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Nothing but a number

February 2018

Hong Kong accountants are increasingly being handed big roles and responsibilities at a young age. Julian Hwang talks to chief financial officers and Institute members who have overseen initial public offerings and shaped business strategies, all before turning 35

Photography by Joanna Lai

Last September, Kraft Heinz announced it had a new chief financial officer (CFO). Usually such a change would be of interest only to specialist business news outlets but this announcement made headlines. The finance function of the food company, with a market capitalization of US$100 billion, is now being overseen by a 29-year-old. While surprising to many, media reports noted how David Knopf’s promotion was justified – his previous responsibilities at the company included heading global budget and business planning as a vice president, and playing a major role in Heinz’s merger with Kraft.

What also makes Knopf’s story not so unusual is the fact that more and more young finance professionals, including those in Hong Kong, are landing CFO positions, bucking the idea that it takes decades of experience to do so. We met some Hong Kong Institute of CPAs members who have managed to quickly rise high up the ladder with a passion for leading and the ability to think quickly on their feet.

Bruce Mok, aged 31, is one of them. Five years ago, he came across a job listing for an internal auditor at e-print Group. “It was a bit of a surprise to learn that there were still printing factories running in Hong Kong, especially one inside an industrial building here in Kwun Tong,” recalls Mok, now CFO at the digital printing service company.

He learned from the job listing that e-print Group was working on its initial public offering (IPO), and that inspired him to apply. At that time, he had experience assisting clients with their IPOs as an auditor at a second tier audit firm, so this was his opportunity to work on one directly.

A year later, the company went public in December 2013 and it was not easy. Tensions ran high at the office as many of his colleagues had not experienced the IPO process before. “Going public needed everyone to work towards the same goal together,” says Mok. “Some colleagues, particularly the ones who had been with the company for a long time, did not understand the benefits of the IPO, and saw it as more work that piled onto their existing responsibilities.”

“Once you reach 30 or 40-years-old, people will be less tolerant of your shortcomings.”

Applying his past experience, Mok talked to his colleagues to help them see the IPO’s greater business purpose. “If we stagnated and kept the company as just a printing business for distributors, we’d be out of work sooner or later given how competitive the industry is,” explains Mok. “Only by going public could we expect to see further growth. We also made sure to let them know that there was an annual bonus and reward plan in-store for them upon completion of the IPO.”

The company’s clientele is shifting, observes Mok. “The primary customers for us used to be dealers, where we’d help them design and print the materials for retail later. Nowadays, many people are more proficient with designing software, so our customer base has evolved to become more the final users.” Initially specialized in paper printing products such as name cards and booklets, the company launched its sister company, e-banner, shortly after listing to expand their scope of services.

Mok, who took on the role of CFO and Company Secretary in 2016, agrees that young finance professionals are taking up more responsibilities. “Society’s expectations of young professionals are increasingly high,” says Mok. “It’s a good idea to set yourself up through training, accumulating work experience and building connections as soon as possible, because once you reach 30 or 40-years-old, people will be less tolerant of your shortcomings.”

He admits that managing older colleagues can occasionally be a challenge, particularly if they prefer working under someone older. “That’s why it’s important to talk with your staff and to always make sure that we see eye-to-eye.”



Numbers talk

Francis Au grew up listening to stories told by his father, Albert Au, former chairman and chief executive officer of BDO and a past president of the Institute. “At the dinner table, he shared thousands of stories accumulated over his 30 years of working on many types of clients and his involvement in mergers, acquisitions and negotiations,” remembers Au, who inevitably chose a similar career path.

Au’s career took him from Deloitte to the Darton Group, a private exporter, before he took on his current role as Chief Business Development Officer and CFO at EKPAC Group at the age of 34. “EKPAC is the integrated solution provider for cutting-edge technological equipment and financing to China’s key service providers in high growth sectors, such as healthcare, agriculture, education and search and rescue,” explains Au. “We source the newest developments from countries like the United States and Israel to China, facilitating the urbanization process in China and promoting clean technology under these industries.”

During his first two months at the job, he worked on improving the company’s current cash-flow monitoring system, and felt immensely proud after completing it. “Extra money that is not spent or saved today is wasted opportunity cost, and my theory is that if the company is able to maximize spending for investments or making repayments today, we can expect even greater growth for the business tomorrow.”

The report modified the company’s existing cash-flow forecast and heightened visibility of the company’s cash position, allowing the board and management to make more prudent spending decisions and investments. The company is currently looking to go public sometime in 2019, says Au.

Given the company’s large number of stakeholders, Au maintains constant communications with involved parties. “We need to be responsive should any unforeseen developments occur, which is why we have assembled a team with specializations and expertise under each of our customers’ industries,” says Au. “In addition to holding weekly meetings with our staff in the Mainland, we also have dedicated messaging groups for receiving instant updates.”

