Meet four partners who are illustrative of the sometimes rapid ascent that young CPAs can make. Jeremy Chan finds out how they take charge of their careers and their teams at under 35
Photography by Calvin Sit
"In this industry, there is no quick way,” says 35-year-old Wilfred Lee, Partner at Deloitte, when asked about his journey to partnership. “You can’t be employed as a manager after graduating – you need experience before you can be a trusted adviser and assist in decision making.”
Making partner at a firm is regarded by many CPAs as the pinnacle of achievement. However, some Institute members under 35 like Lee understand what it really means to take on the role and the responsibilities that come with it. While they may not have decades of experience, they are committed to training the partners of tomorrow, and to continuously learning to remain relevant in an era of constant change.
Lee believes young partners and young professionals overall can bring fresh perspectives and ideas to the table. “Having young people in the team makes the team very energetic. It is easier to speak to people and there is more momentum. All of us are eager to get things done and celebrate success.”
The challenge for him is proving those advantages to his clients, as his age can sometimes be a shock to them. “They just don’t expect a partner to be so young,” he says. “Some [clients] place very high expectations on you, so that’s a bit of a burden. But when they see how enthusiastic you are in helping them, they overcome that first impression. But you can’t feed the appetite of everyone in the market.”
He agrees that, ultimately, it is challenges that make a professional. “The work life is quite tough at an audit firm – a year’s work here is similar to two years’ work at other jobs, but all of this is experience and exposure that you gain through each engagement,” he says.
Firms tend to look for partners who can mentor and train. Lee has seen many leave the firm due to stress, and believes they could have benefited from having someone to speak to about how they can do better. “You have got to have a very good mentor in the firm – someone who is able to share experiences with you and motivate you,” he explains.
He believes his experience as a mentee was vital to his career development. He met his own mentor while on secondment in Deloitte’s Beijing office more than a decade ago. “He made partner within nine or 10 years, which is very fast,” he says.
His mentor advised him on how to maintain productivity during the busy peak seasons. “He said you will face a bottleneck every two years in this industry, and that changing market demands make it tough for accountants to keep up. He said that you have got to catch up, and even if you do, there will be new challenges you have to overcome,” he says. “I overcame these challenges by changing my mindset to one that embraces change.” Regularly seeking guidance from his mentor was also a huge help. “He helped me move forward, and to be bold.”
“Some [clients] place very high expectations on you, so that’s a bit of a burden. But when they see how enthusiastic you are in helping them, they overcome that first impression.”
Next level leadership
Bayern Chui has had his fair share of tough love at the office. “We were handed challenges to develop and fulfil our potential," he says. "We strive for continual improvement." This, he adds, was all part of a learning process, and eventually helped him become Audit Partner at KPMG in 2016, when he was 32.
Chui, now 34, says he wouldn't have made partner without the challenges he faced leading up to the role. "I wouldn't say it was my goal to become a partner in a certain number of years. I was more focused on doing my very best on every task given." He looks back on one particularly challenging engagement that helped develop his ability to supervise. "I was handed an engagement with multiple, highly complicated issues," says Chui, whose clients come from a range of industries, such as transport, consumer markets and telecom. He says the engagement involved tax and advisory teams across our multiple offices from China to Suriname, a small country on the northeastern coast of South America. "With effective and upfront communication, I am glad that we worked along very well as one KPMG team, despite the geographical and functional differences." Due to the client's high expectations and tight deadlines, Chui made sure everyone was on the same page and appropriately allocated work among the different KPMG teams. "In the end, we were able to deliver a very high quality audit to our client."
Those who communicate ideas and issues to colleagues and superiors are able to rise to the top, Chui notes, as it helps them build up the ability to have productive conversations with clients. "Be brave enough to speak up when you encounter problems, as they are part of life," he explains. "Before I joined KPMG, I was quite shy and never spoke up often enough because I thought it wasn't necessary – thinking that someone else would. But since then, the environment and opportunities have taught me that you don't have to be afraid of failing," he says. "It's always better to address your concerns early, instead of leaving them until the last minute – the seniors will understand, since they likely experienced the same thing when they were younger.”
Having these highly developed social skills come in handy in another way. “When staff members are faced with difficulties, such as stress, scheduling conflicts or family matters. We listen to them. That’s an important part of being a partner – inspiring confidence within colleagues," he says with a smile.
“The environment and opportunities [at KPMG] have taught me that you don’t have to be afraid of failing.”
