Whether setting up a small business or running a large-scale international enterprise, modern-day executives must uphold high standards of corporate governance and ensure that operations and administrative practices comply with all the relevant rules and regulations.
Initial responsibility for this often rests with the company secretary. This individual must therefore be qualified to handle issues which may range from legal and accounting matters to corporate reorganisation, training, and communication with government departments and regulatory bodies. The role has become especially important in recent times with the introduction of new legislation designed to tighten controls and create greater transparency in all corners of the business world.
With over 25 years of experience, Samantha Suen, managing director of KCS Limited, has enjoyed a stellar career specialising in this area of corporate services. Encouraged by her family, she initially took a higher diploma in Chartered Secretaryship and Administration at the Hong Kong Polytechnic and, upon graduation, started work as a company secretarial assistant with an international firm of accountants. Two years there provided comprehensive training in a range of principles and practices, and she was able to add to this when, seeking to broaden her horizons, she moved on to work for a law firm.
This not only provided the chance to improve her understanding of legal issues by interacting with lawyers on a daily basis, but also brought her into regular contact with clients from different countries and sectors. The experience gained in the course of four years equipped Ms Suen for a position as legal affairs manager with a multinational electronics company, which was her next stop.
There are plenty of job opportunities with professional firms, listed companies, or even the government
"It was a challenging job, but I started to miss the variety of clients you deal with in a professional firm," she recalls. Therefore, after careful consideration, she decided to join another international CPA firm as the director of its company secretarial department. The next four years involved a substantial increase in responsibilities. Apart from bringing herself up to speed with related regulations and practices, Ms Suen also had to manage day-to-day operations and business development.
A brief break followed to concentrate on family life before she returned to the fray as a manager in one of the Big Four accounting firms. This led to positions as a principal in the corporate secretarial division and then as managing director, when the division became an independent organisation separate from the parent firm's main audit-related business.
Ms Suen now has overall management responsibility for the development of KCS in Hong Kong and China, and has overseen the recent opening of offices in Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen. Consequently staff training, for which she assesses needs and determines the direction, is high on her agenda. The daily routine usually entails internal management meetings, updating colleagues on the latest legislative or regulatory changes, maintaining close contact with clients, and attending business and social functions. Ms Suen is also a leading member of the Hong Kong Institute of Chartered Secretaries and has dedicated herself to enhancing the level of professionalism in the field.
"I am constantly working to improve my own level of knowledge as well," she notes. "As the company expands on the mainland, this may eventually mean relocating to China in order to better serve our clients there and to pick up more diverse knowledge and experience locally."
Given the increasing complexity of the regulatory environment, there is greater demand for qualified chartered secretaries. University graduates who are interested can now take a part-time master's degree in corporate governance at the Open University, City University or the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The Hong Kong Institute of Chartered Secretaries also offers examinations in various subjects for its students. They qualify after passing the stipulated exams and gaining relevant work experience. Newcomers usually start by working as secretarial assistants before moving up to officer and managerial grades.
According to Ms Suen, the work of a company secretary requires strong interpersonal skills, resilience, and an unswerving commitment to professional ethics. High-calibre candidates can look forward to very promising career prospects, since they are equipped with a wide range of skills and professional knowledge. "They have expertise in administration, management, accounting and the regulatory framework," Ms Suen explains. "There are plenty of job opportunities with professional firms, listed companies, or even the government."
Her advice to those contemplating a career in the field is to refine their communication and interpersonal skills, gain more exposure to the mainland, and look out for suitable internship opportunities. "Having more comprehensive corporate services is a global trend and many professional firms in Hong Kong are serving multinationals aiming to enter the mainland market," says Ms Suen. "Therefore, we have to keep abreast of changes to regulations in both Hong Kong and China."
Ms Suen points out that demand for company secretaries to work for mainland enterprises is likely to rise in the near future. Many businesses are in the process of preparing to list or are expanding as a result of acquisitions or through joint ventures with foreign investors.
Hong Kong-based providers of corporate services generally fill junior posts with recruits hired locally in the mainland, so professionals who are transferred tend to be of senior managerial grade. Salaries vary according to experience, the scope of responsibilities, and the individual company.