Career Advice Expert Advice

Calculating a brighter future

Pearls of wisdom from leaders in accounting spell out steps to climbing the career ladder

Know yourself. Set objectives. Have a speciality. Be diligent. These are the golden words of wisdom that four successful professional and qualified accountants will share with hundreds of university students and fresh graduates attending the Classified Post Career Forum in a talk entitled "Evolving careers for accounting professionals".

These words of wisdom also sum up how The Link Management chief executive George Hongchoy Kwok-lung was able to move up to the top spot after a thrilling investment banking career; why Deloitte audit partner Philip Tsai Wing-chung is still excited about going to work every day after 30 years; and also how Richard Tse Kin-ping, vice-president of finance and corporate services at Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks (HKSTP), made a smooth change from the commercial to the public sector.

Together with moderator Susanna Chiu Lai-kuen, the immediate past president of the Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants (HKICPA) and a director at Li & Fung Development (China), all four business leaders attribute their success to a status of qualified certified public accountant that opens up enormous opportunities in the ever-changing business world.

"There is really no fast track," Hongchoy says. "Students need to be well prepared and well equipped and work diligently towards success."

Hongchoy started his career with an audit firm in New Zealand before moving to investment banking at JP Morgan, a job he stayed in for 10 years. He continued his corporate advisory role at Rothschild and DBS Bank before switching to real estate investment trust The Link Management.

"I changed jobs a few times," he says. "Every time I did well and moved on, learning new things along the way." He suggests that before embarking on a career, graduates should understand themselves first. They should find out their own strengths and weaknesses because they will do well when they are comfortable at work.

Equally important is for graduates to know more about the accounting industry and what it can offer them. By way of example, a student who practises music may not want to become a professional musician, but they can still join the music industry and find their way to being an important part of the business.

This is all the more feasible given the increasingly varied nature of jobs in the accounting industry. Ask Philip Tsai, who has performed various roles for the Deloitte brand for over 30 years in auditing, management and HR, and also with government bodies such as the Mandatory Provident Fund Authority and the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.

"The accounting profession is a lot different nowadays," Tsai says. "The path is no longer narrow, or confined only to auditing and financial reporting. Instead it involves a wide variety of jobs, including risk management and financial advisory."

Tsai says professional services firms that used to rely on auditing for nearly 70 per cent of revenue now only receive half that. The audit fee proportion has shrunk to one-third in other developed countries such as the US and the UK and Canada, because growth now lies in various types of advisory services, such as M&A and corporate restructuring.

In the last few years Hong Kong has produced between 1,700 and 1,800 university graduates with accounting majors a year. With some 90 per cent finding post-graduation employment with accounting firms, they certainly benefit from Hong Kong's position as a global services hub. There are also already some 36,000 accountants on HKICPA's members list.

"We like to think that there must be an accountant sitting on every public bus," Tsai says. He is proud to acknowledge that Hong Kong graduates have a role to play in serving not just Hong Kong companies, but increasingly mainland companies which have an eye on global expansion.

Success always starts with small steps. Like Hongchoy and Tsai, HKSTP's Tse also started with an international accounting firm, where he passed professional examinations which qualified him as a certified public accountant (CPA).

"Graduates need to set their own objectives or goals and have their own career aspirations," Tse says. "To become a qualified CPA would be a very good choice."

As a supporter of mentoring the next generation of accountants, Tse is a firm advocate of the Career Forum's "Shadow a CEO programme" and will be taking part as one of the five executives who will be shadowed, together with Hongchoy and Tsai. He will schedule management meetings with students to give them not just a macro understanding of the business world, but also a chance to improve their interpersonal skills, communication skills and time management.

Tse says that while professional skills and expertise are important, graduates need professional integrity and leadership skills. This is because most chief financial officers and accountants are part of management teams acting as business advisers to companies.

Moderator Chiu agrees that soft skills are just as important as textbook knowledge. "Integrity, diligence, affinity and a determination to succeed are what make a good business leader," she says. "These core qualities won't change with time."

A coach and adviser of youngsters in her many capacities, Chiu offers a vital tip for new graduates who are waiting to enter the world of business. "Have a specialty so you can differentiate yourself from others," she says. "There are more opportunities, as well as competitions, so a professional qualification would help you to differentiate."

Chiu also notes that the training offered to a professional accountant will help not just in climbing the corporate ladder, but also in becoming an entrepreneur, as a sensitivity to numbers can put people ahead in business.