Variety is the spice of life for public accountants

by Ella Lee

Doris Poon (left), director, China services; Joanne Hung, assurance manager, Grant Thornton
Photo: Edde Ngan

Challenges and opportunities go hand in hand

Qualified accountants who work in public practice can be sure of two things — they will have the chance to work with clients in a wide range of industries; and their professional services will always be in great demand.

Joanne Hung, the assurance manager for Grant Thornton, already has almost 10 years' experience in public practice and still finds the work challenging and exciting. "If there is a trade-off," she says, "it is that you have to be prepared to work hard and be busy almost all the time."

The firm's China services director, Doris Poon, confirms those observations. Her own role is as a business consultant as well as an auditor, and this has allowed her to extend her horizons through advising clients on such areas as initial public offerings and financial due diligence for corporate mergers or acquisitions.

"Even in China, there are different cultural aspects and business practices for us to learn about," says Ms Poon. "It is very interesting to meet so many people and get to understand the characteristics of the different cities and provinces."

Ms Poon is based in Hong Kong but is currently responsible for the firm's Shenzhen and Guangzhou offices. This necessitates frequent travel to southern China to oversee progress and help out international clients. They may require advice, for example, on establishing representative offices or joint ventures, reviewing internal financial controls, or completing due diligence checks. If dealing with Chinese enterprises, she may be asked about seeking funds for expansion or preparing for a public listing outside the mainland.

Accountants need the appropriate knowledge, as well as some exposure to the international business environment

Fast growth

With China now occupying such an important place in the global economy, Ms Poon expects the need for accounting and business advisory services to keep growing fast. She says there will undoubtedly be a substantial amount of work available for Hong Kong-trained accountants, but warns they should be ready for two major challenges.

Firstly, they should be ready to deal with the different technical standards - IFRS (International Financial Reporting Standards), HKFRS (Hong Kong Financial Reporting Standards) and PRC GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles in China). Although China is now committed to convergence with IFRS, there is not yet a fixed timetable for implementing the internationally accepted code. Secondly, there is the challenge of getting used to differences in culture and management practices.

"If people don't understand the reasons or requirements for international reporting standards, they may be very slow responding to your questions," Ms Poon says. "As a result, you may need the patience to explain things and develop cooperation and mutual understanding."

At present, the accounting profession in Hong Kong is finding it almost impossible to hire enough recruits. According to data published by HKICPA, there are in total about 8,000 entry-level vacancies a year, but only around 6,000 graduates applying for them. The competition for accountants with three to six years' experience and an international outlook is said to be even more intense.

International experience

"Because of the trend towards globalisation, Chinese companies are looking to expand overseas and to establish strategic alliances with international business partners and investors," Ms Hung explains. "Therefore, accountants need the appropriate knowledge, as well as some exposure to the international business environment."

She advises graduates to bear this in mind and says they should also be prepared to work hard, act independently, and take the initiative to solve problems for clients. "With things so busy, they can't wait for guidance and assistance in everything," she says.

Ms Poon adds that this approach also helps graduates to build self-confidence and ensures they have the determination to succeed in the long run.

To keep up to date with local and international market changes, it is possible to rely on the firm's training and technical departments, as well as the assistance of professional associations.

Both Ms Hung and Ms Poon are committed to developing their careers with the firm and see the mainland as offering almost unlimited opportunities in the years ahead.

Salient points

  • Wide variety of work and broad exposure for accountants in public practice
  • Demand for services in mainland China is driving growth
  • Accountants must adapt to different standards and cultural norms
  • Overall shortage of accountants; those with three to six years' experience are most sought after
  • International experience is seen as a valuable asset

Taken from Career Times 27 October 2006
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