The purpose of this article is to review the body of the literature on the role of individual accountants in the context of family firms, synthesize the findings, outline directions for future research, and to present an integrative framework that summarizes these directions. The study utilizes a systematic literature review approach and is guided by three overarching questions related to the field’s development, a reflection on current state-of-the-art research, and an outlook for the field’s future paths. The questions are answered through the mapping and analysis of 39 key articles over a 20-year period. We show central patterns in theory, data, methods, and findings. Our review reveals that the literature is scattered, and that the role of accountants is found to be context dependent. In existing research, an accountant tends to have the roles of a traditional bean counter, a decision-maker, an advisor, and a protector and mediator. Scholars also show that an accountant influences various organizational outcomes in family firms. The review further reveals that accountants can play a key role in accounting- and strategy-related decisions with impact on family firm’s survival and growth. We offer a map of the research on accountants in family firms and an integrative framework. This work does not only highlight the importance of an accountant’s role in family firms but it also allows us to identify numerous research gaps and a pathway for future research in terms of methods, theories, and models.
Plain English Summary
This systematic literature review puts a spotlight on the role of the individual accountant in family firms. Our review reveals that accountants take four distinct roles in family firms: a traditional bean counter, a decision-maker, an advisor, and a protector and mediator. Our review further shows that accountants play a key role in accounting and strategy-related decisions of consequence for family firms. We also outline areas where additional research efforts can help to generate a better understanding of how, when, and why individual accountants, in addition to their accounting function, matter for the family firms that employ them. The principal implication of this study is that research should embark on further exploration of the individual accountant in the family firm context and employ diverse methods and theories in doing so.
In accounting research, the role of ownership in an organization has primarily been explored in relation to four broadly defined outcomes: accounting choices, reporting quality, audit quality, and taxation. In the accounting choices domain, the focus has been on accounting practices (Salvato & Moores, 2010) and accounting quality (e.g., Cascino et al., 2010), while research within the reporting quality domain has mainly explored earnings quality and reporting conservatism (e.g., Givoly et al., 2010) as well as the consequences of reporting (e.g., Dhaliwal et al., 2011 and Yu & Zheng, 2020). In the audit quality domain, published studies have explored audit choices and audit fees (e.g., Hope et al., 2012) as well as governance effects (e.g., Srinidhi et al., 2014) in relation to ownership. Finally, in the taxation domain, ownership types have been related to tax sensitivity (e.g., Blouin et al., 2017) and tax avoidance (e.g., McGuire et al., 2014). In these four domains, ownership has traditionally been dichotomized into private and public ownership, and scholars have focused on aspects such as ownership concentration, ownership type, or ownership identity. While ownership constitutes a major explanatory factor in accounting, only a few studies have considered accounting in relation to family ownership (Prencipe et al., 2014; Salvato & Moores, 2010; Songini et al., 2013). This is a notable, yet in recent years narrowing, gap in the existing research. Notable because family firms represent the world’s most common form of business organization (Andersson et al., 2018) and accounting practices possess unique features in these organizations (e.g., Salvato & Moores, 2010).
Previous literature reviews (e.g., Hiebl & Li, 2018; Kapiyangoda & Gooneratne, 2021; Prencipe et al., 2014; Salvato & Moores, 2010; Senftlechner & Hiebl, 2015; Songini et al., 2013) have provided an overview of the research streams on accounting in family firms. The primary focus of these reviews is the unique nature of financial and management accounting functions in the context of family firms (Hiebl & Li, 2018; Kapiyangoda & Gooneratne, 2021; Prencipe et al., 2014; Senftlechner & Hiebl, 2015). They conclude that while the field has advanced the understanding of the accounting function in family-owned firms, there remains a gap in the understanding of the role of individual actors in executing the accounting function (Hiebl, 2017; Hiebl & Li, 2018; Salvato & Moores, 2010) and in producing outcomes, such as accounting practices (Salvato & Moores, 2010), accounting policy, and decision-making (Songini et al., 2013).
The importance of individual actors and their roles in family-owned firms has been demonstrated in studies of CEOs (e.g., Schenkel et al., 2016; Waldkirch et al., 2018; Helvert-Beugels et al., 2020; Waldkirch, 2020), but research on other individuals in executive and specialist functions remains scarce (Songini et al., 2013). The need for a particular focus on individuals executing the accounting function rather than on the function itself is justified by specific features of family-owned firms, such as their emphasis on individual abilities and a match between individuals and family values (cf. Hiebl, 2017; Hiebl & Li, 2018) rather than on the accounting function per se. Partly addressing the influential individuals in a family ownership context, Hiebl and Li (2018) reviewed the literature on nonfamily managers, but unlike reviews focusing on one type of manager, the authors’ scope included directors and all types of managers. Similarly, Hiebl (2017) suggests that the chief financial officer (CFO), as a top management team (TMT) member, impacts both organizational and accounting-related outcomes, but this “mini literature review” (p. 207) fell short of including individual accountants not included in the TMT.
Accounting is often the first professional managerial function introduced in family-owned firms (Klein & Bell, 2007; Hiebl, 2013a, 2013b, 2013d) and an individual accountant is typically highly involved in major decision-making in family firms (Hiebl, 2013a; Stergiou et al., 2013; Chadwick & Dawson, 2018; Gao et al., 2019) and has substantial influence on various family firm-related outcomes (cf. Chadwick & Dawson, 2018). Embodying the professional function, individual accountants act as an “economic or financial conscience […that] bring the family ‘back down to earth’ […and thus] defend the firms interests versus the owner’s interest” (Hiebl, 2013d, p. 47), consequently representing an important resource for family-owned firms (Bertschi-Michel et al., 2019). In this paper, we extend Hiebl’s (2017) work by focusing on the key individual actors engaged in accounting practices, accounting policy, and decision-making in family-owned firms. Adopting Gurd and Thomas’s (2012) broad definition of an accountant as the “the principal accounting person” (p. 286), which includes CFOs, accountants, finance managers, or administration managers, we focus our systematic literature review on the role of individual accountants in the context of family ownership.
Relying on Tranfield et al. (2003) and Briner and Denyer (2012), we perform a systematic literature review of 39 articles. Revealing patterns in theory, data, methodology, and content, we offer a synthesis and identify future research directions for researchers and implications for practitioners by highlighting and exploring the role of accountants in a family ownership context. We provide trifold contributions to the fields of accounting and family business. First, our review contributes to the emerging field of research on individual accountants in family firms by outlining the current state of the field in a comprehensive map that highlights research problems already addressed. Second, we further this field of research by evaluating research gaps highlighted by the field to map and suggest additional research questions that might guide studies on individual accountants rather than the accounting function in family firms. We particularly highlight the importance of additional efforts needed in terms of defining an accountant’s role and the application of diverse research methods and theories. Third, our review contributes to this emerging field of research by suggesting an integrative framework for future research that provides additional ideas of theoretical and empirical modeling in the field. Thus, we extend the knowledge of accountants in family-owned firms and call for research to explain a family-owned firm accountant’s abilities, the type of accountant a family-owned firm needs, how a firm can maximize the use of its recruited accountant, and the accountant’s role and its effect on accounting changes, accounting choices, and organizational outcomes.
2.1 Systematic literature review
Our literature review utilizes the systematic approach prescribed by Tranfield et al. (2003) and Briner and Denyer (2012). The goal is not to build a narrative case that justifies a posed research question but rather to review the available knowledge related to the research questions (Briner & Denyer, 2012). Inspired by Massaro et al. (2016), Li et al. (2018), and Hiebl (2021) notion on how to conduct a literature review, our guiding questions are as follows:
How is the research on accountants in family firms developing?
What is the focus and critique of the research on accountants in family firms?
What is the future of research on accountants in family firms?
These questions allow us to conduct a literature review that provides a comprehensive view of the past and current literature’s contributions to the current state of knowledge, “avoid developing tedious and irrelevant descriptive literature reviews” (Massaro et al., 2016, p. 776) and produce guidance for future research in a normative manner (Massaro et al., 2016). Furthermore, the systematic approach allows for “the same level of rigor to the process of reviewing literature that we would apply to any well-conducted and clearly reported primary research” (Briner & Denyer, 2012, p. 112). Moreover, systematic literature reviews are thorough, transparent, and leave an audit trail (Tranfield et al., 2003). To ensure rigor and avoid cherry-picking articles skewing the current knowledge on the topic, our literature review is influenced by Briner and Denyer’s (2012) 11 outlined “typical systematic review stages” (p. 119). The 11 stages were aggregated into three stages (planning, conducting, and reporting and dissemination) and documented in a protocol during the review process.
In the first planning step, we identified the area of interest and the topic of focus but not the final research questions. In addition, the team of coauthors was formed, and the following inclusion criteria were chosen:
Accountants or synonyms for the principal accounting person must be considered in the article (e.g., CFO, finance/financial manager, administration manager or controller).
The study must deal with family-owned firms.
