Career Advice Successful High flyers’ story

Adept at Technology

Ensuring clients comply with all relevant laws and regulations is one key aspect of Margaret Fung’s role as Hong Kong managing director of TMF Group. But alongside that stands another important objective: to keep creating new value for customers by offering new insights and opportunities through the adept use of technology.  

“My first responsibility is to make sure the right policies, procedures and tools are all in place,” says Fung, outlining the range of legal, accounting, corporate secretarial, tax, payroll and trust formation services the group provides for major companies and multinationals. “However, data analytics and intelligence are making the business world more competitive, so we also focus on benefits that matter and make it faster and easier to spot abnormalities or mistakes.”

Around 300 of the group’s 8,000-strong international workforce are based in Hong Kong, and with target organic growth of 10 per cent a year, finding enough good recruits to meet demand remains a constant headache.   

“We need qualified people, so it is a pretty high threshold. But we also take on graduates and provide study leave, so there are two clear tracks.”

The youngest of four, Fung grew up in Causeway Bay in the 1970s, a time when visiting one of the nearby Japanese department stores was considered a special treat.

Her mother was a homemaker, her father ran a textile import-export firm with his brother, and while there was much general business talk around the dinner table, Fung’s only became interested in the subject after starting at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She chose to go there mainly because of her image of the state as classy and elegant, but the first six months were quite overwhelming.   

“If you can stay warm, it’s a nice place,” she says. “Initially, though, I didn’t understand everything the American students were talking about, so it took me a bit of time to get into the circle. There were things you might find difficult or not enjoy, or you might hear comments not fair to a non-American. But all these experiences taught me something, and every evening I would reflect on what I’d learnt that day.”

She chose a degree in business administration for very practical reasons. The state government was facing bankruptcy, which would obviously affect funding, but with accumulated credits and by attending the business courses available in both summer and winter school, Fung was able to graduate in just 30 months. From the second semester, she also did various jobs around campus as a receptionist in the home assignment office, performing late-night security checks, and even loading dishwashers at the university’s hotel.

“Since then, I’ve never been shy about telling people if I’ve made a mistake or how to do something differently,” she says.

Returning to Hong Kong in the early 1990s, she joined the advertising department of the SCMP, dealing with queries and special requests from ad agencies before, two years on, being asked to build an early company website.

“Those were glorious days; the business just came in.”

In 1999, that experience led her to a marketing role with DoubleClick, a pioneer in tracking the behaviour of internet users and analysing that data to predict other needs and influence future sales.

“There, I really noticed the power of technology and data,” Fung says. “It was eye-opening, but I also considered how bad it could be if it was in the hands of the wrong people.”

In search of new challenges, she moved in 2005 to a firm building CRM (customer relationship management) systems and, soon after, was invited by Manulife to do something similar for them. The insurance giant had a huge database covering one million-plus customers, and the main task was to devise an algorithm to find patterns and come up with specific policy proposals to fit individual or family needs.

“It is what it is, but somehow I wasn’t very comfortable on a personal level,” Fung says.

So, instead, she went first to MYOB, an Australia-based provider of tax, accounting and business support for SMEs, and then in 2014 to LexisNexis, where 80 per cent of revenue came from publishing and selling law books and legal information.

The stated aim was to hire a team of change agents to enable a switch to digital and, as a Shanghai-based general manager, Fung found herself on something of a rollercoaster ride. The Chinese economy was growing like crazy, with many domestic firms also being encouraged to “go international”. However, for legal matters, they often used a very different frame of reference.

“Chinese companies have to be very familiar with the laws overseas, for example for staff contracts or in case of labour disputes; many didn’t do enough research,” Fung says. “We ran a survey and found companies operating entities overseas were often getting into difficulties. That understanding gave me an epiphany: we could bring unique value which allowed us to take root in China.”

The firm developed a Chinese law website and, by adding subscribers, made information in their database available to in-house legal counsel, practising lawyers, government officials, university scholars and students.

“It was a great adventure in China and, dealing with officials, I learned to read between the lines and listen to what was not said,” Fung says. “They tend to speak in a certain way that gives them some room for manoeuvre later on.”

With TMF since mid-2018, she has enjoyed the task of transforming the business, understanding new client needs, and providing services which address the “pain points”. 

“I love being part of the force to change things,” she says. “I’ve always been in companies that bring transformative thinking and innovative solutions to customers.” 

Away from work, she loves cooking, seeing it as a way to contribute to the family’s quality time.

“Recently, I’ve become obsessed with recreating nostalgic dishes, like roast pigeon with port wine, but I’m also learning new skills and recipes from YouTube.”