Au acknowledges that his professional network may not be as far-reaching as some of his elder peers. “Many listed international companies require strong bank and government connections,” says Au. “While my connections aren’t quite at that stage yet, I am actively trying to expand my network whenever possible. I also find that other people in management levels, such as heads of banks, are open and willing to share information with younger CFOs like myself.”

Au believes that while young professionals may be taking on greater responsibility and workload, it is all for a greater good. “More responsibilities promotes quicker business and personal development,” says Au. “CFOs will always be in demand, and with the baby boomers about to retire, there’ll be lots of spaces to fill.”

“CFOs will always be in demand, and with the baby boomers about to retire, there’ll be lots of spaces to fill.”


Concrete foundation

When asked about the potential weaknesses of young finance chiefs, Elfee Chu, CFO at Triangular Force Construction Engineering, highlights inexperience in handling interactions with people as something that needs to be worked on.

When 34-year-old Chu took up the role at the company, which focuses on foundation work for infrastructure and construction sites in Hong Kong and Macau, such as the Hong Kong-Zhuhai- Macau Bridge, her first challenge was figuring out how to connect with the rest of the staff. “Most of my colleagues have been around since the company’s founding,” recalls Chu, “and in the construction business, management- level positions are generally occupied by males, so I needed a way to foster a good relationship with the people around me.”

To do that and to “get into their world,” Chu was simply her approachable, talkative self. “For example, there was one lady who was a mother living separately from her daughter, and we’d often talk about ways that she could better bond with her,” says Chu. “By talking about our personal lives, we’ve been able to develop better trust.”

Chu points out that the job of a CFO extends far beyond working with numbers. “Our company did an IPO during October 2017, and for that to have succeeded we needed to work with many other parties such as other CPAs, lawyers and constructors,” says Chu. To foster good relations with the professional parties, Chu had to closely collaborate with the operational director to understand the company’s operational status and ongoing construction progresses, and then act as liaisons for the parties to reflect this information.

Chu’s family runs an air conditioning engineering and installation business, and since an early age, the idea of analysing numbers as part of her job and running her own business intrigued her. “Accounting just felt right to me,” she says.

However, growing up she never expected to work in the construction industry. Before joining Triangular Force Construction Engineering, she worked as an auditor and handled clients from a range of sectors including food and beverage, consumer goods, property development and construction. “It was a really insightful experience because I got a close look at how each of these industries operated,” recalls Chu. She was then approached the company in September 2016 and was offered the C-suite role. Having experience in the construction field, she decided it was time for a change and accepted the offer.

“In the construction business, management- level positions are generally occupied by males, so I needed a way to foster a good relationship with the people around me.”


Chief of care

Last year, Pine Care Group, the first Hong Kong-based care and attention home operator for the elderly, successfully went public with 34-year-old Angus Chan at the helm. “[The chief executive officer] asked if I was interested in helping the company get listed, and I said, ’sure!’ I understood that the market demand for quality senior living services would become very robust in Hong Kong,” says Chan on the moment he was offered the CFO position in 2015.

A key aspiration for Chan as he took up the position was figuring out how to utilize capital market resources, such as the ones brought by the listing, to bolster the quality of services. “I wanted to help the group deliver both higher quality and varieties of senior living services, and hoped to see that these services would be well received by Hong Kong’s elderly,” says Chan.

With the listing, Chan hopes to bring greater transparency and financing to Pine Care. It is currently developing a mobile app for family members of residents so that they can receive constant updates about their loved ones.

“We’ve also established a Quality Assurance Monitoring Committee comprised of residents’ family members, external parties and regulators to oversee the quality of the elderly care services provided to our residents, and they are free to drop by our facilities without announcement for surprise inspections,” says Chan. “With greater transparency, we’ll also be able to see what we can improve on our operation processes from an external point of view, and with greater financing, we can provide a stronger pool of resources for expansion of the group and for our front-line staff so that we can continue providing quality care and services.”

What Chan lacks in experience, he makes up for through his hunger to learn. He completed the Master of Corporate Governance postgraduate programme at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in September 2017.

“I wanted to help the group deliver both higher quality and varieties of senior living services.”

Indeed, Chan acknowledges integrity to be an integral characteristic not just of a CFO, but of all accountants. Before he joined Pine Care, he was a finance manager at Mapletree Hong Kong Management, part of Singapore’s national wealth fund Temasek, which specializes in real estate investment trusts. He says he has seen too many businesses make avoidable corporate governance mistakes in the past. “Given how common compliance failure is these days, we as professionals need to stay updated on the newest reporting and disclosure standards. It means more work for us, but it’s a necessity if we want to keep the public’s trust.”