In the first part of the second step, relevant studies were sifted through and included or excluded based on our set criteria (in case of disagreement, the coauthor team read the articles jointly, solved any concerns through discussion) and finally critically assessed the quality of the studies in relation to the research questions and Massaro et al.’s (2016) guiding questions. The search was performed in two databases—Scopus and Web of Science—on the 8th of March 2022. Scopus is one of the largest databases (including abstracts and citations) of peer-reviewed research, and along with Web of Science, it is considered a key database when searching for a wide coverage of literature, including lower-ranked journals and book chapters (Bodolica & Spraggon, 2018; Massaro et al., 2016). The title, abstract, or keywords contained the chosen search words. The search words used were ‘Family firm*’ OR ‘family business*’ OR ‘family owner*’ AND ‘account*’ OR ‘accounting function’ OR ‘accounting prepare*’ OR ‘CFO’ OR ‘chief financial officer’ OR ‘control*’ OR ‘book-keep*’. The searches were limited to documents in English but not to a specific publication year or journal. The searches were not limited to a specific type of research (e.g., journal article) and thus allowed gray literature, such as books and working papers, to be included in the sample (Hiebl, 2021). Moreover, there was restriction on the type of articles included in the sample. The reason for not imposing restrictions on language, publication year, journal, or type of outlet is to ensure that all empirical, theoretical, and review documents that align with the guiding research questions are collected and synthesized (cf. Hiebl, 2021). The search words were also entered in five different combinations in both databases to ensure that no article was missed. The function of truncation was used to allow for different inflections. After a preliminary review of the results, a search was conducted using additional words ‘family control*’ to capture the family involvement. These additional words did not reveal supplementary documents. The searches in Scopus yielded a total of 1674 unique documents. The searches in Web of Science resulted in 1740 unique documents after duplicates of documents identified in the search in Scopus had been removed. A total of 3414 unique documents, including articles and working papers, were included in the next step of the review process, as illustrated in Fig. 1.
To compensate for any weaknesses in the search words or the failure to access relevant literature via the database searches, the ancestry approach was utilized, as it is suitable for complementing database searches with the evidence related to the research findings (Bodolica & Spraggon, 2018). The reference lists were consistently examined for the articles included in the screening-eligibility steps illustrated in Fig. 1 to facilitate the possibility of finding additional literature.
In the second part of step two, all abstracts were read to determine whether the document was relevant to the research questions. The process is illustrated in Fig. 1. In total, 3020 articles were excluded in this step, as the documents were out of scope and did not relate to individuals, TMTs, financial managers, CFOs, or accountants but rather focused on aggregated levels of analysis, such as accounting systems, accounting reporting, or family owners. Documents unrelated to family firms were also excluded. Given the incoherent picture of accountants in family firms (Hiebl, 2017) and the scarcity of articles explicitly focusing on accountants (Songini et al., 2013), the remaining 394 documents were read in detail to determine whether they contained information relating to the research questions and thus were relevant for the systematic literature review. A total of 364 documents were excluded because they were not related to family-owned firms or did not consider accountants or synonyms with that position and thus were outside the scope of the research questions. For example, Speckbacher and Wentges (2012) focused on family involvement in the TMT, including the CFO. A closer reading of the article, however, revealed that CFOs were not the focus of the article; instead, CFOs comprised merely a few of the respondents in a larger survey of TMTs, and no separate analysis on CFO responses was performed. The coauthor team discussed 12 articles in total, as they were found to be potentially relevant. However, the team decided that only four of the discussed articles were relevant given the inclusion/exclusion criteria. A total of 30 articles were included out of the 3414 unique articles extracted in the initial database searches. In addition, utilization of the ancestry approach yielded nine further articles for a final sample of 39 articles. The sample size is similar to earlier literature reviews dealing with accounting topics in family-owned firms (e.g., Prencipe et al., 2014; Senftlechner & Hiebl, 2015; Songini et al., 2013).
In the third and final stage, in line with Briner and Denyer (2012), the relevant data were extracted, findings were synthesized, potential bias effects (e.g., selection) were considered, the report was written, and the review was sent for peer review. Once the 39 articles were analyzed, additional searches were performed based on the findings to potentially find supplementary or missing articles. Words to describe an accountant are abundant, and additional searches were warranted to ensure that no relevant articles were missed based on narrow search words referring to an accountant. These additional searches were also performed in Scopus and Web of Science on the 8th of March 2022. Search words to complement the abovementioned searches were used to capture accountants. The words used were ‘financial manag*’ OR ‘financial exec*’ or ‘financial director’ OR ‘finance manager’ OR ‘finance exec*’ OR ‘finance director’. No additional documents were found. Thus, the final sample comprises 39 articles in total and includes literature reviews and empirical and conceptual papers.
The review is structured around seven themes: journal outlets, research methods, theories, origin of data, modeling, accounting focus and accountants’ roles, and the concepts studied. The categories adopted are mutually exclusive and proven effective for performing exhaustive reviews (Li et al., 2018). Moreover, the structure is coherent with that of similar reviews (e.g., Nielsen, 2010; Terjesen et al., 2016). Inspired by Nielsen (2010), a two-step coding process was utilized. First, the frequencies of journal outlets, methodologies, and data geography were analyzed. Second, an in-depth analysis of theories, concepts, the accounting focus, accountants’ roles, and research models was performed.
3.1 Descriptive overview of the field
3.1.1 Journal outlets
The articles in the final sample are published in 23 journals, except for one article that is a working paper. The quality of the journals based on the rankings provided by the Chartered Association of Business Schools (ABS) range from 3 to unranked (see Table 1). The journal with the most interest in the topic is the 3-star journal Family Business Review, with five publications, followed by the 2-star Journal of Family Business Strategy and the 2-star Qualitative Research in Accounting and Management, with four published articles each. The impact, measured through Google Scholar citations, ranged from 2 to 591 citations. Gallo, Tápies and Cappuyns’s (2004) investigation of family businesses’ peculiar financial logic using a Spanish sample of 315 firms was the most cited paper, with 591 citations (see Table 1).
3.1.2 Research methods
The earliest publication in the sample was Gallo and Vilaseca’s (1998) examination of differences between family businesses with family or nonfamily CFOs. From 1998 to 2004, a mere three articles were published, and from 2005 to 2010, only four articles were published. However, the field experienced an increase in output after the publication of Salvato and Moores’ (2010) review dealing with the accounting function in family firms, and 32 articles were published between 2011 and 2021 (see Table 2).
An overwhelming percentage of the analyzed articles are empirical (n = 32; 82%), of which 17 are quantitative and 15 are qualitative. The remaining articles are reviews (n = 4; 10.3%) or conceptual articles (n = 3; 7.7%). Notably, 14 out of the 15 qualitative articles were published after 2010, possibly as a consequence of Salvato and Moores’ (2010) call for papers that would provide a more in-depth understanding of the role of accounting in family firms (see Table 3).
3.1.3 Family concept and theories
The articles included in the sample adopt different definitions of family businesses, but the most common approach, used by a total of 19 articles (n = 48.7%), is to offer no clear definition. Moreover, closely related definitions are one family member by blood or marriage owns equity, and the family is involved in the governance and/or management of the firm in addition to the intent of succession within the family. The levels of equity holding considered are 5%, 20%, or a majority. The remaining studies are scattered in their definition of family business, and the multitude of definitions offered could arguably be connected to the heterogeneity of family firms covered in detail by previous reviews (see Songini et al., 2013; Prencipe et al., 2014), leaving the issue outside the scope of this review.
The most common theory used is agency theory (n = 13), followed by the socioemotional wealth (SEW) theory (n = 9). The use of the resource-based view of the firm (n = 8) and stewardship theory (n = 7) is also prevalent. Institutional theory (n = 5), upper echelons theory (n = 3), and organizational life cycle theory (n = 3) are used less frequently. Eight papers do not explicitly mention a specific theory. Notably, theories are combined in articles published in later years. Between 2000 and 2004, both published articles used a single-theory approach. From 2005 to 2010, four articles were published, and a total of three theories were used. For the following two time periods, 2011–2015 and 2016–2020, 16 published articles used 34 theories and 12 published articles used 17 theories, respectively (see Table 3). The trend is clear as more theories, in combination, are used to provide a more nuanced explanations on how ownership dimensions are related to accounting (see Table 3).
The trend toward a more diverse approach to understanding the intricacies of accounting in family firms expanded from Spain (accounting for both published articles with specified countries of origin from 1995 to 2004) to Italy, Germany, Finland, Latvia, and Lithuania in the 2005–2010 period. In the following periods, the research interest spread across the world to Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Sweden, and the USA. The most dominant is research with samples from Italy (n = 7), Germany (n = 5), and Austria (n = 4) (see Table 4). The sample sizes range from single-case studies (n = 6) (e.g., Stergiou et al., 2013) to multiple-case studies (six firms in Huerta et al., 2017) to 2004 firms in Barbera and Hasso (2013) (see Table 5).
