In their final year at university, most students develop an acute sense of what is happening "outside" in the job market and reassess the current long-term prospects for graduates in their own discipline. Hong Ng did exactly that as he approached his engineering finals at London's Imperial College. He soon realised that by going into the accountancy profession after graduation he would receive comprehensive training and have a far better range of career opportunities.
"The accounting qualification was seen as a passport to the job market with openings available in many different industries," says Mr Ng, who is now audit and assurance director of Horwath Hong Kong CPA Limited. Consequently, when he began as an audit trainee in Horwath's London office in 1981, he was not surprised to see that about half of his fellow trainees had studied subjects other than accountancy.
According to Mr Ng, this lack of prior experience is no real disadvantage when joining the profession, since employers focus mainly on the attitude and character of potential recruits rather than their academic background. The only major point of difference comes later when non-accounting graduates must take a conversion programme and pass additional exams in order to obtain their professional qualification.
Mr Ng became a chartered accountant within the standard three years and, in 1986, was promoted to audit manager. His responsibilities then involved supervising the audit of privately owned and publicly listed companies in the real estate, hotel and tourism industries.
Family ties brought him back to Hong Kong in 1991 as a senior audit manager in charge of Horwath's day-to-day operations. In handling these, he adopted work procedures and audit practices from the UK and applied them to improve the performance of the Hong Kong office. His own career developed steadily along with the growth of the firm.
"Accounting, audit and taxation services are involved in every corner of the business world," Mr Ng says. This diversity allowed him to contribute to many sectors of the business community and get a close-up view of the trends and activities that were driving the economy's expansion. He found that this, plus the chance to foster the next generation of accounting professionals, provided a major source of job satisfaction.
"My current target is to keep enhancing the technical competence of our staff and to win high-profile clients. They, in turn, will help in attracting more talented recruits to join the firm," he says.
With the trend towards globalisation, business transactions are becoming more complicated and need to be monitored more closely. That has increased the pressures and possible risks for accountants, who may have to assume perhaps disproportionate responsibilities if financial statements they prepared or reported on are subsequently proved to be misleading.
Mr Ng mentions that this has obliged auditors and accountants to adopt a new approach. Rather than simply checking accounting records and supporting documents, they are now expected to carry out an in-depth review and analysis of the client's overall accounting system and internal control procedures. Much greater emphasis is also put on risk assessment.
Besides that, all accountants have to keep up with technical developments and new regulations affecting the profession. In particular, they require a thorough understanding of the international financial reporting standards which are increasingly applied for cross-border transactions.
Almost all accounting firms grant their staff study leave and education allowances. Horwath has invested heavily in staff training and development. Recently, they set up a spacious new facility and are recruiting a head of technical and training to oversee programmes for staff.
These are sure to include courses about the emerging mainland market, which is still characterised by differences in accounting practices, attitudes to work and styles of management. "However, it is now inevitable that anyone who works for an international accounting firm in Hong Kong will be expected to travel to China," says Mr Ng. He estimates that Horwath's professionals already spend 30 per cent or more of their time across the border.
The firm has an extensive mainland network and was the first international accounting group approved by China's Ministry of Finance to operate full member firms back in 1994. It is also one of the few foreign consultants for the Audit Standards Committee of the Chinese Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
Rapid business growth has created substantial demand for accountants, and those with three to six years' experience are most sought after. According to Mr Ng, salary levels in this bracket have gone up by 20 to 40 per cent, while pay for graduate trainees has increased by around 10 per cent.
He adds that a successful career in the field is built on the "6P" qualities-being proactive, professional, passionate, positive, proficient and persevering. Furthermore, young accountants should have foresight, take a long-term approach and realise the importance of good analytical, communication and interpersonal skills.
"Competition will increase from qualified accountants in China, so it is vital to maintain an edge by improving language proficiency and continuing to gain knowledge of China and international business," Mr Ng says.
- Accountants and auditors now have to focus more on analysis
and risk assessment
- The profession is seeing strong demand for new recruits
and salary levels are rising
- Staff in Hong Kong will spend much of their time working
on China-related business
- International financial reporting standards are bringing
change and improvements