A new perspective
Doris Luk, Partner at S.K. Luk and Co., supervises the audit and assurance division of the firm, leading the audit team on every engagement. Her father established the firm in 1970 and inspired her to take on a similar career path. “My dad would tell me stories about the roles and functions of an auditor in society, and how their work impacts companies and the wider community,” says the 31-year-old. “He always said accountants are a bit like doctors – the clients are our patients.”
Assuming the role of partner wasn’t so easy. “It was a difficult transition, because your identity among your peers and colleagues changes,” she says. “I recall pondering if I would be good at management.” She had shifted her mindset and viewed the pressure as an important challenge to take on.
Clients count on her for her extensive expertise to truly solve their problems and add value. “You are expected to be able to tackle various areas, from compliance to tax and reporting to auditing,” she says. “Clients want advice and leadership from you. They rely on your advice. Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young.”
She recalls how much of a shock it was at first when people found out about her age. “When people received my business card at networking events or business meetings, they still thought I was an undergraduate student,” she laughs. “But I just got on with it, because at the end of the day, they look at my experience and ask for my opinions.”
As partner, the ability to communicate effectively with clients is vital, she notes, which means being able to explain complex information in laymen’s terms. “You cannot expect all your clients to have a good understanding of audit terminology,” she says. “Building a close relationship with your client, and remaining independent at the same time, is an art.”
Good partners are also aware of how technology today is changing the role of accountants, and make an effort to keep their skills fresh. Older colleagues rely on Luk to teach them to use new accounting software. “In order to move forward, it is important to clearly explain the need for changes and how they are important to overall business goals,” she says. “We are using a legal cloud software solution for our business to provide compliance services according to the Hong Kong Companies Ordinance. The software has helped us to draft legal documents faster. We are also planning on implementing a new system into our firm to go paperless. CPAs nowadays are working harder than ever, so we hope the new system will help us support a better work-life balance,” she says.
“Older employees often perceive that you are trying to shake things up – and because they have their own way of doing things, they don’t want too many changes,” she adds. “I try to make it easier for them to do work. I want them to grow with our firm.”
She looks forward to seeing what lies ahead for herself and the firm. “Being a partner in my early 30s is definitely a journey of continuous learning and also a self-development process, but when you see the pressure as a challenge and as an opportunity to establish yourself, you will then earn the trust and respect from colleagues.”
“Building a close relationship with your client, and remaining independent at the same time, is an art.”
Ambrose Chan, Partner at United CPA & Co., a Hong Kong-based accounting firm, increasingly sees young accounting professionals being handed big roles, especially amid a growing number of listed companies and initial public offerings in Hong Kong from the Mainland. “In the past, usually those with more than 10 years’ experience are offered the role of financial controller or chief financial officer – but with more companies listing in Hong Kong, an accountant with only five years’ experience can apply to become a financial controller,” he says. “These listed companies require a financial controller or CFO, and the perfect candidate is a CPA.”
Chan was appointed partner when he was 30. Before that, he worked at PwC for four years as a senior associate in the financial services practice, and then at ICBC Asia Bank for a year as a risk management manager. Those past experiences have helped him become a well-rounded partner. It also helps to “think from the perspective of your immediate supervisor,” he says.
These days, he manages the firm’s operations and conducts staff training. “I need to take care of different ‘cycles’ of the firm,” he explains. “If my staff need help, I need to take care of them and help them solve problems. In big firms, hiring and staff policies are handled by the human resources team, but as a partner at a small firm, I need to take care of this,” he mentions. “We also need to oversee technical issues, such as the updating accounting software, while some days are for dealing with financial statements. It’s really different.”
“In big firms, hiring and staff policies are handled by the human resources team, but as a partner at a small firm, I need to take care of this.”
The profession continues to face a long working hours issue. Indeed, members working at CPA firms with listed clients have the longest working hours, according to the Institute’s 2017 Membership Survey. Because of that experience, Chan believes that it’s not so surprising that he managed to move up the ladder quickly. “At my previous job, the working hours were 9 a.m. to 12 a.m., six days a week. But because of these difficult hours, a CPA can develop his or her skills in a short period of time.”
After becoming qualified, he was able to strike a better work-life balance at PwC. Those who haven’t qualified yet and working long hours should focus on the long term. “After qualifying, you can have a good life,” he laughs.
28% of the Institute’s total membership are under 35 years old, according to the Institute’s Career Survey 2018 report