3.2 State of the field
3.2.1 Foundations of the sample
To map the field, we analyzed the final sample to find commonalities and differences in influencing factors and outcomes (see Table 5) leading to Fig. 2 (see below). Family firm characteristics, accounting change, management control/accounting systems, the recruitment of professional managers, professionalization, accounting choices, and performance are key concepts and areas on which the articles base their research. Value and knowledge transfer and their effects on succession are also considered. The arrows in Fig. 2 are not intended to represent causal effects but rather correlation, as the sample articles suggest that these relationships are qualitative, suffer from small n-numbers, or are simply not suited or claim to be suited for generalization in the statistical sense.
3.2.2 Accounting change and accountants in family-owned firms
The review of the literature revealed that an accountant in family-owned firms is involved in the introduction of management control systems (MCSs) and management accounting systems (MASs), which are key to the formalization of accounting and the professionalization process in a family-owned firm (Giovannoni et al., 2011; Hiebl, 2013d; Songini et al., 2015; Dello Sbarba & Marelli, 2018; Hiebl & Mayrleitner, 2019). Accounting change (i.e., the development and introduction of MCSs and MASs) in a family-owned firm is used to radically break and revitalize understandings of control and performance (Dello Sbarba & Marelli, 2018; Gottlieb et al., 2021). In addition, the literature suggests that accounting change signifies a shift towards economic rationality (El Masri et al., 2017) and is crucial for family-owned firms’ survival, growth, and successful succession (Dello Sbarba & Marelli, 2018). However, the level of sophistication of the products and techniques used in family-owned firms differs based on firms’ age, external board members, CFOs (i.e., accountants), or shareholders and whether actors external to the family are present in the firm, i.e., nonfamily managers/accountants or board members (Di Giuli et al., 2011; Filbeck & Lee, 2000). The literature suggests that older firms with external influence (e.g., an external accountant) are more financially sophisticated (Di Giuli et al., 2011; Filbeck & Lee, 2000).
The family owners and the accountant are presented with a set of important tools for transferring values and knowledge between generations and within the family-owned firm once the accounting change is initiated (i.e., the development and introduction of MCSs and MASs) and accounting practices are formalized (Giovannoni et al., 2011). The literature revealed that the codification involved and the stability of accounting formalization introduced by the owner and accountant can be used to launch the succession process of a family-owned firm (Giovannoni et al., 2011), as this allows for clearly defined priorities, values, and knowledge in times of uncertainty (Brück et al., 2018; Giovannoni et al., 2011). Furthermore, a proactive use of management accounting practices is suggested to better prepare the family firm for succession, external capital, and a fact-based decision-making culture (Hiebl, 2013c). In addition, family-owned firm’s professionalization and adoption of nonbasic financial products result in better connections to banks, subsequently offering more advanced products and techniques and thus providing the firm with more options and opportunities (Caselli & Di Giuli, 2010), as financial institutions can provide a “higher level of care and attention, less credit constraints and, consequently, to higher growth opportunities” (Di Giuli et al., 2011 p. 2931).
The literature shows that a family-owned firm’s ability and willingness to professionalize its accounting practices are important for their decision on whether an externally recruited nonfamily accountant should lead accounting change (i.e., the development and introduction of MCSs and MASs) (Hiebl & Mayrleitner, 2019). Whether the family-owned firm initiates the accounting change independently of a professional external actor such as a nonfamily accountant present in the firm is discussed in terms of the problems associated with loss of control and potential misbehavior of the external nonfamily accountant responsible for the accounting change (e.g., Stergiou et al., 2013). However, family accountants are shown in the literature to also be “professional,” as there is no barrier to a well-educated (in relevant fields) family member shouldering the change agent position and no barrier to the family’s aptitude for accounting information (Gurd & Thomas, 2012; Hiebl & Mayrleitner, 2019).Footnote 1 Nuancing the discussion on the importance of whether professional managers (e.g., accountants) are family members or external nonfamily members, the literature suggests that it is contingent on firm size, as smaller family firms do not care as much for formal accounting information in decision-making because managers “tend to make ad hoc decisions ‘in the back of their minds’ or even ‘on the back of an envelope’” (Huerta et al., 2017, p. 115). In addition, the decision-making processes of small family-owned firms run by the first generation tend to incorporate a management style characterized by gut decisions (Filbeck & Lee, 2000). Family-owned firms simply prioritize differently than nonfamily firms, and their business logic is often discussed in terms of SEW theory (Gomez-Mejia et al., 2011; Lohe et al., 2021). However, the literature reports that formalized accounting practices (e.g., MCSs) can counterbalance the affective logic induced by SEW and the family ownership dimension by embodying economic rationality in decision-making (El Masri et al., 2017). The codification process offered by formalized accounting systems and the recruitment of a professional accountant are suggested to be the reasons for the particular family firm business logic; SEW can be preserved and transferred from generation to generation (cf. Giovannoni et al., 2011; Hiebl, 2013c). Moreover, the literature indicates that external/nonfamily influence (e.g., by an accountant) results in the use of more sophisticated financial products and techniques in family-owned firms (Di Giuli et al., 2011; Filbeck & Lee, 2000). Furthermore, a professional manager (e.g., an accountant) is shown to affect the development, introduction and use of MCSs and MASs (i.e., accounting change), value and knowledge transfer, succession, accounting choices and performance in a family-owned firm (Gallo & Vilaseca, 1998; Filbeck & Lee, 2000; Klein & Bell, 2007; Caselli & Di Giuli, 2010; Di Giuli et al., 2011; Giovannoni et al., 2011; Hiebl, 2012; Lutz & Schraml, 2011; Hiebl, 2013d; Stergiou et al., 2013; Senftlechner & Hiebl, 2015; Gordini, 2016; Dello Sbarba & Marelli, 2018; Hiebl et al., 2019; Bauweraerts et al., 2020; Glaum, 2020; Pagliarussi & Leme, 2020; Gottlieb et al., 2021).
3.2.3 Recruitment of an accountant in family-owned firms
A family-owned firm’s recruitment of a professional manager (i.e., an external nonfamily accountant) and the subsequent effects are contingent on the family’s goals (Lutz et al., 2010; Lutz & Schraml, 2011; Hiebl, 2013a; Hiebl, 2013d). The goals discussed in the literature are related to independence, control, financial risk, succession, enterprise value growth, and financial flexibility (Lutz & Schraml, 2011; Lutz et al., 2010). In addition to goals, the compatibility of a recruited manager’s mindset, personality, values, and culture with the owning family (or owner) is suggested to be important when choosing a manager (Hiebl, 2013a, 2013d). An accountant can be a part of the TMT (e.g., Chadwick & Dawson, 2018) and be a family or nonfamily member (e.g., Moilanen, 2008; Songini et al., 2015).
An accountant is suggested by the literature to often be the first professional manager (i.e., an external nonfamily accountant) recruited in family-owned firms (Klein & Bell, 2007; Hiebl, 2013a, 2013b, 2013d). An accountant is referred to as second-in-command (Gao et al., 2019; Hiebl, 2013a) and the second most powerful actor within a family firm (Stergiou et al., 2013) or as the coleader with the CEO, as accountants are “the internal strategic leaders [that are] most directly responsible for a firm’s financial health” and “as important as the CEO for major decisions” (Chadwick & Dawson, 2018, p. 243). Furthermore, accountants are characterized as “[…] the key persons in their company’s financial reporting process, holding significant influence on the firm’s financial performance and accounting choices” (Gao et al., 2019 p. 2). In addition, the literature indicates that accountants in family-owned firms face a different environment with special demands from those of nonfamily firms (Gurd & Thomas, 2012; Hiebl, 2012, 2013a; Lutz & Schraml, 2011; Lutz et al., 2010; Pagliarussi & Leme, 2020; Salvato & Moores, 2010), where some of the tasks at hand are to “bring the family ‘back down to earth’” while acting as the “economic or financial conscience of the family” (Hiebl, 2013d, p. 47).
3.2.4 The fit of an accountant in family-owned firms
An accountant’s successful integration into a family-owned firm is argued in the literature to be contingent on personal characteristics, thus indicating that the family ownership dimension restricts the potential candidates eligible for the position (Hiebl, 2013a, 2013b, 2013d). The level of ambition is emphasized in the literature, as an accountant cannot be overly ambitious (Gurd & Thomas, 2012) or a “job-hopper” (Hiebl, 2013d p. 48), should have a long-term orientation, and harbour values similar to those of the controlling family (Hiebl, 2013a, 2013b, 2013d). Moreover, an accountant should be willing to accept the firm’s culture represented by the centralization of power and knowledge (Hiebl, 2013a, 2013b). In addition to personal characteristics, knowledge and technical skills are argued to be specific to family-owned firms, where an accountant should be well versed in tax, law, and wealth management in addition to traditional accounting skills because the potential overlap between family and business requires these specialized skills (Hiebl, 2013b, 2013d). Interestingly, education is not described as an important selection or success factor for accountants in family-owned firms as is customary in nonfamily firms (Hiebl, 2013a, 2013b). The mastery and understanding of a family-owned firm operation can be acquired by working in the same family firm for multiple years (Klein & Bell, 2007; Hiebl, 2013a). In addition to experience in the specific family-owned firm, experience in the business of family-owned firms is deemed important by the literature discussing social fit (Klein & Bell, 2007; Hiebl, 2013a, 2013b) and embeddedness (Klein & Bell, 2007; Hiebl, 2013a). Social fit, a certain degree of embeddedness within the family ownership dimension, and an understanding of family ownership’s effect on accounting are stressed as important resources in an individual accountant’s arsenal (Klein & Bell, 2007; Hiebl, 2013a, 2013b).
