Hong Kong CPAs are recognized internationally for their diverse skills. Julian Hwang talks to Institute members based outside of Hong Kong, and finds out how they ended up adding value to businesses and people in different parts of the world
Yuki Lo, pictured here, is based in Switzerland and regularly hikes in the Swiss Alps.
Having an aspiration for an international career and to work overseas, accounting felt right to Yuki Lo. When she became a qualified CPA, her work took her to Indonesia, Malaysia, back to Hong Kong and eventually to Zurich, Switzerland in 2015 as the head of operations performance for Zurich Insurance Company.
“Zurich [Insurance] is a leading multi-line insurer that serves its customers in global and local markets across 210 countries and territories,” explains Lo.
Lo’s work required a lot of communication between multiple parties, and it was something new for her when she first joined. “My job was no longer engagement based, rather I had a line manager who I had to report to,” recalls Lo. As the head of operations performance, she was responsible for performance management of local units and ensuring operational compliance. “In addition to my project team, I had to build a much wider network in my company and sharpen my stakeholder engagement skills.”
Having worked in a firm for the prior three and a half years, the jump to insurance took some getting used to, but with the help of a supportive, people-oriented senior executive to mentor her, Lo received plenty of insightful advice that helped her gain a strong footing in the industry.
Recently promoted to Strategic Change Implementation Lead in Operations, Lo now leads projects to help transform Zurich’s shared services, where the new designs and initiatives will deliver commercially competitive centralized functions, like financial operations and sourcing and procurement, for the company’s various entities and countries of operation.
In the three years that Lo had lived in Switzerland, she has observed that Swiss people place a great value on work-life balance. “Of course, when a deadline approaches or if there’s a business interruption, people are still willing to work overtime or even around the clock to deliver,” she says. She also points out that flexible working arrangements, like working from home and flex hours, are not uncommon.
Food is also something that took Lo some time to get used to. According to Lo, Swiss cuisine is generally focused around cheese, potatoes, bread and red meat. “It is quite heavy for me, so I had to take time to find restaurants that served authentic Asian food,” she explains. “It’s also an opportunity to improve my own cooking skills.”
With the Swiss Alps less than an hour away by train, Lo finds Switzerland an incredible place for both commerce and recreation. “You can live in a modern city and then be in the Alps after 45 minutes,” says Lo. On the weekends, Lo and her friends enjoy exploring the various hiking trails offered by the mountainous area. “In the summer, there are many outdoor cafés and bars in Zurich to go to, and it’s absolutely relaxing to sit outside and watch people come and go.”
Managing in Malaysia
With its pungent smell, the thorny durian fruit is unpopular among some people. But Eric Chung, Chief Executive Officer of Virgin Greens X Sdn Bhd, is used to it and often finds himself surrounded by durians.
Based in the Malaysian state of Selangor, Virgin Greens X Sdn Bhd specializes in biotechnological research and commercialization for the food and agriculture industry. “Agriculture here plays an essential role in economic development because it does not only ensure national food security, but also provide rural employment to uplift local income,” says Chung. Through biotechnology, the company aims to upgrade agriculture to move away from conventional chemicals and to become more organic. “We don’t rely on genetic engineering to improve crop yield, instead, we use naturally occurring microbes,” explains Chung.
With durian being a major agricultural product in Malaysia, Chung’s company also developed a disease-control product for the crop: the MG BioGuard 3.0. During a visit to durian-growing farmers in Jerantut in Pahang State, an 80-year-old man came up to Chung and shook his hand enthusiastically. “I was a bit shocked because he was quite emotional,” recalls Chung. The man described how their family’s 20-acres of durian crops suffered from a canker-inducing fungus called Phytophthora palmivora that prevented yields and resulted in financial difficulties. “After switching to our product, fruit production finally returned,” says Chung. “He pointed at one of the trees and told me that more than 100 fruits were harvested from there not long ago. Flowers were still growing, so even more fruit will come.”
“We were helping farmers in financial difficulty get back on their feet, and more importantly, the biotechnological approach we adopt can make agriculture more green.”
Despite not particularly enjoying the taste of the fruit, Chung felt inspired. “It showed that what we do at our company goes beyond just selling products,” says Chung. “We were helping farmers in financial difficulty get back on their feet, and more importantly, the biotechnological approach we adopt can make agriculture more green and sustainable for the future generations inheriting the land.”
Like most accountants, Chung’s career began at a Big Four firm in both Hong Kong and Singapore. Upon returning to Hong Kong, he served in the treasury department of Dow Chemical, which later provided him with an opportunity in 1996 to travel to Malaysia for a newsprint mill wastewater treatment project. “I began investing and participating in several biotechnology projects here, including solid waste treatment, plant healthcare and disease control management,” recalls Chung.
Given the three primary ethnic groups in Malaysia – Malays, Chinese and Indians – various languages are spoken in the workplace. From Chung’s experience, it is essential that the multicultural society is considered, especially when arranging business functions, to ensure that the customs are respected.
