As the mainland economy continues to boom, individuals and companies from all over the world are looking at how they can benefit, particularly from the maturing China taxation system.
After initially working in the UK as an auditor, Gary James, now an international tax partner at Grant Thornton Hong Kong, has become a specialist in such an area.
After graduating from university in the late 80s, Mr James worked for three years in an audit department, which helped him fulfil the requirements to attain his chartered accountant qualification. On qualifying, he decided to explore other options in the accounting profession. Particularly intrigued by the decision- and policy-making aspects of international tax accounting, Mr James shifted his focus to taxation, working in Newcastle upon Tyne, the financial enclave of Guernsey in the British Channel Islands, and London.
While in Guernsey, Mr James began specialising in international tax for high-net-worth individuals and companies. His clients were typically European-based and he advised them on international tax issues, especially trust and compensation issues.
Having a strong background in his field and ready for advancement, Mr James was recruited by Grant Thornton Hong Kong in 1998. With a staff of about 780 in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, the partnership offered him a new challenge in a somewhat unfamiliar location. He shifted his concentration from managing mostly European-based clients to more corporate planning in the Asia-Pacific region, specifically in China, from both a commercial and tax perspective. In 2004, his hard work and dedication further paid off when he was offered a partnership position. "Just three years ago we had only about 210 staff in Hong Kong and mainland China, so the growth has been phenomenal, as well as challenging", says Mr James.
The rapid growth in mainland China and its accession to the WTO has had, and continues to have, a major impact on the international arena. Enterprises from the US to Taiwan, Australia and Hong Kong are all eager to profit from the market they see as offering the best opportunities globally. Unlike a few years back, when foreign investors were only allowed to invest in China under heavy restrictions and by setting up new joint ventures or foreign invested entities, tax specialists such as Mr James are now able to help these enterprises gain immediate access to the market.
"People are eager to invest," Mr James says. The bulk of his work comes through external referrals from the international network, which is in constant need of cross-border advice. "Multinationals wanting to do business on the mainland typically invest in the manufacturing, real-estate, hotel, leisure or social services sectors," he says. "A major part of my role is to help these companies expand their businesses in China. About 75 per cent of my work revolves around US companies wanting to invest in China, on both personal and corporate levels."
When you hail from a European background and deal with an international array of clients all keen to do business in the Asia-Pacific region, differences in language and culture can present challenges, but, Mr James says, they never hinder his daily routine. On an average day his primary duties fit into three distinct categories: dealing with clients, management and supporting the firm's international network. There are also plenty of opportunities for him to get out of the office. "During the second half of last year, I spent a considerable amount of my time travelling abroad, including New York, Sydney, Singapore, London and Kuala Lumpur," he says. Mr James even finds time to write marketing literature, give speeches and organise technical meetings and training events for staff.
Reflecting on his shift in focus within the profession, Mr James explains, "Like many fresh graduates, I didn't know what I wanted to do until I explored a little bit. It takes time. It's really about being given the opportunity." To candidates interested in the profession, his advice is that a degree is just one aspect of the picture. "The most important thing the profession looks for from a new recruit is excellent interpersonal skills," he stresses. "It's a people-orientated profession."