3.2.5 An accountant’s position in family-owned firms
An accountant’s influence on accounting change (i.e., the development and introduction of MCSs and MASs), accounting choices, and performance are argued in the literature to be contingent on an accountant’s embeddedness within the firm, the trust and control given and exercised by the owners, whether the CEO is a family member, whether the TMT is led by a female, and the level of influence in decision-making granted to an accountant (see Fig. 2). The component of trust in relation to an accountant’s influence on both accounting change and accounting choices is stressed as a key component in the literature (Hiebl, 2013d, 2015; Senftlechner & Hiebl, 2015). For example, Stergiou et al. (2013) showed that as trust grows between the accountant and owners, the discretion given to the accountant becomes larger. Stergiou et al. (2013) nuanced this view by showing that too much trust and admiration for an accountant can result in a rogue agent within the firm and that this agent is granted power in tasks such as performance assessments of other employees, thus enlarging their discretion and influence in the organization, resulting in agency conflicts. The literature consequently suggests that control mechanisms, such as incentive payments and/or management control mechanisms designed to restrict discretion, family involvement in TMTs (mutual monitoring by several individuals), and CEO monitoring efforts, restrain the accountant and align principal and agent (Ferramosca & Allegrini, 2018; Gao et al., 2019; Hiebl, 2013d).
An accountant’s influence on accounting choices is broadly defined in the literature as choices related to policies and practices. More specifically, financial reporting, tax aggressiveness, strategic planning, and the use of sophisticated (and unsophisticated) products and techniques are examples of choices allotted to an accountant (see Fig. 2). The accounting choices in family-owned firms are asserted to affect performance, and the effect is revealed to be contingent on the combination of the individual characteristics of actors in prominent executive suite positions (Caselli & Di Giuli, 2010; Gordini, 2016). The highest performance is shown to occur with the combination of a nonfamily accountant and a family CEO (Caselli & Di Giuli, 2010; Gordini, 2016). The results are stable across generations. However, contradictory findings exist in the literature, as performance is also shown to be contingent not on the family or nonfamily status of an accountant but rather on the ability to influence decision-making and the hierarchical level of the accountant (Gallo & Vilaseca, 1998). It is further argued that if an accountant has the ability to influence decision-making and resides in the upper echelons of a family-owned firm, a nonfamily accountant will achieve the highest performance (Gallo & Vilaseca, 1998). Furthermore, it is revealed that family-owned firms with a family accountant are smaller, younger, and less industry-dominant than family-owned firms with a nonfamily accountant (Gallo & Vilaseca, 1998). In addition to nonfamily accountants utilizing more sophisticated financial products and techniques (Di Giuli et al., 2011; Filbeck & Lee, 2000), an accountant is argued to drive family-owned firms’ performance (Gordini, 2016; Hiebl, 2017).
An accountant’s influence on family-owned firms’ performance is measured through return on equity (ROE), return on assets (ROA), return on investment (ROI), nonfinancial performance, sales growth, survival, internationalization, and bank rating in the literature. Counterintuitively, it is suggested that firms with an external accountant (i.e., nonfamily) have a lower bank rating (Lutz et al., 2010). However, the reason is problematized, as a family-owned firm recruits a nonfamily accountant to improve its bank rating (Lutz et al., 2010). The literature further argues that the relation between the accountant and banks is important because accountants initiate more bank connections and thus aid family-owned firms in developing relationships with banks (Di Giuli et al., 2011; Lutz et al., 2010). Survival rate and sales growth are also argued to be higher when a highly embedded external accountant is present in a family-owned firm (Barbera & Hasso, 2013). Embeddedness is further stressed in relation to accountants’ influence on family-owned firms’ performance (cf. Gallo & Vilaseca, 1998) in terms of ROI, ROA (Caselli & Di Giuli, 2010; Gordini, 2016), and ROE (Gallo & Vilaseca, 1998). The literature asserts the importance of embeddedness because family owners might not even consider the proposed accounting change if the change agent (i.e., the accountant) is not deemed a sufficiently competent and an influential actor (e.g., Huerta et al., 2017). However, despite the key roles suggested for accountants and the influence of these roles indicated in the literature, accountants are seldom the sole focus of research (Songini et al., 2013).
3.2.6 An accountant’s role in family-owned firms
An accountant’s role can be aggregated into four separate roles based on the reviewed literature.Footnote 2 First, an accountant is presented as a traditional metaphorical bean counter, responsible only for accounting tasks and overseeing the production of accounting information; they do not exercise executive power. Second, an accountant occupies the role of a decision-maker, ruling on policies and developing systems designed to enable and constrain behavior. An accountant is also depicted as a coleader (with the CEO) and an internal strategic leader in this role. Third, an accountant serves an advisory role. An accountant is portrayed as an independent informant and knowledge bank advising the family, providing useful decision-making information, and influencing and proposing, but not deciding on, policies and practices. Acting as an economic and financial conscience, a sounding board and an institutional carrier is also a part of the role. Fourth, an accountant is a protector, a mediator, a safe guardian, a key liaison, and a procurer of resources. The four roles are intertwined and are seldom present entirely in solitude (see Table 6).
3.3 Research gaps and research agenda
3.3.1 An accountant’s role in family firms and research agenda
Our review reveals that only 13 out of 39 articles reviewed particularly focused on accountants or their role in family firms (see Table 6). The remaining 26 studies in the sample focused on systems and aggregates such as managers or owners in relation to accountants. Even if the accountants were somewhat “hidden” in most of these studies, they argue for an individual accountant’s importance in accounting change, accounting choices and decision-making in the family ownership context. Thus, the reviewed literature recognizes the accountant’s importance in shaping and operating the systems (MCS/MAS) but nonetheless primarily emphasizes the systems (MCS/MAS) and their significance to the succession, value transfer, and professionalization of a family-owned firm (e.g., Giovannoni et al., 2011). By emphasizing the systems rather than the individual accountant, the research stream might be missing the opportunity to further explore how individuals (accountants) shape and engage with these systems. This might be of specific relevance in the family context where individual actors have been shown to be of importance for organizational outcomes (Hiebl, 2017; Hiebl & Li, 2018). Placing the accountant in the center of future studies could thus provide answers to questions such as how accountants shape MCS/MAS in family firms as well as how these systems shape the role of accountants in these firms?
Like suggestions voiced by Hiebl (2017) in the review on finance managers in family firms, our systematic review highlights the lack of a coherent picture of the accountant’s role in family firms. The studies relying on qualitative methodology tend to be clear about the family and nonfamily accountants’ roles (e.g., Hiebl, 2013a, 2013b), while studies relying on quantitative methodology tend to be less specific as to what positions, function and/or roles accountants play in the firm (with the exception of the studies specifying “family accountants” or “family CFOs,” e.g., Caselli & Di Giuli, 2010; Gordini, 2016; Hiebl & Mayrleitner, 2019; Songini et al., 2015). It appears that the primary interest of research lies in distinguishing between family and nonfamily accountants rather than being explicit about what roles accountants actually play in family firms. Here, the field might be missing the opportunity to move beyond the dichotomy adopted by family business research and instead rely on the research in the accounting domain acknowledging the different roles accountants might play in organizations vis-à-vis accounting and organizational outcomes (e.g., Ge et al., 2011; Ginesti et al., 2021). Nonetheless, implicitly, the reviewed literature alludes to a number of roles that the accountant plays in these family firms. The roles are the bean counter, the decision-maker, the advisor, and the protector and mediator. These roles tend to overlap, and an accountant can embody multiple roles. The reason could be that the accountant shifts between the roles depending on the context, and the roles might also change over time. This assumption is partly reflected in a discussion in the accounting literature (e.g., Wolf et al., 2020) that has yet to reach scholars studying accountants in family-owned firms. The unique features of family-owned firms’ accounting (Salvato & Moores, 2010) and the remaining gaps in research on the role accountants play in family-owned firms (cf. Gao et al., 2019; Hiebl, 2012, 2013a, 2013b; Songini et al., 2013) provide scholars with ample ground for exploring questions such as the following: How is an accountant’s role and identity shaped? Is this role and identity formation specific to the family ownership context? What are the consequences of an accountant’s role and identity for family-owned firm-specific outcomes?
In addition, future studies could explore the role of the owner in shaping the accountant’s role in the family firm (cf. Gurd & Thomas, 2012; Hiebl, 2015). By acknowledging the central role accountants might play in family firms, scholars interested in the relation between family firm characteristics and organizational outcomes could further their inquiry by seeking an answer to the question of how is the fit or misfit between family firm characteristics and the characteristics of the accountant reflected in organizational outcomes? To answer this question and to explore the fit/misfit aspects, a further focus might need to be directed toward the accountants’ individual characteristics, such as years of experience in family/nonfamily firms and in an industry, as well as their general career trajectory vis-à-vis the needs and characteristics of the family firm that employs them (cf. Gurd & Thomas, 2012).