During his time in Malaysia, he filed three biotechnology-based patents before deciding that biotechnology was his calling. “In 2013, I decided to consolidate my interest in biotechnology under Virgin Greens X Sdn Bhd, and assigned all three patents to the company.” The company has also been granted the BioNexus Status by the Malaysian government. The status grants qualified international and Malaysian biotechnology companies fiscal incentives to assist further development.
Chung’s company has high hopes for potential collaboration with Hong Kong and Mainland China. “Entering the Chinese market is always on our mind and we are planning to apply our business model there. I anticipate that I will be spending more time over there eventually.”
Michael Chan’s family emigrated to Auckland, New Zealand when Chan was young, and although his father was eager for his son to follow in his footsteps and become a doctor, Chan did not have much interest in the sciences. Instead, Chan turned his attention to numbers. “Accounting quickly turned out to be my best subject in school,” recalls Chan. After graduating from university he returned to Hong Kong and joined Institute’s Qualification Programme, knowing that the professional training and skill sets offered by becoming a CPA would be fundamental to the development of his career.
Chan decided to leave Hong Kong and move back to Auckland before moving across to Sydney, Australia. “It felt like a bigger version of Auckland, and the people, culture and lifestyle of the two are similar in many ways,” explained Chan. There, he took up the role of Financial Analyst at Xero, the global cloud-based accounting platform. “With over one million subscribers, it provides users with real-time visibility, connects them directly with more than 100 banks globally and is integrated with more than 600 third-party apps to streamline and automate small business processes,” explains Chan.
As the financial analyst at a global organization, Chan’s work naturally involves collaborating with others around the world. “Sometimes, logistical problems arise,” he says. With the time differences, he focuses on maintaining a close watch through effective communication. “Regular meetings and catch-ups, which can be either digital or physical, facilitates better collaborating and forming work relationships.” Chan has been able to create face-to-face connections with his colleagues across Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Unlike the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, Chan finds Australia more relaxed both in the workplace and life in general. “There’s a different office dynamic in Australasia compared with Hong Kong,” he says, “and although hierarchies still exist, it is less evident because people across different levels interact more with each other.”
When Chan first started working at Xero, it took some time getting used to. “I had been so used to working in a traditional workplace and wearing a suit to work, so when I learnt that they had a casual dress code, I actually had to start thinking about what to wear to work.” And like most modern workplaces in the technology industry, Xero was equipped with an assortment of entertainment and wellness options for its employees, including a pool table, PlayStation 4, and meditation and yoga facilities. “The whole experience really is like something out of the HBO sitcom Silicon Valley,” describes Chan.
Being by the coast, Chan enjoys going to Manly Beach to learn how to surf and running alongside the stunning waterfronts from Kirribilli to Lavender Bay. “For a taste of Hong Kong, I go to Chinatown and Chatswood, and there’s even a few branches of the dim sum restaurant Tim Ho Wan here.”
“The very positive feedback that I got on my professional background made me very proud as a Hong Kong citizen and public accountant.”
Bottling Italian values
“Italy is a country where much attention is given to the quality of life, to the pursuit of happiness and of each person’s individual values,” says Jacka Wong, the Controller of Foreign Subsidiaries at SIPA in Italy. Wong finds that as part of the working style in Italy, everyone works in their own way, and there are less standardized operating procedures.
Wong had enjoyed mathematics from an early age. Her interest in numbers led to an interest in information technology and computer programming, but it wasn’t until secondary school that she met her accounting teacher who inspired her to become a CPA. “I later found out that I could also develop my IT interests and skills in enterprise resource planning (ERP) projects through my CPA qualification, as modern software systems are playing an important role in the transformation of the accounting profession,” says Wong.
After becoming a CPA, Wong stayed in Hong Kong and worked with Motorola and Panalpina in the accounting and reporting functions, which helped her gain international exposure. She then became the controller and ERP analyst for the Italian multinational household appliance company De’ Longhi Group until 2005, when she decided to move to Italy with her Italian partner. “My decision to move arose from personal reasons and because I wanted to learn the language and experience the culture,” recalls Wong. “I was curious to see how the people lived and the businesses operated.”
Residing in the city of Treviso, Wong joined SIPA, a division of the Zoppas Industries, a family business that designs, manufactures and installs industrial machines for plastic bottling in the beverage sector and other industries.
As the foreign subsidiary controller, Wong coordinates with 14 subsidiaries across the globe. “When I arrived, I was assigned to analyse and revise the transfer pricing policy,” recalls Wong. “There was a lot of material to study as every foreign legal entity had local fiscal regulations that needed to be respected.”
It was a tough task that required extensive collaboration and numerous Skype conferences with her colleagues and travels, but it was a job that she’ll always think fondly of. “I had to put together the technical skills that I had acquired from Hong Kong and other international environments to build myself into a stronger character. It wasn’t something that I could have accomplished if I relied entirely on technical knowledge, as much of my role’s success depended on soft skills.”
Wong would absolutely recommend members to work abroad. “It helps to make Institute members more visible, and the very positive feedback that I got on my professional background made me very proud as a Hong Kong citizen and public accountant,” says Wong.
There are currently 2,085 Institute members, 5 percent of membership, living and working outside of Hong Kong.