Data sleuth tracks miscreants
If Hong Kong is to maintain its status as a global financial centre, it must take a lead in ensuring above-board practices and general probity in every aspect of business life. Chris Cheung is already doing his bit. As a director of Deloitte China, specialising in forensic and dispute services, he helps clients review compliance, investigate irregularities and pinpoint instances of suspected wrongdoing.
Cheung took a bachelor of science degree in finance and business process management at Indiana University in the late 1990s and, more recently, completed a master's degree in Chinese business law at the Chinese University.
What did you gain from going to the United States?
I knew if I went to the US for college, I would come back a different person. I also wanted to bring back something more advanced. After graduating, I was offered a job over there with one of the Big Four firms and grabbed it.
Later, they asked me to specialise in what was then called dispute analysis and investigation, which became much more important after the corporate scandals of 2002-03. When I came back to Hong Kong in 2005, I had specialist skills and experience that were in demand.
Usually, why is your team called in?
An engagement can be initiated by an overseas parent company to check on local operations through a forensic review. There may be suspicions of wrongdoing, so they want us to take a closer look. Or it might be more of a regulatory review related to requirements of the local and overseas authorities.
Normally, we go into every detail, looking at company procedures, reviewing books and records, interviewing relevant executives and slicing and dicing electronic data among possibly millions of transactions to find irregularities. Our work differs from a standard audit's in that we tend to have a specific focus whereas an audit has to review a company's overall financials.
Are your team members all trained accountants?
In fact, they have very diverse backgrounds. The full team includes lawyers, journalists and former officers, as well as ex-auditors with accountancy degrees. I focus more on forensics technology, which includes identifying, forensically preserving and preparing electronic data, such as e-mails for our clients to review, and conducting analytics on millions of transactional data to gain insights related to suspected wrongdoings.
Is it more difficult dealing with companies in mainland China?
I can only say that, in China, they have different rules. In terms of laws and business regulation, though, they are making progress in a growing economy. That means we are in a position to spark a lot of new ideas and explain what works in other countries, but it can still be tough to convince them of the advantages of some of the forensic methods used globally. Often, it is the client’s judgment call on how deeply and widely they want us to review.
What makes you good at your job?
I used to wonder why my previous boss employed me, but I can now see it was because I have an analytical mindset, am always asking questions, and look at different possible outcomes. In this field, those are quite valuable characteristics, but it is also important to know where to start looking if, for instance, a company is missing US$50 million. Besides that, you have to know how to ask the right questions and realise that the best scenario is to help companies solve a problem before it goes public.
What changes do you see ahead?
There is now so much data in electronic form that we have to keep a close eye on the latest [technological] developments. It is a matter of keeping pace with change * and one step ahead of the wrongdoers. Hong Kong and the mainland are still largely paper-based economies, but about 70 per cent of business information is not printed, so we must make sure we have the right tools and methods.
What do you enjoy most?
It is most rewarding to bring in the best forensic tools and methodologies from around the world and to see the team use that knowledge to help clients here. Since the role is all about identifying and mitigating different business risks, there are always new challenges. And sometimes, emergency jobs come up where we need to mobilise and fly out immediately, so there is never a set schedule.
- Cheung sees sustained booming demand for forensic services
- As a younger man, he went in for exotic sports such as snowboarding
- He plays poker, mainly for the techniques and the mind games