3.3.2 Methodological gaps and research agenda
The empirical articles utilizing qualitative methods show low levels of dispersion, as 14 out of 15 qualitative articles rely on semi structured interviews as the main data collection technique. However, as the field of accounting in the context of family ownership moves into a more mature stage of development (Prencipe et al., 2014), novel approaches might allow new insights and a possibility to tap into existing research gaps. Gao et al. (2019) lead by example with their use of vignette-based surveys to examine differences in individual accountants’ reactions to a specific case scenario with the goal of estimating the contextual factors affecting earnings management and unethical reporting in family-owned firms. Applying this type of methodology to explore the role of accountants in family-owned firms could bring insights into situational aspects of the role and help to answer questions such as how are accountants’ actions in different roles related to accounting/organizational outcomes and is, and if so how, this relationship contingent on the ownership structure of these firms?
The use of extended or in-depth case studies that include different sources of data, e.g., interviews, observations, and documents, combined with longitudinal designs could further advance the understanding of an individual accountant’s role in family-owned firms, thus providing access to the previously discussed research void related to the development of an accountant’s role over time (c.f. Chadwick & Dawson, 2018; Hiebl, 2013b, 2015). This research design would serve well to answer broader questions such as how, when, and why accountants’ roles change in family firms and what the consequences of such changes are for these firms?
Finally, storytelling and narrative approaches have gradually entered the family business literature (e.g., Arteaga & Uman, 2020; Fletcher et al., 2016) and have been well represented in the field of accounting (e.g., Beattie, 2014; Beattie & Davison, 2015). While our review suggests that the field has advanced an understanding of the role, few studies delve into the accountant’s subjective experiences of recruitment and subsequent employment, being employed, or ceding their employment in family firms. Storytelling and narrative approaches could allow accountants’ “life-world perspective” to be explored and answer questions such as how do accountants experience employment in family firms and how do these experiences shape their role in these organizations?
The empirical articles utilizing quantitative methods show low dispersion, as 16 of 17 articles rely on surveys as the main data collection technique and use regressions (ordinary least squares, generalized least squares, multivariate, univariate, or logistic) to perform analyses. Reliance on surveys as a primary method of data collection might have advantages, but this type of design usually suffers from respondent biases and endogeneity (cf. Maine et al., 2022). One way forward and a partial remedy to the aforementioned issues associated with surveys could be the use of a survey in combination with archival data (Grafton et al., 2011). Reliance on mixed methods of inquiry could thus provide an opportunity to explore more complex research questions such as how accountants and their role in family firms (self- or externally assessed) are reflected in (archival data sourced) accounting outcomes?
Further methodological advancements in the field could be achieved by introducing structural equation modelling (SEM) and qualitative comparative analysis (QCA). Used to explain the relationships between multiple different variables (constructs) and to examine structural interrelations (Hair, 2019), SEM has been successfully utilized in operations management and management accounting research (e.g., Peng & Lai, 2012 and Nitzl, 2016). SEM could be useful for examining the intervening processes taking place between individual accountants and other members of organizations, particularly owners. This type of inquiry could answer questions such as how an individual accountant’s characteristics impact his/her relations with the firm owner and how such a relationship in turn is reflected in the family firm’s accounting choices.
Finally, the application of QCA offers researchers the possibility to identify causal patterns (different combinations of sufficient and necessary conditions generating the same outcome) across cases using both crisp sets and fuzzy sets of small- to medium-sized samples (n = 5–50) (Schneider & Wagemann, 2012). Introducing this method to explore an accountant’s role in family-owned firms could answer questions such as how different ownership structures in family firms’ interplay with an individual accountant’s characteristics and how ownership structure impact role specifications and, ultimately, organizational outcomes.
3.3.3 Theoretical gaps and research agenda
The literature between 2011 and 2015 primarily relied on agency and stewardship theories. In later years, the resource-based view was used, followed by an increasingly dominant SEW theory in subsequent years. This indicates a change in theoretical paradigms, as the economic rationale partially subsided in favor of the family rationale. Furthermore, the emphasis on the individual level of analysis highlighting accountants’ agent and steward roles shifted toward the organizational level of analysis, where accountants are merely viewed as a part of the organizational function. This shift means that the possibility of understanding accounting in the family ownership context has been greatly reduced given that organizational systems and individual actors operate in a reciprocal manner, constantly adapting to one another rather than remaining in a steady state. Thus, we urge researchers to operate with different theories and consider the interaction between individual actors and the accounting function in order to understand decision-making processes in family-owned firms and their impact on accounting and organizational outcomes.
One way forward for the field would be to capitalize on the recent interest in upper echelons theory (e.g., D’Allura, 2019), which applies a team level of analysis and views an accountant as a member of an executive team; individual accountant characteristics are considered in relation to the executive group characteristics, which are consequently explored vis-à-vis organizational outcomes. Upper echelons theory has been gaining momentum in family firm research (e.g. Röd, 2019; Sciascia et al., 2013) and has been instrumental in gaining an understanding of processes and power structures in TMTs composed of family and nonfamily members. This stream of research has usually combined upper echelons theory with agency (e.g., Minichilli et al., 2010) and/or stewardship perspectives (e.g., Segaro, 2012). Relying on these streams of research, future studies on an accountant’s role might consider investigating this role in the TMT context and seeking to answer questions such as how an individual accountant’s differences or similarities with respect to other TMT members are reflected in the accounting choices of family-owned firms or questions related to the dyadic relations in the TMT context such as how the relation between an accountant and other TMT members, including the CEO, are related to accounting choices and other firm-specific outcomes.
The core assumption in the literature that a family firm is a unique business setting does not necessarily exclude the potential use of traditional accounting theories such as institutional theory, contingency theory, and positive accounting theory (PAT), which have been relatively salient in the field (as our review has shown). To develop an understanding of how transcendent the family firm business setting is, family business specific SEW theory could be combined with the core assumption of institutional theory (cf. Gottlieb et al., 2021). While institutional theory has become increasingly popular for understanding the institutional context in which family firms operate (see Soleimanof et al., 2018), its application in studies of accountants in family-owned firms remains scant, and there is limited insight on how formal and informal institutions impact the different roles individuals take or are assigned in family firms. Combining two theoretical approaches might aid researchers in finding the answers to questions such as how formal and informal institutions influence the role of accountants in family firms.
Moreover, the limited use of contingency theory in the literature indicates another opportunity for future research. Given an accountant’s important role in introducing and developing MCS and MAC in family-owned firms, as revealed in this review, studies can explore to what extent an accountant’s work and role represent a contingency in the relationship between family-owned firms’ strategy and performance. Given the heterogeneous nature of family-owned firms (Ponomareva et al., 2019), there might be not one but several optimal roles that accountants might embody in a firm, and these roles need to be considered in conjunction with both strategic and structural dimensions of firms if we are to gain a holistic picture of an accountant’s role in a family-owned firm (cf. Hiebl, 2017). Thus, future studies could seek answers to the question of the extent to which different roles of the accountant impact the relationship between strategy and structure in a family firm.
Furthermore, PAT, one of the most dominant accounting theories, is not utilized in the reviewed literature, which leaves the accounting related outcomes undertheorized. This represents yet another opportunity for furthering the field, especially given the theory’s explanatory and predictive focus on accounting practices (Deegan & Unerman, 2011). Relying on PAT can help to answer questions such as how an individual accountants’ abilities, understanding and knowledge of accounting contribute to the process of choosing and applying accounting policies in family firms or how an individual accountant’s discretion, influence and role emerge in family-owned firms and how these aspects are related to accounting choices in these firms. Moreover, relying on PAT could answer the calls for research (e.g., Senftlechner & Hiebl’s, 2015) to examine how particular positions of executive power or leadership influence accounting change/professionalization and accounting choices in family-owned firms, as well as help to explore the underlying reasons, drivers, and promotors of accounting change (cf. Hiebl et al., 2013) by answering the question of what role individual accountants might or might not play in these matters.
