After a year of effort, more than half a billion dollars in costs, and a worldwide persuasion tour by global leadership, Big Four firm EY has suspended its plans for a potential split of its auditing and consulting businesses.
The planned split, dubbed Project Everest, would have seen EY split into two separate companies as part of an effort to free its audit practice from potential conflicts of interest while spurring potentially explosive growth in its highly lucrative consulting arm. The potential split was shrouded in secrecy for months before the story was broken by The New York Times in September 2022, spurring speculation that the other Big Four firms would follow suit. The success of the split relied on the approval of the firm’s thousands of partners, who were lobbied by top EY executives as part of a global tour that took place toward the beginning of 2023. Had the plan been approved, it would have been the biggest overhaul in the accounting world since the early 2000s collapse of Arthur Andersen, whose downfall amidst the Enron scandal reduced the Big Five to four.
While the attempted split could have provided multimillion-dollar windfalls for global partners and driven billions of dollars in revenue to its consulting business, the plan was fraught with internal dissent over how much of its tax business should stay with the audit side of the firm. A vote on the plan by the firm’s 13,000 partners was repeatedly delayed and ultimately torpedoed by U.S. partners, who account for about 40% of EY’s revenue and wielded strong negotiating power, a move that allegedly infuriated many global partners who favored the deal.
Though Julie Boland, head of EY’s U.S. business, indicated a desire to move forward with the split in a recent partner call, gaining global consensus on a path forward will be a significant –and costly– effort. To date, Project Everest has cost EY over $600 million, and it is unknown how much appetite the firm’s leaders and partners have for further expenditures in the face of a looming recession. In a seemingly unrelated move, EY recently announced it would cut about 3,000 employees in its U.S. consulting practice as a cost-saving measure, and its U.K. business has also announced cost and staffing cuts in the next financial year. In spite of the potential for greater profitability, it appears likely that EY will remain one company for the foreseeable future.