Rosy outlook for accountants

by Maggie Tang

Three leading accounting professionals outlined their areas of specialisation and the qualities needed to succeed at a recent seminar organised by Career Times on 25 July 2007

Morrison Chan, president, ACCA; financial controller, services and sales, Husky Injection Molding Systems China Limited
Photo: Wallace Chan

With Hong Kong's economy booming and an expanding financial sector, the audit and accounting industry is brimming with a host of varied opportunities for jobseekers. Three industry insiders, speaking at Career Times' recent seminar "The Accountant's Road to Success", gave their personal perspectives on the challenges and rewards of their individual sectors of the profession.

Accounting to society

Accountants play an important role in ensuring that corporations comply with accepted industry standards, Morrison Chan, president of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) Hong Kong and financial controller for services and sales, Husky Injection Molding Systems China Limited, told delegates.

Pointing out that an accountant's role is far greater than simply tracking companies' incomes and assets, Mr Chan noted that society is demanding increasingly higher standards of corporate governance. Referring to recent accounting scandals surrounding industry giants such as Enron, WorldCom and Global Crossing, he said that members of the public are well aware of the significance of ethical practice within the profession. Accounting professionals, therefore, must adhere to certain codes of ethics and help combat misdeeds such as inflating revenues and under-reporting expenses.

Investors, credit granters and employees expect accountants to be competent, reliable and neutral while professional accountants associations require members to maintain levels of self-discipline reaching beyond legal requirements.

"There is a definite link between accounting failures in high-profile cases and corporate governance," Mr Chan stated, saying that the majority of respondents in a recent survey indicated that good corporate governance could enhance the value of companies. "This increased demand for corporate governance is also a result of tightened regulatory needs," he remarked.

In order to align with International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), the Hong Kong government aims to continue improving the regulatory regime. Mr Chan added that Hong Kong's legislators recently established a Financial Reporting Council (FRC), an independent statutory body to investigate audit irregularities and accounting infractions.

As in mainland China, tax reforms also call for tightened controls over financial reporting. Mr Chan stressed that all these factors are driving the demand for talented accounting professionals, since companies need increased manpower to help them tackle the expanding array of compliance issues.

ACCA is Hong Kong's largest professional accountancy body and, in his capacity of president, Mr Chan elaborated on employment requirements and career prospects in the field. While technical knowledge and qualifications remain as important as ever, accountants also need management and people skills to excel. "Employers are looking for people who will add value to their companies and have both specialised and generalised knowledge. For instance, chief financial officers tend to be multi-talented and seasoned financial executives," he remarked.

When it comes to prioritising skills, Mr Chan noted that employers and employees don't always see eye to eye. Employers tend to seek management reporting skills, financial analysis and planning skills and personal effectiveness, in that order. Employees, however, perceive personal effectiveness to be the skill most desired by employers, with management reporting and financial analysis and planning skills coming second and third respectively. He advised jobseekers to bear this in mind in their quest to improve themselves.

Time to take stock

Ada Lam, audit partner
Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu
"Now is the best time to enter the accounting profession. The active stock markets in China and Hong Kong have accelerated demand for accounting professionals," said Ada Lam, audit partner of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu (Deloitte).

Ms Lam has extensive experience managing large-scale and complicated audit engagements for major Hong Kong and mainland-based listed companies. She added that there is "an acute shortage" of experienced, qualified accountants.

Explaining the difference between a career in industry and commerce and one in public practice (working for an audit firm), she said the former tends to provide more stable working hours than the latter. Accountants working in a specific industry usually find the work to be quite varied and tend to gain in-depth knowledge about that specific business, with opportunities for promotion.

Further, Ms Lam pointed out that accountants choosing to work for audit firms usually have a clear career path mapped out for them. At Deloitte, for example, new recruits join as associates, becoming senior associates after three years. After another two to three years, they generally become managers. This is followed by another three years to become senior manager and two to three more to become partners, if all goes smoothly. She stressed that audit firms, and particularly the industry leaders, strongly support continuous education for staff.

"Being a certified auditor commands respect because of our expert knowledge. This is very rewarding," Ms Lam remarked, adding that the biggest advantage of working for an audit firm is the foundation and training it provides, opening up a host of other opportunities.

"You learn how different businesses work since you spend a lot of time looking under the hoods of companies, and you get to understand what drives business and profits in a company," she pointed out.

Auditors working for reputable accounting firms are usually offered opportunities to work in China and other overseas locations along the way.

While a career in audit is lucrative and secure, it takes quality and commitment to excel in the industry. Ms Lam also noted a few key attributes:

  • Determination
  • Language
  • Interpersonal skills
  • International exposure
  • Willingness to continue learning
  • Ability to think outside the box
  • Commitment to succeed in the field
Stressing that different companies have varied cultures and client portfolios, she pointed out the importance of finding a suitable working environment. "You need clear vision and commitment to get to the top of the executive ladder," she concluded.

More than just numbers

Gary James, international tax partner
Grant Thornton
The role of a tax consultant is being mainly responsible for planning and advising from a tax perspective, involving anything from the restructuring of corporations and expatriate wealth planning to tax planning and mergers and acquisitions assistance, explains Gary James, international tax partner at Grant Thornton.

Though specialised in offshore and international tax planning himself, Mr James stressed that it is nearly impossible to become "an expert in tax", since it is such a broad field and different countries have different "rules of the game".

For this reason, accounting professionals specialising in tax do not have to come from any specific background. They do, however, require extremely specialised knowledge. "All businesses, especially cross-border operations, have to take tax issues seriously because of the complexities and costs involved," he said.

Mr James emphasised the fact that tax regimes and compliance regulations change rapidly and often, and corporate activities in one jurisdiction can have profound implications on tax liabilities in others. It is therefore the duty of tax specialists to help clients minimise their liabilities to deliver sound commercial benefits.

"Tax specialists always see things from a tax perspective," he said. "Typically, half their work is related to compliance; the rest is advisory. Therefore, the job requires both technical and people skills."

Tax consultants can specialise in roughly three areas: private practice such as expatriate tax planning, a specific industry, or jurisdiction. At Grant Thornton, tax specialists follow a mapped-out career path, from the position of assistant all the way up to partner.

Mr James noted that there is a trend towards increasing tax regulations, which in turn creates a growing demand for tax specialists. The industry is also now focusing more on risk management than on tax planning and the profession is moving towards a higher degree of specialisation. Working hours are increasing and clients are becoming more demanding.

He advised prospective tax accountants to carefully consider whether they want to specialise in any particular area before joining a firm and not to jump around between companies.

With an expanding, globalised economy, accounting is a profession without boundaries and limits, and a career in the field offers plenty of opportunity for overseas experience.

Mr James noted that the prerequisites for success are hard work, the determination to be principled and ethical, and the personal strength to confront the challenges of examinations and often difficult work.

Taken from Career Times 03 August 2007
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