Finally, to better understand the role an individual (accountant) plays in family firms, it might be necessary to introduce theories that recognize and focus on bounded rational individual actors within family-owned firms (cf. Chrisman et al., 2014) rather than on individuals merely being part of a team or an organization or positioned within a context. The shift of focus toward the individual accountant has also been voiced in a number of reviewed studies that called for research on individual actors’ characteristics and features in relation to accounting change, accounting choices and performance (e.g., Gallo et al., 2004; Senftlechner & Hiebl, 2015, Hiebl, 2017, Dello Sbarba & Marelli, 2018; Chadwick & Dawson, 2018), and contextual factors (e.g., Hiebl, 2017). To achieve such a shift in focus, future studies could consider relying on cognitive theories, such as person-organization fit (P-O fit) theory or the theory of work adjustment (TWA), which could further the understanding of how the role of an individual accountant evolves vis-à-vis the family business context and provide an answer to questions such as whether an organization is a good fit for an individual accountant rather than the reverse, which is usually what the literature considers (e.g., Hiebl, 2013d). By utilizing these theories, future studies could explore recruitment, selection, and remuneration practices in family firms with a focus on the accountant, an area of research that remains to be underdeveloped (cf. Klein & Bell, 2007; Songini et al., 2013). By tapping into such practices, future research would be able to answer questions such as which criteria to use in the selection and recruitment of an accountant in family-owned firm, which characteristics of an accountant the owners find most important in the recruitment process, and what role family firm values play in the recruitment decision, thus responding to the calls for further inquiry into the black-box of recruitment practices for the accounting function in family firms (cf. Gurd & Thomas, 2012). Table 7 offers an overview of the suggestions for future research in the reviewed articles that contain such suggestions.
3.4 Integrative framework and summary of future research opportunities
Summing up this part of the article focused on research gaps and research agenda, we visualize the findings from our systematic literature review with the help of an integrated framework. We suggest a focus on three interrelated areas to advance our understanding of the role of individual accountants in the future: (1) antecedents of the accountants’ role in family firms, (2) outcomes of the accountants’ role in family firms, and (3) the accountants’ role as a contingency aspect in family firms (see Fig. 3).
Antecedents refer to a firm’s strategy and structure, as well as ownership strategy and structure. In this area, it would be particularly interesting to explore how organizational strategy and its different dimensions (i.e., business, strategy, marketing strategy, operational strategy, HR strategy, and financial strategy) impact the role of individual accountants in family firms. Research on the impact of organizational structure expressed in terms of MCSs and capital structure or structures related to organizing (i.e., functional, divisional, or matrix) on the role accountants play in family firms would generate both practically and theoretically useful insights. Given that ownership strategy and structure distinguish family firms from nonfamily firms (Prencipe et al., 2014; Salvato & Moores, 2010; Songini et al., 2013), we may assume that these elements influence the selection and recruitment of accountants as well as the role accountants play in these firms. For instance, through choices related to family ownership strategy (i.e., direct or indirect ownership) or ownership structure (i.e., degree of concentration of ownership, distribution of control or combined ownership between family and nonfamily actors).
Outcomes refer to how individual accountants might influence conventional organizational outcomes, such as financial performance, diversification, and strategic change, but also outcomes more specific to family firms, such as the SEW preservation. The outcomes could be combined in future research with accounting-related outcomes such as accounting choices and accounting change. Given the characteristics of family firms, a specific focus on social interaction, intrapersonal dynamics and processes would be particularly interesting to explore. One intriguing example is to what extent behavioral and cognitive aspects of accountants are reflected in accounting change and accounting choices and what the mechanisms through which this relationship occurs are.
Finally, the contingent role of an accountant’s role in family firms is about the extent to which individual accountants’ characteristics and attributes fit with organizational strategy and structure. For instance, a relevant topic is to what extent individual accountants’ mindset, personality, and values are compatible with the owning family’s guiding beliefs and interests. Another example is to what extent the link between organizational and ownership strategy on the one hand and accounting and organizational outcomes on the other are contingent on an individual accountant’s role, position within the firm, demography, and embeddedness.
In this systematic literature review of 39 articles, we aggregated a map of the field (Fig. 2), systematized the literature on an accountant’s role in family firms, and offered future research suggestions and an integrated framework (Fig. 3) as a way to summarize the suggestions. We follow the definition of an accountant as the principal accounting person in a family firm (Gurd & Thomas, 2012). The review reveals that an accountant is often the first nonfamily manager recruited in a family firm (Klein & Bell, 2007; Hiebl, 2013a, 2013b, 2013d) and is often given a prominent position (Chadwick & Dawson, 2018; Gao et al., 2019; Hiebl, 2013a; Stergiou et al., 2013). The accountant tends to help in forming a higher level of firm financial sophistication (Di Giuli et al., 2011; Filbeck & Lee, 2000) and contributes to a family firm by instigating, influencing, developing, and deciding on MAS and MCS practices and policies, financial accounting, and financial techniques used to manage cash flow, lending, risk, and investments (Gallo & Vilaseca, 1998; Filbeck & Lee, 2000; Klein & Bell, 2007; Caselli & Di Giuli, 2010; Di Giuli et al., 2011; Giovannoni et al., 2011; Hiebl, 2012; Lutz & Schraml, 2011; Hiebl, 2013d; Stergiou et al., 2013; Senftlechner & Hiebl, 2015; Gordini, 2016; Dello Sbarba & Marelli, 2018; Hiebl et al., 2019; Bauweraerts et al., 2020; Glaum, 2020; Pagliarussi & Leme, 2020; Gottlieb et al., 2021). Based on the descriptions of the accountant presented in the reviewed literature, we created labels matching the descriptions and subsequently aggregated the labels into four distinct roles: a traditional bean counter executing traditional accounting tasks, a decision-maker, an advisor, and a protector and mediator. We also found that an accountant often shoulders more than one role at a given time.
First, this article extends our understanding of the state of knowledge within the growing field that focuses on accounting in family firm and, in particular, the role of individual accountants. The systematic review offers a comprehensive overview of current research in the form of a map of what we know at this stage of the field’s development. This map can guide scholars in their efforts to develop new projects in this area. The second contribution of the review is to identify and assess the importance of knowledge gaps in extant literature on individual accountants in family firms. This allows us to outline suggestions for future studies and, more specifically, a number of research questions that emerge from the review as the most urgent to address as we increasingly focus on the study of individual accountants, rather than the accounting function, in family firms. Third, this article summarizes the findings from the systematic literature review related to knowledge gaps and future research opportunities in an integrative framework that brings together and give a broad overview of some main ideas for theory and empirical development. This contribution is important because it facilitates further work on the role of accountants in family firms that brings together organizational factors that impact the role of accountants with a focus on accountants’ abilities, the type of accountant a family firm needs, how a firm can maximize the use of its accountants, and the accountant’s role and effect on accounting changes, accounting choices, and organizational outcomes.
The systematic literature review is not without limitations. There is always the possibility that we missed articles present in the literature because of imperfect search techniques. Thus, complementary searches were conducted to be as inclusive as possible. Moreover, our interpretations to offer guidance for future research are subjective, and consequently, we provide a clear demarcation of our own interpretations in an attempt to provide transparency. Last, it is possible that the research voids this review seeks to ameliorate exist for a reason beyond our comprehension and should remain voids. The lack of generalizability and transferability of the results prompts more research to solidify the results and to further our understanding of accounting in the family ownership context. The answer to our call for research has practical and theoretical implications. Firms can understand the accountant’s abilities, what type of accountant is appropriate given firms’ goals and needs, and how to maximize the accountant’s use when the recruiting process is completed. We also inch forward in decoding accounting in the family ownership context by explaining rather than just describing the accountant’s role and effect on accounting change, accounting choices, and performance. Furthermore, to corroborate the role of an accountant, we must not abandon traditional accounting theories or theoretical lenses with assumptions of an individual’s economic motivation and cognitive abilities. We must also consider explanatory research, not only descriptive and exploratory research, in the pursuit of a coherent picture of the role of accountants in family-owned firms.
In the literature, a professional accountant is described as an external nonfamily member that introduces accounting change and professionalizes accounting practices. However, the literature argues that there are cases in which family members serve in the position of the accountant or a designated family member is sent to a business school with the intent to be introduced into the accounting department. Thus, the demarcation of “professional” is potentially misrepresentative. Consequently, we indicate whether it is a nonfamily accountant or a family member serving as the accountant rather than referring to a professional accountant.
The aggregation into roles was done by analysing the descriptions of the accountants within each article. The coauthor team then created labels to match these descriptions. Last, the labels were aggregated based on commonalities, and in this process, the four distinct roles emerged.
Andersson, F. W., Johansson, D., Karlsson, J., Lodefalk, M., & Poldahl, A. (2018). The characteristics of family firms: Exploiting information on ownership, kinship, and governance using total population data. Small Business Economics, 51(3), 539–556. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11187-017-9947-6
Arteaga, R., & Uman, T. (2020). Managing family business tensions: The narrative of family history. Baltic Journal of Management, 15(5), 669–686. https://doi.org/10.1108/BJM-01-2020-0008
Barbera, F., & Hasso, T. (2013). Do we need to use an accountant? The sales growth and survival benefits to family SMEs. Family Business Review, 26(3), 271–292. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894486513487198
Bauweraerts, J., Vandernoot, J., & Buchet, A. (2020). Family firm heterogeneity and tax aggressiveness: A mixed gamble approach. Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences, 37(2), 149–163. https://doi.org/10.1002/cjas.1528
Beattie, V. (2014). Accounting narratives and the narrative turn in accounting research: Issues, theory, methodology, methods and a research framework. The British Accounting Review, 46(2), 111–134. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bar.2014.05.001
Beattie, V., & Davison, J. (2015). Accounting narratives: Storytelling, philosophising and quantification. Accounting and Business Research: Accounting Narratives, 45(6–7), 655–660. https://doi.org/10.1080/00014788.2015.1081520
Bertschi-Michel, A., Sieger, P., & Kammerlander, N. (2019). Succession in family-owned SMEs: The impact of advisors. Small Business Economics, 56(4), 1531–1551. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11187-019-00266-2
Blouin, J. L., Bushee, B. J., & Sikes, S. A. (2017). Measuring tax-sensitive institutional investor ownership. The Accounting Review, 92(6), 49–76. https://doi.org/10.2308/accr-51719
Bodolica, V., & Spraggon, M. (2018). An end-to-end process of writing and publishing influential literature review articles: Do’s and don’ts. Management Decision, 56(11), 2472–2486. https://doi.org/10.1108/MD-03-2018-0253
Briner, R. B., & Denyer, D. (2012). Systematic review and evidence synthesis as a practice and scholarship tool. In (Vol. 1): Oxford University Press.
