As China continues to open the door to foreign trade and investment, companies are expanding aggressively, resulting in unprecedented demand for all types of professional financial advice. In particular, there are huge growth opportunities in mainland China for accounting firms with their range of audit, tax and business consultancy services. All signs indicate that demand will only increase and accountants with an eye on long-term career development are, therefore, being encouraged to "go north".
Local Chinese companies require expert assistance in everything from tax planning and financial reporting to risk management and process improvement as they seek to attract investment capital. Many now have ambitions to obtain local or overseas listings, improve corporate governance or partner with foreign companies but they need to be in good financial shape to do so.
Multinationals, in contrast, are keen to break into the China market. They require help in understanding how things work, the regulations and corporate practices as well as analysis of company data to assess opportunities and risks before making any firm commitment.
KPMG, as a leading provider of audit, tax and advisory services, has seen these changes coming and has been rapidly expanding in China. It currently has over 3,000 professionals located in six major cities and is continuing to recruit in the region. "Each year, we hire several hundred graduates from major universities in Hong Kong and China as accountants and tax or financial consultants," says Margaret So, resourcing manager for KPMG, adding that the Big Four accounting firms are already among the biggest employers in Hong Kong.
In addition to graduates, KPMG also has openings for experienced professionals with three years' or more relevant experience. The firm focuses on a candidate's capabilities rather than background, degree taken or where they qualified. As a result, there is competition between Hong Kong and mainland residents plus those from overseas for any positions available in China.
KPMG's UK practice will, for example, recruit and train Chinese graduates from universities in the UK. They work first in Britain to gain the sort of experience and knowledge they can later put to good use when they return to China. Also, professionals from Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and the US are currently on assignment in China adding considerable intellectual capital. "We find the best results come from the synergy of talent of people with different backgrounds and expertise," says Ms So.
When selecting candidates to take up positions in China, Ms So follows certain key criteria. Firstly, they should be certified public accountants (CPAs) with four to seven years' experience in international accounting firms. Possessing an additional Chinese professional accounting qualification is a definite advantage, while knowledge of and experience in China taxation matters is preferred.
Personal qualities are also important. When moving north for career development, a person should have an enquiring mind, be forward-looking and open to change. "There is no point looking back and comparing with what has gone before. Focus on the new experience in China," advises Ms So.
Although people are now more willing to travel or be stationed in China, they should also be far-sighted and have a comprehensive worldview. "For example, China is so large you should never just focus on Beijing and Shanghai but should consider unexplored opportunities such as western China," Ms So recommends. "It is essential for success to be a pioneer and leader, even if it implies greater challenges."
In the business of accounting and financial services, especially in China, communication and interpersonal skills are crucial. Fluency in Cantonese, Mandarin and English is regarded as a must and, when dealing with clients, good negotiation skills are also needed. Individuals should be hardworking, proactive and able to multitask, meet deadlines and work well under pressure.
The most common issues for expatriates in China are not job-related but arise from adapting to a different culture and lifestyle. "They need to be interested in learning about and respecting local practices in China," Ms So explains.
Hardship allowances are no longer offered for those working on the mainland. Instead, KPMG provides a lump-sum relocation payment which allows expatriates to decide on their own expenses. "This enables staff to have greater flexibility and benefit from certain tax advantages," says Ms So. "They can choose to spend more on accommodation, education and other daily needs which may be deducted from chargeable income."
Nowadays, the huge potential of the China market offers great prospects for career advancement. Some of KPMG's current partners in China were originally managers in Hong Kong and among the first to migrate to the mainland about four years ago. The opportunities they had have meant faster promotions and a more challenging route for career development.
They have enjoyed wider exposure and the chance to experience significant personal growth. "The greater the challenge, the better training it offers," says Ms So.
"Expatriate experience, especially in a tough environment, makes people stronger, more mature and more capable when handling problems."