Chan finds it fulfilling working at a company with values that are in line with the Chinese idiom: respecting the elderly residents like our family (敬老如親). “It’s not a come-and-go business like other service industries. Each of our clients need to be treated with due care and respect,” says Chan. “In addition to our medical and care staff, we have social workers who regularly read the paper to the residents and have contemporary debates with them so that they won’t feel disconnected from the outside world. We use a holistic approach to take care of each elderly resident, covering not only their medical and physical needs, but also their mental and spiritual wellness.”



Managing change

K Kwan was offered a CFO role in 2016, which he believes he owes to his extensive knowledge in taxation of various regions, and the accounting firm that gaveittohim.“Iwasatax associate when I worked at a Big Four firm, and then I went to a professional services firm because I wanted more exposure to business consulting, banking and marketing,” he says.

Kwan, aged 32, describes his company, Golden House Group, as diverse. “We have a businesses ranging from selling classic Hong Kong-style snacks to our own brand of retail notebooks, but we mainly design paper and packaging products, and provide printing services for overseas publishers,” says Kwan.

Being a CFO, Kwan considers himself an internal gatekeeper. “The group is owned by two brothers, and I work closely with them overseeing the group’s operations,” says Kwan. “Many successful company owners are good at finding business opportunities, but they may not have the necessary accounting or financial knowledge to collect accurate business data and support it, so that’s where my experience in compliance and accounting comes in.”

One example of where his expertise proved valuable, he adds, is when the group restructured to cut down on inter-department resource expenditure. “Before the restructuring, our departments used separate business providers to output similar products in different subsidiaries under the group. Sharing the same providers helps reduce our internal costs.”

In the two years Kwan has been with the company, he has helped management treat their various businesses using a conglomerate approach. “In the past, many of our businesses were managed and marketed as standalone businesses,” he explains. By restructuring the businesses under a conglomerate and demonstrating Golden House Group’s influence across multiple industries, the company is able to better market their brand to potential clients and with greater effectiveness and synergies, he says.

“Juggling my CFO responsibilities and running my own firm can get busy, but it ensures that my skill set will not get rusty or outdated.”

As well as his work at Golden House Group, Kwan runs his own CPA practice, Landis & Kadwell. “Some CFOs focus so much on their work that they forget about continuing to develop their technical skills,” says Kwan. “Juggling my CFO responsibilities and running my own firm can get busy, but it ensures that my skill set will not get rusty or outdated.”



The student CFO

Laurie Ching’s father was not an accountant, but in her opinion he was always good with numbers. “He oversaw the business of a large printing company, and he had to ensure maximum productivity using minimal expenses without sacrificing their morality,” recalls Ching, aged 34. Her father’s interest in numbers was contagious as he taught her the core concepts behind accounting. “He gave me basic audit training when I was four, and then he’d always give me his receipts and statements for crosschecking,” she says.

As expected, Ching took up accounting, during the early stages of her career she found herself moving from a Big Four firm to banking to education. Half a year ago, she was offered the role of CFO at Britannia Study Link (Asia), a free and professional independent school advisory and placement service for schools in the United Kingdom.

“Despite its leading position, Britannia is a relatively young company, and being under 35 seems to be a prerequisite for working here,” says Ching, half-jokingly. “The majority of my colleagues here are at least eight years younger than I am, but they are amazingly creative and efficient.” Being one of the older members on the team, Ching is thankful that the generation gap is not too wide and that she is able to get along with the rest of the team fine.

“If Britannia were a young, energetic and ambitious young man, then as the CFO, it is my job to make sure that he comes out looking like
a presentable, upscale and mature gentleman,” explains Ching.

With Britannia being her first non-financial workplace, Ching describes herself as “being both a student and a teacher at the same time.” Using her experience of working at financial institutions, Ching collaborates with people across Britannia’s departments to help determine sound budgeting, financial and expansion plans. She has also picked up a variety of commercial and marketing skills and knowledge, such as key opinion leader marketing and project management to U.K. education and culture.

“If Britannia were a young, energetic and ambitious young man, then as the CFO, it is my job to make sure that he comes out looking like a presentable, upscale and mature gentleman.”

Expansion-wise, Britannia has opened a new branch in Kowloon’s Langham Place and crossed borders into Malaysia. With Thailand and Shenzhen being also destinations in their pipeline, Ching is eager to spread the benefits of education in the U.K. “I guess having become a mother myself, I find education particularly meaningful,” says Ching.

Although her work occupies a lot of her time, she ensures that every moment spent with her daughter is quality time. “At first there were these inevitable heartbreaking moments every time I left home for work because she would pull a sad face when seeing me off, but now that she has grown used to it, she will now wave her little hand at me as I leave and as I return home at night she would jump with joy to welcome me,” describes Ching. “When I’m with her, I’ll always keep my phone away.” 

56% of the Institute's total membership are under 45 years old, according to Institute statistics as of 31 January 2018.

Interested in becoming a CFO? The Institute's Financial Controllership Programme trains the next generation of financial controllers. Find out more here.

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