Becoming a CA: TIPP or TOPP?

An important professional crossroad dissected

Anyone on the brink of Matric or university has been told, at the very least once, that they should become a Chartered Accountant. Becoming a CA (SA) entails graduating with a South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA)-accredited degree and completing a SAICA-accredited training program, during which two SAICA-standardised exams are written. SAICA lists 15 accredited universities and institutions. Depending on where you go and how hard you study, this sets you back between R150 000 and R215 000 (in today’s prices) for four years of study (excluding accommodation, a party stipend and repeated years). The accounting, auditing and taxation courses offered by these universities are relatively standardised, since every prospective CA must write SAICA’s Initial Test of Competence (ITC) upon completion of their final year of study. A CA’s choice of university will be based on personal preference and financial constraint – the academics, thrillingly, are inflexible. Once you emerge from your mound of books, which comprises the entire Income Tax Act, a full set of International Financial Reporting Standards, the Companies Act and the King III Report on Corporate Governance, to name a few titles, you are faced, for the first time since you chose the CA path, with a decision: TIPP or TOPP. 

The two contenders

Training Inside Public Practice (TIPP) is the traditional CA route: training at a firm of Registered Auditors and Accountants. SAICA lists 567 accredited TIPP offices, 108 in Johannesburg alone. “The Big-4” – PwC, Ernst & Young, Deloitte and KPMG – slot into this category. TOPP is Training Outside Public Practice. This is where the banks feature, with Investec, FirstRand and Nedbank offering the better-known programmes. The TOPP contingent contains only 70 offices, but is much more diverse; you can become a CA through Bain & Company, the Reserve Bank, Mercedes-Benz or even Eskom.

Differences and the drawbacks

The main difference between TIPP and TOPP is not the destination – both programmes make you a CA (SA) – but the journey. Simply, TIPPs do audit work and TOPPs do not. TIPP trainees verify the accuracy of the financial statements of their firms’ clients, whereas TOPP is industry driven; candidates will do work relevant to their companies, such as assisting CFOs in compiling the same financial reports audited by the TIPPs and budgeting and strategy work. At a glance, TOPP sounds more appealing: trainees can work at companies they know, in industries they prefer, resulting in work they are likely to enjoy. Trainee auditors in TIPP are often heard complaining about driving vast distances every morning to a client’s office, to be met by the overworked audit partner on the team, and the client’s unhelpful internal accountants and dismissive CFO.

Yet there are drawbacks to being outside of public practice, too. Those wanting to join Investec or Nedbank are subject to severe application scrutiny and rigorous interview processes. One of the questions to answer when applying online for Investec’s CA programme is “What would be the last few lines of your autobiography and why?” Being outside of public practice seems to augur future success, but success very particular to one industry. TOPP programmes tend to serve a much smaller volume of trainees, which can result in CAs qualifying without the appropriate skills, either as accountants or as financial decision-makers in other industries. This means that if TOPP applicants do not research their potential sectors meticulously, they might discover that the banking, retail, automobile or consulting industries are not what they had expected them to be, but have no real option but to soldier on until they qualify.

Beyond auditing

There is also lot more to the TIPP route than just checking books. It offers exposure to a plethora of different industries. “This is like ‘eating from the buffet’ for three years during articles – sampling different options and deciding what you like and dislike,” says Adriaan Basson, national recruitment manager at Deloitte. Sean Kerr, who holds the same position at Ernst and Young, explains the relevance of “Big-4” auditing firms: “They are the auditors to large corporates so trainees get exposed to the highest levels of management, technical accounting and transactions and corporate structures.” Benjamin Deeb, MD of Yooh Media, relates his TIPP experience with an auditing firm: “The broad spectrum of clients I interacted with gave me exposure to multinational businesses, listed entities and small- to medium-size businesses. This has armed me with the knowledge to make educated career choices.”

The winner(s)

Those who have a clear idea of what interests them and know in which industry they want to work will do well to choose TOPP; they can start in the very industry in which they ultimately want to work. On the other hand, any uncertainty or desire to explore different companies and sectors could be quenched by doing TIPP – three years of exposure to various firms will answer the lingering question of “which industry?” Neither the perceived exclusivity of TOPP nor the ill-conceived orthodoxy of TIPP should serve as motivation for this significant career choice. The decision should be driven by personal proclivity. “I always tell students that are deciding between TOPP or TIPP, that I believe that there is no right or wrong, it is what is best for the individual,” says Deeb.

Becoming a CA: TIPP or TOPP? Author: Pieter Swart (Moneyweb) View The OriginalFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail