Paul Gallagher is director – professional services for the finance & accountancy, HR and legal divisions at Kelly Services Hong Kong.
All roads lead to CFO status, if you have the commercial knowledge that Hong Kong firms are looking for
I’ve just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, and am looking to start working soon. Is it better to begin with an accounting firm, or seek a post at a large company that employs resident accountants? I’d like to become a CPA and ultimately become a CFO. If I do apply for a post at an accounting firm, what are my chances of reaching CFO status?
These are interconnected questions that almost all budding accountants think about. These were questions I too asked myself when I was an accountant, before I moved into recruitment.
There is no definite route to becoming a CFO. You can become a successful CFO using either of the paths you mentioned, and each route has pros and cons. Regardless of the path you take, it is important to note that you must acquire the relevant CPA, ACCA or CIMA qualifications. Having these qualifications is crucial to pursuing a professional accounting career in the current HK market.
Working in a ‘practice’ or ‘CPA firm’, a trainee accountant would, for example, join a ‘Big Four’ firm (PWC, KPMG, EY or Deloitte), and work as a junior auditor, while studying for the accountancy qualification examinations. The main benefit to this route is that you will likely be sponsored by your employer to study for the exams, which includes study leave. But this offer differs from employer to employer. At a Big Four firm, you gain valuable experience in conducting audits for big clients in a variety of industries. You will develop teamwork skills as well as abilities in working to tight deadlines, and eventually team management skills once you start supervising teams for audit engagements.
Auditing, however, is not the most exciting accountancy work and it often requires long and demanding hours. This workload, coupled with your studies, commands serious commitment to a final goal for the first three to four years of your career. Once auditors qualify, most try to join a commercial company to gain more in-depth and specific industry accounting experience, possibly with the aim of becoming a CFO. This can be quite difficult as newly qualified auditors have no commercial experience, and the competition is fierce.
On the commercial path, you learn on the job and study after hours to gain the required qualifications. You would typically start with bookkeeping and general ledger work for a firm and climb the ladder in an in-house finance team. After a few years, you may become a finance manager and gain good experience within that company.
However you may not be sponsored by your employer to do the exams or given time off to study. Your commercial experience will be specific to a particular industry, so it may be hard to diversify.
I would say Big Four accountants have a slight advantage with regards to becoming CFOs, if they can make the successful jump to commercial accounting.
Outside the Big Four, I see trainee accountants with in-depth commercial knowledge having an advantage when competing for CFO positions in their particular industries.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as There is more than one route to becoming a successful CFO.