In the top section of the logo of the Hong Kong Society of Accountants (HKSA) is a weighing scales to serve, no doubt, as a reminder that one of an accountant's main roles is to correctly balance the books.
But the profession is not just about balance sheets. "The scales on our emblem denote that accountancy is about fairness, balanced judgment and objectivity," says Winnie Cheung, the HKSA's chief executive and registrar, who also emphasises the range of possibilities available to those with the right accountancy qualifications. "Every business needs an accountant and this opens doors to every industry," she notes. "With relevant experience, there is no limit to how high you can rise in different fields. Many chief executives, managing directors and chairmen started off with an accounting qualification."
An accountant's basic training is diverse and, therefore, can lead to any number of career options. Most start off in auditing but specialisation is possible in taxation, insolvency, mergers and acquisitions, IPOs or forensic accounting. Many later move into industry and commerce and, for more dynamic and outgoing types, accountancy can serve as a route into banking or even politics.
While the profession is well-regulated, it is also changing fast. "The last decade has seen the rapid development of information technology," says Ms Cheung, "and the emergence of e-commerce has obliged accountants and auditors to learn new methodologies." Another major trend is towards cross border business and globalisation, making it a priority to align local standards and practices with those of other countries.
The biggest issue now facing the profession is the loss of public trust in financial reporting on a global scale following recent high-profile accounting scandals. "The long process of restoring confidence is a major challenge," Ms Cheung admits, "but a more robust financial reporting system will emerge."
"Many chief executives, managing directors and chairmen started off with an accounting qualification"
The Hong Kong Society of Accountants, as the statutory body responsible for the registration and regulation of the local accounting profession is doing what it can to help. In 1999, it launched Hong Kong's own Professional Qualification Programme (QP), tailor-made for aspiring accountants. Depending on an individual's previous educational background, various entry routes are available.
The QP combines examinations with practical training in workshops and case studies and includes a scheme of supervision by employers. The programme sharpens participants' communication and analytical skills and their ability to make independent judgments.
Also, to promote a more international outlook, the HKSA signed, in 2002, reciprocal membership agreements with the chartered accountancy bodies in seven countries, making the QP a transferable qualification and giving Hong Kong accountants the passport to a more global perspective, if they opt to work overseas.
Path to success
Ms Cheung's own meteoric rise is an inspiring example for anyone considering a career in accountancy.
"At university, I majored in economics and then trained as a chartered accountant with a Big Four accountancy firm in London," she recalls. "This offered good exposure to a diverse range of professional engagements in various industries, and the experience has been very useful. The career framework in accountancy enabled me to get annual promotions and, within 9 years, I moved from junior trainee to senior manager. This was highly encouraging!" she laughs.
Asked whether she has ever had ethical concerns, Ms Cheung replies, "Not really. I have my professional yardsticks which I hold to firmly. I would do nothing that went against those principles even if it meant missing out on a client's business. The important thing is to maintain professional integrity at all times."
When asked for her personal motto, Ms Cheung says it is all about creating the right balance. "Balance of life, family, work and play, and in everything else you do!"
The rapid growth of business in China will present immense opportunities for Hong Kong accountants.
"The increasing number of overseas corporations investing in the mainland and the fact that more Chinese enterprises intend to list in Hong Kong means there is strong demand for Hong Kong accountants to ensure businesses are in line with global practices," says Ms Cheung.
All Big Four global accountancy firms and many SMEs have an expanding presence in China. "More Hong Kong accountants now choose to live and work across the border. I expect this trend to continue, with the integration of businesses and the growth of job opportunities. The remuneration packages for many accountants in China are comparable to those offered in Hong Kong and abroad," Ms Cheung advises.