Brück, C., Ludwig, J., & Schwering, A. (2018). The use of value-based management in family firms. Journal of Management Control, 28(4), 383–416. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00187-018-0258-0
Cascino, S., Pugliese, A., Mussolino, D., & Sansone, C. (2010). The influence of family ownership on the quality of accounting information. Family Business Review, 23(3), 246–265. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894486510374302
Caselli, S., & Di Giuli, A. (2010). Does the CFO matter in family firms? Evidence from Italy. The European Journal of Finance, 16(5), 381–411. https://doi.org/10.1080/13518470903211657(EuropeanJournalofFinance)
Chadwick, I. C., & Dawson, A. (2018). Women leaders and firm performance in family businesses: An examination of financial and nonfinancial outcomes. Journal of Family Business Strategy, 9(4), 238–249. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jfbs.2018.10.002
Chrisman, J. J., Memili, E., & Misra, K. (2014). Nonfamily managers, family firms, and the winner’s curse: The influence of noneconomic goals and bounded rationality. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 38(5), 1–25. https://doi.org/10.1111/etap.12014
D’Allura, G. M. (2019). The leading role of the top management team in understanding family firms: Past research and future directions. Journal of Family Business Strategy, 10(2), 87–104. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jfbs.2018.12.001
Deegan, C. U., Jeffrey. (2011). Financial accounting theory (second European edition ed.). McGraw-Hill Education (UK) Limited.
Dello Sbarba, A., & Marelli, A. (2018). Family-controlled businesses and management control: The framing of “shareholder-oriented” practices. Journal of Management Control, 28(4), 417–456. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00187-018-0255-3
Dhaliwal, D. S., Li, O. Z., Tsang, A., & Yang, Y. G. (2011). Voluntary nonfinancial disclosure and the cost of equity capital: The initiation of corporate social responsibility reporting. The Accounting Review, 86(1), 59–100. https://doi.org/10.2308/accr.00000005
Di Giuli, A., Caselli, S., & Gatti, S. (2011). Are small family firms financially sophisticated? Journal of Banking and Finance, 35(11), 2931–2944. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbankfin.2011.03.021
El Masri, T., Tekathen, M., Magnan, M., & Boulianne, E. (2017). Calibrating management control technologies and the dual identity of family firms. Qualitative Research in Accounting & Management, 14(2), 157–188. https://doi.org/10.1108/QRAM-05-2016-0038
Ferramosca, S., & Allegrini, M. (2018). The complex role of family involvement in earnings management. Journal of Family Business Strategy, 9(2), 128–141. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jfbs.2018.01.001
Filbeck, G., & Lee, S. (2000). Financial management techniques in family businesses. Family Business Review, 13(3), 201–216. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-6248.2000.00201.x
Fletcher, D., Massis, A. D., & Nordqvist, M. (2016). Qualitative research practices and family business scholarship: A review and future research agenda. Journal of Family Business Strategy, 7(1), 8–25. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jfbs.2015.08.001
Gallo, M. A., & Vilaseca, A. (1998). A financial perspective on structure, conduct, and performance in the family firm: An empirical study. Family Business Review, 11(1), 35–47. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-6248.1998.00035.x
Gallo, M. Á., Tàpies, J., & Cappuyns, K. (2004). Comparison of family and nonfamily business: Financial logic and personal preferences. Family Business Review, 17(4), 303–318. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-6248.2004.00020.x
Gao, J., Masli, A., Suh, I., & Xu, J. (2019). The influence of a family business climate and CEO–CFO relationship quality on misreporting conduct. Journal of Business Ethics, 1-24. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-019-04253-1
Ge, W., Matsumoto, D., Zhang, J. L., & Krische, S. D. (2011). Do CFOs have style? An empirical investigation of the effect of individual CFOs on accounting practices/discussion of “Do CFOs have style? An empirical investigation of the effect of individual CFOs on accounting practices.” Contemporary Accounting Research, 28(4), 1141–1179.
Ginesti, G., Spanò, R., Ferri, L., & Caldarelli, A. (2021). The chief financial officer (CFO) profile and R&D investment intensity: Evidence from listed European companies. Management Decision, 59(13), 99–114. https://doi.org/10.1108/MD-05-2020-0650
Giovannoni, E., Maraghini, M. P., & Riccaboni, A. (2011). Transmitting knowledge across generations: The role of management accounting practices. Family Business Review, 24(2), 126–150. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894486511406722
Givoly, D., Hayn, C. K., & Katz, S. P. (2010). Does public ownership of equity improve earnings quality? The Accounting Review, 85(1), 195–225. https://doi.org/10.2308/accr.2010.85.1.195
Glaum, M. (2020). Financial reporting in non-listed family firms: Insights from interviews with CFOs. Schmalenbach Business Review, 72(2), 225–270. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41464-020-00087-x
Gomez-Mejia, L. R., Cruz, C., Berrone, P., & De Castro, J.O. (2011). The bind that ties: Socioemotional wealth preservation in family firms. The Academy of Management Annals, 5(1), 653–707.
Gordini, N. (2016). Does the family status of the CFO matter to enhance family firm performance? Evidence from a sample of small and medium-sized Italian family firms. International Journal of Entrepreneurship and Small Business, 28(1), 1–16.
Gottlieb, U., Hansson, H., & Johed, G. (2021). Institutionalised management accounting and control in farm businesses. Scandinavian Journal of Management, 37(2), 101153. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scaman.2021.101153
Grafton, J., Lillis, A. M., & Mahama, H. (2011). Mixed methods research in accounting. Qualitative Research in Accounting and Management, 8(1), 5–21. https://doi.org/10.1108/11766091111124676
Gurd, B., & Thomas, J. (2012). Family business management: Contribution of the CFO. International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behaviour & Research, 18(3), 286–304. https://doi.org/10.1108/13552551211227684
Hair, J. F. (2019). Multivariate data analysis (Eighth Edition ed.). Cengage.
Helvert-Beugels, v. J., Nordqvist, M., & Flören, R. H. (2020). Managing tensions as paradox in CEO succession: The case of nonfamily CEO in a family firm. International Small Business Journal, 38(3), 211–242. https://doi.org/10.1177/0266242619898609
Hiebl, M. R. W. (2012). Peculiarities of financial management in family firms. The international business economics research journal, 11(3), 315. https://doi.org/10.19030/iber.v11i3.6864
Hiebl, M. R. W. (2013a). Bean counter or strategist? Differences in the role of the CFO in family and non-family businesses. Journal of Family Business Strategy, 4(2), 147–161. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jfbs.2013.02.003
Hiebl, M. R. W. (2013b). A finance professional who understands the family: Family firms’ specific requirements for non-family chief financial officers. Review of Managerial Science, 8(4), 465–494. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11846-013-0112-6
Hiebl, M. R. W. (2013c). Management accounting in the family business: Tipping the balance for survival. Journal of Business Strategy, 34(6), 19–25. https://doi.org/10.1108/JBS-07-2013-0052
Hiebl, M. R. W. (2013d). Non-family CFOs in family businesses: Do they fit? Journal of Business Strategy, 34(2), 45–51. https://doi.org/10.1108/02756661311310459
Hiebl, M. R. W. (2015). Agency and stewardship attitudes of chief financial officers in private companies. Qualitative Research in Financial Markets, 7(1), 4–23. https://doi.org/10.1108/QRFM-12-2012-0032
Hiebl, M. R. W. (2017). Finance managers in family firms: An upper-echelons view. Journal of Family Business Management, 7(2), 207–220. https://doi.org/10.1108/jfbm-07-2016-0014
Hiebl, M. R. W., & Li, Z. (2018). Non-family managers in family firms: Review, integrative framework and future research agenda. Review of Managerial Science, 14(4), 763–807. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11846-018-0308-x
Hiebl, M. R. W., & Mayrleitner, B. (2019). Professionalization of management accounting in family firms: The impact of family members. Review of Managerial Science, 13(5), 1037–1068. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11846-017-0274-8
Hiebl, M. R. W., Feldbauer-Durstmüller, B., & Duller, C. (2013). The changing role of management accounting in the transition from a family business to a non-family business. Journal of Accounting & Organizational Change, 9(2), 119–154. https://doi.org/10.1108/18325911311325933
Hiebl, M. R. W., Duller, C., & Neubauer, H. (2019). Enterprise risk management in family firms: Evidence from Austria and Germany. The Journal of Risk Finance, 20(1), 39–58. https://doi.org/10.1108/JRF-01-2018-0003
Hiebl, M. R. W. (2021). Sample selection in systematic literature reviews of management research. Organizational Research Methods, 0(0), 1094428120986851. https://doi.org/10.1177/1094428120986851
Hope, O.-K., Langli, J. C., & Thomas, W. B. (2012). Agency conflicts and auditing in private firms. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 37(7), 500–517. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aos.2012.06.002
Huerta, E., Petrides, Y., & O’Shaughnessy, D. (2017). Introduction of accounting practices in small family businesses. Qualitative Research in Accounting and Management, 14(2), 111–136. https://doi.org/10.1108/qram-01-2015-0008
Kapiyangoda, K., & Gooneratne, T. (2021). Management accounting research in family businesses: A review of the status quo and future agenda. Journal of Accounting & Organizational Change, 17(3), 352–372. https://doi.org/10.1108/JAOC-10-2020-0164
Klein, S. B., & Bell, F-A. (2007). Non-family executives in family businesses – a literature review. Electronic Journal of Family Business Studies (EJFBS), 1(1), 19–37.
