Look anywhere among the upper echelons of most major corporations and you will find a significant number of qualified accountants holding down key positions. This reflects the acknowledged fact that accountancy provides not only the best training in business fundamentals but also, with its clearly defined and internationally recognised standards, the opportunity to move between companies, industries and countries and gain broad-based practical experience.
Vincent Hoe, chief financial officer of Jiwa Bio-Pharm Holdings Limited, is one person who has taken full advantage of such opportunities. "The figures man is always in the best position to understand the company and, therefore, to advance up the corporate ladder," he explains. "In different countries the tax laws and legal framework may differ but the accounting concepts are basically the same, so there is great mobility."
After taking an accountancy degree in his native Singapore, Mr Hoe started out with one of the Big Four firms before deciding, like many before him, to join one of the firm's clients. Based then in Jakarta, he oversaw internal audit and was later promoted to manage both operations and treasury. The expanding role required extensive regional travel with frequent stops in Hong Kong and this led to his appointment, in the late '90s, as associate director in charge of credit risk management for a large brokerage.
"If I had the chance to start all over again, I would still choose the accounting profession"
Time to change
"I learned about regulatory requirements and business development," says Mr Hoe, "but, in 2001, the industry was downsizing, so it was natural to switch to something with growth, like pharmaceuticals." At Jiwa Bio-Pharm he has certainly found that. The fast-moving company specialises in the development and manufacture of brand name antibiotics and medicines and has just finished building a second China production base in Kunming. Up to 95 percent of their output is sold in the China market and, with 13 new products in the pipeline, they confidently expect sales and profits to head skywards in the coming years.
Besides handling all financial reporting and corporate governance issues, Mr Hoe also steered the company through its initial public offering in Hong Kong last year. "The timing was a blessing because market sentiment had picked up after 2002," he recalls. "In the end the offer was 175 times oversubscribed."
The listing process involved working with sponsors, underwriters, lawyers, PR firms, valuers and printers. Close liaison with the Chinese authorities was needed to obtain standard approvals and to ensure all regulations had been complied with. "I learned so much during the project," Mr Hoe says. "From areas relating to patents and intellectual property to company formation in Bermuda and preparing a detailed prospectus. I even learned something about pharmaceuticals!"
One of the more time-consuming aspects was answering the detailed queries of the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong. With greater emphasis now placed on transparency and corporate governance, Mr Hoe knew the pre-listing vetting standards and post-listing continuing obligations would be strict and he is adapting his current role so as to be even more open in investor relations.
"We have to structure an investor strategy," he explains. "It is important to build alliances with funds, research houses and people in the industry as well. We may need their support in future for leads in mergers and acquisitions that can broaden our current product mix even further."
For anyone whose ambition is to build a career in business, Mr Hoe enthusiastically recommends a qualification in accountancy. "With the right programme, you really get an understanding of the subject," he notes. "It trains participants in soft skills like teamwork, presentations and networking and teaches how to apply the principles of accounting in the workplace."
For Mr Hoe, those principles have formed the basis of a varied business career and he remains well aware of how important it was to get the right start. "If I had the chance to start all over again, I would still choose the accounting profession," he says, "because of the opportunities it opens up and the ability it gives to move and work professionally in so many countries."
There is already a noticeable trend for accountants and finance professionals to look for work experience in China and all the signs indicate this will continue. In Mr Hoe's opinion, salary differentials will narrow further as mainland based companies step up their search for qualified accountants with an international focus.
Looking ahead, he believes that, before too long, China experience and exposure will be seen as essential requirements for any Hong Kong-trained accountant aiming to move up the career ladder into a more responsible position.