People unfamiliar with the intricacies of the accounting profession might think of it as a dull occupation mainly involving ledgers full of profit-and-loss figures. Such old-fashioned ideas are absurd when we consider the sophisticated range of professional services provided by accountancy firms today, helping businesses of every size and category.
One of the watersheds for the profession in Hong Kong came in the 1980s, when a series of large corporations and banks collapsed, recalls Alan Tang, partner, specialist advisory services, Grant Thornton. "Before these incidents, accountants were mainly responsible for accounting, audit and taxation. But with rising complexities of accounting issues in doing business, the relationship between accounting firms and their clients has widened into a far more positive advisory role. Then, there emerged a far bigger role in management consultancy and corporate secretarial services as professional accounting and financial advice become more significant over the full spectrum of many business activities."
Over the years, the consultative role of accountants has been fine-tuned in Grant Thornton International, evolving into an important area of specialist advisory services (SAS). Grant Thornton Hong Kong has four SAS divisions: business risk services that help clients minimise risk by providing an array of solutions such as internal control and corporate governance; corporate finance and due diligence services that take up the role as lead advisers in acquisitions, divestitures and fund-raising; forensic and investigation services that offer practical and unbiased opinions in cases involving regulatory disputes, fraud investigations, civil or criminal proceedings; and recovery and reorganisation services that identify and solve potential operational or financial problems to avoid distressed situations for companies or individuals.
Currently the head of restructuring, investigation and insolvency, Mr Tang began his career in the UK, was re-located to Hong Kong in the mid-80s and has built up over 20 years' experience in handling major assignments. With his expertise in recovery and reorganisation (R&R), he regularly gives advice on the dissolution, liquidation or restructuring of PRC foreign investment enterprises. He has also taken up formal insolvency appointments under the laws of various "tax haven" countries.
"SAS is challenging," Mr Tang points out. "It involves a lot more than simply dealing with figures. For example, the R&R team often handles the complexities involved in restructuring an enterprise, or outright insolvency. This in turn also requires a wide spectrum of other expertise including investigation, litigation support, financial due diligence review, business valuation, business monitoring and viability studies.
"One case stands out － when we were appointed Receiver and Manager of a garment business with several factories in Hong Kong and China plus a dozen of retail shops in Hong Kong. Our duty was to ensure that revenue would continue to be generated so that the payroll could be met. We had to monitor the business closely, and make the appropriate operational decisions to keep the business running," Mr Tang says. "As part of our involvement, our team had to visit the factories and shops, meet the employees and get a real grasp of the garment industry during those troubled days."
SAS accountants also face stressful situations at times. Due to the nature of their work, legal issues and procedures are part of the daily routine with SAS. For example, accountants are called as expert witnesses in court cases and must give evidence from their professional perspectives. Mr Tang notes, "Such cases involve large amounts and complicated issues, and the opposing barristers will try to mislead or distract you by rephrasing the same questions over and over until they get their desired answer. Such situations are quite dramatic as in a TV series, but it is often stressful when the case is a real one where somebody highly skilled in legal interrogation places you under great pressure."
"For some cases, we must go through thousands of boxes of documents," he continues. "Junior staff carry out the primary sorting procedures, reading the files page by page. So that they don't miss any useful information, they must pay full attention when scrutinising each document, and employ their analytical powers. Although they may be relatively lower-ranked employees, their work is crucial to the whole team's investigations and success."
Presentation and communication skills are of great importance in SAS inquiries since the team must deal with different people like clients and other professionals. Moreover, to avoid legal complications arising from formal and informal correspondence, SAS members should be able to communicate clearly and accurately. For this reason, candidates with good skills in English and Chinese tend to be more suitable for these positions.
The staff turnover rate in Grant Thornton's SAS division is relatively low, says Mr Tang. Besides monetary rewards, the firm offers young achievers good career paths. Comprehensive in-house training programmes for newcomers are tailored to suit different levels of professional knowledge and experience, with subsidies being granted for external courses.
To share his experience, Mr Tang wrote "Insolvency in China and Hong Kong" in 2005, a book that emphasises the more practical aspects of coping with insolvencies. It also gives readers a clear insight into the relevant areas of insolvency practice by tracing the historical development of insolvency law and practice. Where there are controversial and developing ideas and practices, Mr Tang states his views on such topics, based on his massive experience over the years.