Li, H., Terjesen, S., & Umans, T. (2018). Corporate governance in entrepreneurial firms: A systematic review and research agenda. Small Business Economics, 54(1), 43–74. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11187-018-0118-1
Lohe, F.-W., Calabrò, A., & Torchia, M. (2021). Disentangling the drivers of family firms internationalization through the lens of socioemotional wealth. Journal of International Entrepreneurship, 19(4), 479–509. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10843-021-00284-w
Lutz, E., Schraml, S., & Achleitner, A.-K. (2010). Loss of control cs. risk reduction: decision factors for hiring non-family CFOs in family firms [Working paper]. Technische Universität München, Center for Entrepreneurial and Financial Studies (CEFS), München, 2010–04, 1–30.
Lutz, E., & Schraml, S. (2011). Family firms: Should they hire an outside CFO? Journal of Business Strategy, 33(1), 39–44. https://doi.org/10.1108/02756661211193802
Maine, J., Florin Samuelsson, E., & Uman, T. (2022). Ambidextrous sustainability, organisational structure and performance in hybrid organisations. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 35(3), 734–769. https://doi.org/10.1108/AAAJ-12-2019-4338
Massaro, M., Dumay, J., & Guthrie, J. (2016). On the shoulders of giants: Undertaking a structured literature review in accounting. Accounting, Auditing, & Accountability, 29(5), 767–801. https://doi.org/10.1108/aaaj-01-2015-1939
McGuire, S. T., Wang, D., & Wilson, R. J. (2014). Dual class ownership and tax avoidance. The Accounting Review, 89(4), 1487–1516. https://doi.org/10.2308/accr-50718
Minichilli, A., Corbetta, G., & MacMillan, I. C. (2010). Top management teams in family-controlled companies: ‘familiness’, ‘faultlines’, and their impact on financial performance. Journal of Management Studies, 47(2), 205–222. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6486.2009.00888.x(JournalofManagementStudies)
Moilanen, S. (2008). The role of accounting in the management control system: A case study of a family-led firm. Qualitative Research in Accounting & Management, 5(3), 165–183. https://doi.org/10.1108/11766090810910209
Nielsen, S. (2010). Top management team internationalization and firm performance. Management International Review, 50(2), 185–206. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11575-010-0029-0
Nitzl, C. (2016). The use of partial least squares structural equation modelling (PLS-SEM) in management accounting research: Directions for future theory development. Journal of Accounting Literature, 37, 19–35. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acclit.2016.09.003
Pagliarussi, M. S., & Leme, M. A. (2020). The institutionalization of management control systems in a family firm. Qualitative Research in Accounting and Management, 17(4), 649–673. https://doi.org/10.1108/QRAM-12-2019-0128
Peng, D. X., & Lai, F. (2012). Using partial least squares in operations management research: A practical guideline and summary of past research. Journal of Operations Management, 30(6), 467–480. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jom.2012.06.002
Ponomareva, Y., Nordqvist, M., & Umans, T. (2019). Family firm identities and firm outcomes : a corporate governance bundles perspective. In E. Memili & C. Dibrell (Eds.), The Palgrave handbook of heterogeneity among family firms (pp. 89–114). Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-77676-7_5
Prencipe, A., Bar-Yosef, S., & Dekker, H. C. (2014). Accounting research in family firms: Theoretical and empirical challenges. The European Accounting Review, 23(3), 361–385. https://doi.org/10.1080/09638180.2014.895621
Röd, I. (2019). TMT diversity and innovation ambidexterity in family firms: The mediating role of open innovation breadth. Journal of Family Business Management, 9(4), 377–392. https://doi.org/10.1108/JFBM-09-2018-0031
Salvato, C., & Moores, K. (2010). Research on accounting in family firms: Past accomplishments and future challenges. Family Business Review, 23(3), 193–215. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894486510375069
Schenkel, M. T., Yoo, S. S., & Kim, J. (2016). Not all created equal: Examining the impact of birth order and role identity among descendant CEO sons on family firm performance. Family Business Review, 29(4), 380–400. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894486516659170
Schneider, C. Q. & Wagemann, C. (2012). A guide to qualitative comparative analysis. Cambridge University Press.
Sciascia, S., Mazzola, P., & Chirico, F. (2013). Generational involvement in the top management team of family firms: Exploring nonlinear effects on entrepreneurial orientation. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 37(1), 69–85. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-6520.2012.00528.x
Segaro, E. (2012). Internationalization of family SMEs: The impact of ownership, governance, and top management team. Journal of Management & Governance, 16(1), 147–169. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10997-010-9145-2
Senftlechner, D., & Hiebl, M. R. W. (2015). Management accounting and management control in family businesses. Journal of Accounting & Organizational Change, 11(4), 573–606. https://doi.org/10.1108/JAOC-08-2013-0068
Soleimanof, S., Rutherford, M. W., & Webb, J. W. (2018). The intersection of family firms and institutional contexts: A review and agenda for future research. Family Business Review, 31(1), 32–53. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894486517736446
Songini, L., Gnan, L., & Malmi, T. (2013). The role and impact of accounting in family business. Journal of Family Business Strategy, 4(2), 71–83. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jfbs.2013.04.002
Songini, L., Morelli, C., Gnan, L., & Vola, P. (2015). The why and how of managerialization of family businesses evidences from Italy. Rivista Piccola Impresa/Small Business, 1, 86–118. https://doi.org/10.14596/pisb.179
Speckbacher, G., & Wentges, P. (2012). The impact of family control on the use of performance measures in strategic target setting and incentive compensation: A research note. Management Accounting Research, 23(1), 34–46. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mar.2011.06.002
Srinidhi, B. N., He, S., & Firth, M. (2014). The effect of governance on specialist auditor choice and audit fees in U.S. family firms. The Accounting Review, 89(6), 2297–2329. https://doi.org/10.2308/accr-50840
Stergiou, K., Ashraf, J., & Uddin, S. (2013). The role of structure and agency in management accounting control change of a family owned firm: A Greek case study. Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 24(1), 62–73. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpa.2012.09.007
Terjesen, S., Hessels, J., & Li, D. (2016). Comparative international entrepreneurship: A review and research agenda. Journal of Management, 42(1), 299–344. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206313486259
Tranfield, D., Denyer, D., & Smart, P. (2003). Towards a methodology for developing evidence-informed management knowledge by means of systematic review. British Journal of Management, 14(3), 207–222. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8551.00375
Waldkirch, M. (2020). Non-family CEOs in family firms: Spotting gaps and challenging assumptions for a future research agenda. Journal of Family Business Strategy, 11(1), 100305. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jfbs.2019.100305
Waldkirch, M., Nordqvist, M., & Melin, L. (2018). CEO turnover in family firms: How social exchange relationships influence whether a non-family CEO stays or leaves. Human Resource Management Review, 28(1), 56–67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2017.05.006
Wolf, T., Kuttner, M., Feldbauer-Durstmüller, B., & Mitter, C. (2020). What we know about management accountants’ changing identities and roles – a systematic literature review. Journal of Accounting & Organizational Change, 16(3), 311–347. https://doi.org/10.1108/JAOC-02-2019-0025
Yu, W., & Zheng, Y. (2020). Does CSR reporting matter to foreign institutional investors in China? Journal of International Accounting, Auditing & Taxation, 40, 100322. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.intaccaudtax.2020.100322
Open access funding provided by Jönköping University.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Rights and permissions
Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.
About this article
Cite this article
Sandgren, M., Uman, T. & Nordqvist, M. Accountants in family firms—a systematic literature review. Small Bus Econ (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11187-022-00693-8
- Family firm
- Family ownership
- Systematic literature review