As one of Mazars’ partners under 40, Paul She’s career is notable as much for its swift ascent as it is for his deep commitment to building a pipeline of prospective accountants. He tells Liana Cafolla about how he is helping future CPAs be ready for anything
Photography by Calvin Sit
When it was time for Paul She to choose a career, the accounting profession was not seen as a desirable choice. “When I graduated, the economy was adversely affected by 9/11 and the Enron case,” recalls She, a Hong Kong Institute of CPAs member. “People were questioning if accounting was a profession worthy of respect.” The pay was also not a big draw. “At that time, for some of my friends from university who joined local firms, the average starting monthly salary was only HK$7,000.”
Despite all of this, She, influenced by accountants who visited his secondary school and their professional demeanours, became one of the youngest partners in Mazars at the age of just 31.
Since graduating from Hong Kong Polytechnic University in 2002 as one of the top students with a bachelor’s degree in accountancy, She’s focus on building a career as an accountant has been unwavering. Immediately after graduating, he joined Moores Rowland, a firm that merged with Mazars. He has stayed with the firm ever since and is now, at 38, Practising Director at Mazars Hong Kong and Partner in Mazars Group. A founding member and former deputy convenor of the Institute’s Young Members Group, She is also the Deputy Chairman of the Institute’s Qualification and Examinations Board (QEB).
His clarity of focus in his career is rooted in the prodding he received from his parents, he says. Born in Mainland China, the family moved to Hong Kong when She was seven. “My family is quite traditional,” he says. “They hoped their child would be a professional. At that time, that meant either a doctor, a lawyer or an accountant. I was good at maths, so I became an accountant.”
As Mazars operates as an integrated partnership, sharing profits globally, and under the “par-in-par-out” concept of the partners’ equity, he did not have to pay a premium for the capital. “The entire philosophy is that we are building the firm for the next generations,” he explains. “This is the core value, and why I have stayed with the firm for 16 years, and that’s why I think I should do a little bit more for the development of the next generation accountants.”
Working in the audit department with a focus on capital markets, most of his clients are listed companies or companies preparing to be listed. She’s audit work take up around half of his working hours and is largely a client-facing role that includes signing off on initial public offerings (IPOs) as the reporting accountants.
He believes the future for successful firms will lie in identifying and securing new markets, whether geographically or in new economy industries, such as FinTech. In seeking to strengthen Mazars’ capital markets business, She has been given a free hand by the firm to carve out a niche focusing on Southeast Asian listings. About three years ago, he began sending the firm’s young accountants to work in new markets for the firm and develop connections in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia with a focus on information technology and FinTech companies. “Professional connections have to start with networks. You have to start with trust, otherwise you can’t develop the business,” he says. “So far, the success has been pretty good.”
Prior to that, Hong Kong’s IPO focus was mainly on Mainland China, he says. “Now, it’s more international, more global. Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand – a lot of companies in these countries are now coming to Hong Kong for listing, because of Hong Kong’s efforts to make its capital markets more global and attract new markets for listing.”
“Equip yourself, and prepare yourself to be ready for the opportunities around you.”
When he is not working on audit, the remainder of his time is shared between leading a relatively young team inside the firm to develop and train the next generation of Mazars’ accountants and build the firm’s capital markets business, and his role on the QEB, working mainly on the new Qualification Programme (QP), which entered the implementation phase this year. The first examination session for the Associate Modules, the Professional Modules, and the Capstone will be held in June 2020, December 2020 and June 2021 respectively.
She took the first version of the QP in 2002, taking nine months to complete the course and came out the top student in both the financial reporting module and the final examination. He joined the QEB in 2012/2013 as a representative of young CPAs, where he worked in certain sub-groups which deal with the exam, practical experience as well as ongoing professional development for CPAs by making recommendations to the Institute on both ethical standards, technical skills and enabling competence enhancement. She focuses on ensuring that all aspects of a CPA’s skills are upgraded to meet the changing expectations of employers and stakeholders.
“We believe technical skills are just the entry requirement,” he explains. “We need more soft skills, such as leadership, management and business development to develop an all-rounded CPA. We also need client-facing skills as well as learning how to serve the firm’s management.”
Developing young accountants both within Mazars and the profession’s work that is clearly dear to She’s heart. “We’re trying to raise the entire public view of the profession,” he says. “I believe it’s very critical. I hope the new QP can develop a professional accountant who is able to think, to judge and also to apply with the highest ethical standards. There are a lot of CPAs, but not many qualified CPAs in terms of competence. I believe the new QP is one of the measures that will uplift the entire profession. I hope it really can achieve that.”
She’s own success in the profession and his work ethic set a high bar for the younger accountants in his team to follow.
His rise to partner at a young age is an example in point. “Some wait for a vacancy,” he says. “I tried to create that vacancy. When I was a manager, other than the good delivery of my work, I also thought about how to get new business and develop new markets. Beyond my responsibilities as a manager, I tried to behave like a partner.”
Firms are now making partners at a younger age, he points out, noting that Mazars now has three partners around the age of 40. Being a partner is not the culmination of his career, he says, and nor should others consider it to be. “Being a partner is just a starting point. For me, becoming a partner was just a start to be involved in the management of the firm.”
She is Deputy Chairman of the Institute’s Qualification and Examinations Board, responsible for the development of the new QP.
“There are a lot of CPAs, but not many qualified CPAs in terms of competence. I believe the new QP is one of the measures that will uplift the entire profession.”
His advice to those seeking to emulate is success is to be prepared and look for business in new areas such as IT, entertainment and media. “Equip yourself, and prepare yourself to be ready for the opportunities around you,” he says. “Some say there are not as many opportunities today, but I would say there are even more than in the past. The success of Hong Kong is because we are international. Young CPAs need to look more globally, or if not globally, at least regionally.”
Just because others seem to be making a beeline for Mainland China is not a good enough reason to follow their lead, he adds. “There are many firms already there. It’s important to seek out your own opportunities and look elsewhere.”
She’s greatest satisfaction comes from working with his team and helping them to develop themselves and share their successes. To help his younger colleagues develop a more proactive mind set, he gives them both power and authority. His aim is “not to protect them too much – give them space to make more decisions.”
That goes hand in hand with asking open-ended questions, an idea that She has also included in the new QP. “I keep asking ‘why?’ instead of ‘how?’” he says. “‘How’ is a technical judgment, but when you ask why, this makes them start to think and put themselves in other people’s shoes.”
She travels extensively in the region and when he is not working or away from home, he spends his time taking care of his family and enjoys chatting with them over meals.
She has been convinced of the importance of the profession throughout his career. Today, as talk has increasingly turned to how artificial intelligence (AI) may replace certain accounting tasks, he is confident that the profession’s core role is secure. “AI cannot replace us in making professional judgments, so AI may replace accounting, but not accountants,” he says. “I believe the future involves professional accountants. There are still many opportunities in the field.”
The same is true of Hong Kong’s role in a fast-changing world. “The core competitive edge of Hong Kong is we still have very strong capital markets,” he says. “That relies on lawyers, accountants, valuers – that is how we can maintain the social status of professional accountants.”
Mazars’ operations now include offices in 86 integrated countries and territories. This year, they finalized external growth operations in Italy, the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden and the United States.