


What accounts for the significantly higher revenue, profit, and compensation reported by top-performing firms? The survey results provide a few clues.

Firm size and longevity

Top-performing firms generally had more people and more years in service than all firms. While the median top-performing firm is no giant with nine CPAs and three equity owners, it is still three times bigger than the median of three CPAs and one equity owner for all firms. Top performers also have more than double the total firm operations staff with a median of 7.6 (FTEs), compared with 3.5 for all firms.

The larger staff size reduces the difference in revenue between top performers and all firms when measured by net client fees per FTE professional (as shown in the table “Revenue, Profitability, and Performance”).

As for longevity, while 63% of all firms have been in business 21 or more years, that number rises to 78% among top performers. In contrast, nearly 20% of all firms have been in operation for 10 years or less, compared with only 9% of top performers. See the table “Number of Years in Business.”

Number of years in business


Billing and compensation

One reason top-performing firms brought in twice the median net income per partner of all firms is that they charge more. Top performers charged higher rates in all staffing levels than firms did overall, with the biggest differences coming at the top of the firms. Top performers charged $300 per hour for equity partners/owners and $260 per hour for directors/nonequity partners, compared with $227.50 and $215, respectively, for all firms.

Top performers also pushed more billable work down from the partner and director levels, with the biggest differences coming in the average chargeable hours recorded for interns (1,164 vs. 1,000) and professional subcontractors (1,584 vs. 1,416).

Compared with all firms, top performers spend a higher percentage of total income on salary expenses (excluding partners/owners) (34.0% vs. 31.6%) and on payments to retired partners (1.8% vs. 1.4%) while spending less on rent and other occupancy costs (4.1% vs. 4.9%) and software (2.9% vs. 3.8%).

Top-performing firms provide higher compensation at all levels, though the difference is much larger for owners and equity partners than for other positions, as shown in the table “Average Compensation per Position.”

Average compensation per position


Types of services

The MAP survey found that the types of services performed were not dramatically different between top performers and all firms, at least when measuring fees for each service as a percentage of net client fees (for firms offering the service). By that metric, top-performing firms are less reliant on individual tax services than all firms, with individual tax planning and compliance accounting for a median 23.8% of total net client fees at top performers offering those services, compared with 30.6% for all respondents. Top performers produce a slightly higher percentage of their revenue from audit and business taxes than all firms.

The top five sources of revenue are shown in the table “Service Fees as a Percentage of Total Revenue.” The full results are available to survey participants and PCPS members at the AICPA website.

Service fees as a percentage of total revenue


The evidence that individual tax work makes up a smaller percentage of top performers’ business is that for firms that charge fees per tax form, those fees represent a much larger percentage of total revenue for all firms (30.6%) vs. top performers (23.8%). In what may be a surprise to some, top performers that bill hourly see those fees account for 75% of their revenue, higher than the median of 70% reported by all firms that bill hourly. The pattern is reversed with value pricing, as value pricing accounts for a median 22% of all revenue for all firms that do value billing, as opposed to 18.5% for top-performing firms.

Other measures of note

While top performers are not as progressive as all firms on some aspects of billing, they do boast a higher median percentage of staff working remotely (50% vs. 30%). Top performers also are more likely to be adding staff, with more than three-quarters of those firms saying that they would hire more employees in 2021, compared with more than 50% of all firms. As a group, more than 80% of all firms have purchased cyber liability insurance. The percentage tops 90% for top performers.

As for COVID-19-specific services, such as but not limited to advising on Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) calculations and forgiveness, the median fees earned by all firms was $20,000, compared with $50,000 for top performers.

AICPA experts discuss the latest on the COVID-19 and other small business aid programs during a virtual town hall held every other week. The webcasts, which provide CPE credit, are free to AICPA members and $39 for nonmembers. Go to the AICPA Town Hall Series webpage for more information and to register. Recordings of Town Halls are available to view for free on AICPA TV.

The AICPA’s Paycheck Protection Program Resources page houses resources and tools produced by the AICPA to help address the economic impact of the coronavirus.

For more news and reporting on the coronavirus and how CPAs can handle challenges related to the outbreak, visit the JofA‘s coronavirus resources page or subscribe to our email alerts for breaking PPP news.

Jeff Drew ([email protected]) is a JofA senior editor.