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The numbers add up

Published on Thursday, 08 Jul 2010
Dennis Tam was fascinated by numbers from an early age.
Photo: May Tse

An aptitude for numbers and early exposure to the family business may have predestined Dennis Tam for a senior executive role, but his path was by no means direct. After studying in Canada, the current group finance director of Melco International Development first worked in the back-office of a small Vancouver area supplier of fireplaces before branching out in his spare time to start a Chinese language magazine and work in local radio. On returning to Hong Kong in the mid-1990s, he saw the advantage of completing a professional accountancy qualification, which paved the way for a rapid climb up the corporate ladder.

Where did you first develop a feel for business?

My parents ran a company in Tsim Sha Tsui manufacturing clothes, so the family was always talking about numbers and targets. Even when I was very young, my father would give me figures to calculate - perhaps the revenue or the wages - to see if they were correct, and it was something I always found interesting. My mum, especially, wanted me to be an entrepreneur, but they didn't ask me to take over the business because they could see how tough the competition was becoming when everything started to move to the mainland.

How did you land your first full-time job?

I didn't really have a plan and, looking back, it might have made better sense to study accountancy earlier. Instead, I studied management in Vancouver and lined up a job with a local company before graduating. It was a wholesale business with 20-odd staff selling fireplaces.  The boss was a chartered accountant and I went there to do the ledger. I didn't really consider what it might lead to; I just wanted a job that paid. But I learned a lot. 

What led you to launch a magazine?

Just for interest, I had taken on a part-time job reading the news for a Chinese language radio station at weekends. Later, some of the sponsors asked me to record the voiceovers for their ads and special offers, and they then suggested starting a free magazine. I invited all my radio contacts to help out with articles on news and entertainment topics to fill 30 pages a week. I still remember getting a letter of appreciation from the mayor of Vancouver who always supported these kinds of community project.

How did you find your niche back in Hong Kong?

I went to a headhunter and got a three-month temporary assignment with one of the big insurance brokers. They decided to hire me full time in their accounts division and after a few quick promotions - and working from 9am to midnight almost every day - I rose to assistant vice-president.  I later joined a major chemical company and then became finance director of a health care firm by the age of 30.

What have you gained from your involvement with CPA Australia?

Besides their formal accountancy qualification, the organisation has also given me a forum to talk to other CFOs. That’s important to get different perspectives on new accounting standards or, for example, how to deal with different financial challenges.     

How difficult is it to oversee the finances of a major business?

I'm still learning about the more technical things, such as which market to list on or how to raise funds. The main thing for me is to ensure the accounts and financial projections are correct. We can always rely on our lawyers to take care of listing rules and on the banks to advise us on other standards.


Ahead of the game

  • Holds a PhD degree from Washington Intercontinental University
  • Corporate Sector Committee Member, CPA Australia – Greater China
  • Fellow, Financial Services Institute of Australasia
  • Part-time lecturer, master programme in accounting jointly offered by HKU SPACE and Monash University in Australia


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