Liana Cafolla meets Pat Nie Woo, Partner, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility at KPMG China, an Institute member with an offbeat career path and an unabating passion for helping businesses become more sustainable
Photography by Calvin Sit
Pat Nie Woo serves on the Hong Kong Financial Services Development Council and Green Finance Task Force to drive the development of green and responsible finance in the region.
Pat Nie Woo has a clear memory of the day he qualified as an accountant. The year was 1999, and he was on assignment for KPMG in Korea when he heard the very welcome news that he had passed the qualification exams. “I was very happy about it,” recalls Woo, Partner, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at KPMG China, and a Hong Kong Institute of CPAs member. “I just felt great.”
It had not been an easy road. Woo had studied during evenings and weekends, and had taken the exams over a two-year period while working full-time during the busy season. For a man who describes himself as not much of an academic, the achievement was the culmination of a lot of hard work.
Looking back now, he says it was sheer grit and perseverance that kept him going from one exam to the next. “From what I hear, grit is one of the key success factors,” he says. “It’s not your IQ. It’s just sticking with something. Fortunately, I did have it at that point in my career.”
From the vantage point of his 20-odd year career, the CPA qualification has served him well and he advises others to pursue a similar path. Woo says young people in their 20s should aim to build themselves a strong foundation for their future careers, even if they’re not sure yet where they are headed.
“Accounting is an excellent place to start,” he says. “Having got that done early on in my career, I’ve never been afraid of any numbers. As with constructing a building, you don’t see the foundation, but that’s the most important part of the whole building. Having that firm foundation will give rise to a career of many possibilities later.”
Woo’s own path has taken him from KPMG to the family business and back again. After more than seven years with KPMG, he left the firm in late 2004 to join his family’s company, Central Textiles Group, a supply chain and textile business located in Hong Kong with operations in China. Over the next nine years, he began to explore and developed his knowledge of sustainable development. At the time, the concept of sustainability was still far from becoming the accepted ideal that it is today. “It was something that evolved, but I believed in it,” he says. “I really believe in it. That’s where the passion comes from, and that’s why I’m still doing it.”
Woo soon realized that it was not enough to implement sustainability within his own company. He needed to look beyond and include partners throughout the supply chain. In 2008, the company established a sustainable fashion business consortium involving 12 companies, and in the following year it received an award for its sustainability report from the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants.
“We were one of the very first supply chain manufacturing companies to issue a sustainability report,” he says. “That was the beginning of my understanding of sustainable development.”
“China expects Hong Kong to play that role of bringing best practices and risk management and all of that into the Belt and Road Initiative.”
His warmest memories are memories of the people he worked with and seeing their successes today. “The real highlights were that a number of the people working with me on sustainability are still today doing it,” he says. “We learnt it together and explored it together. It’s wonderful to see it continue.”
Within a few years, sustainable development had become more entrenched in government and business. In 2014, the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing was finalizing its consultation on guidelines for environmental, social and governance reporting, while at KPMG, the head of CSR had just left and the sustainability team was being reshuffled. The timing was fortuitous for Woo. With his knowledge of the area, he returned to take over the CSR role where he runs a small but growing team.
He is also a member of the firm’s China Steering Committee on Climate Change and Sustainability (CC&S) and a member of the KPMG Global CC&S network. Outside the firm, he is a member of the Hong Kong Financial Services Development Council (FSDC) and its Green Finance Task Force, which was set up to follow up on the Green Finance paper FSDC issued in 2016. The group was set up to identify strategic initiatives that Hong Kong can take to develop a vibrant green finance market (for more information about green finance, see here). He also works with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific, as part of their Sustainable Business Network Task Force on Banking and Finance.
Woo enjoys being part of these initiatives as he is able to give input into policy directions for the financial markets in Hong Kong and help in the development of a multi-stakeholder ecosystem for the future green and responsible investment market in the city and beyond.
Accounting and sustainability have now merged, says Woo, and sustainable development has become prominent among several leading Hong Kong businesses. The centrality of sustainable development in China’s policy agenda with its emphasis on the quality of growth and on the societal impact of development has pushed sustainability to the forefront in Hong Kong, he explains.
This has created a wide-ranging role for Woo in three main areas. Reporting to the firm’s managing partner for Hong Kong and regional senior partner, he coordinates the firm’s go-to-market activities. He also regularly sees clients to discuss sustainability issues and oversees the firm’s CSR in Hong Kong and China.
“Beijing’s policy direction has a significant emphasis on sustainability and the quality of the growth,” he says. “The majority of listed companies in Hong Kong have operations in China. This cannot be something that you ignore.”
In addition, the Belt and Road Initiative includes a focus on the export of professional services and best practices to encourage less developed countries to adopt clean technology and green finance from the outset.
“China expects Hong Kong to play that role of bringing best practices and risk management and all of that into the Belt and Road Initiative, and a good part of that is also the socio-economic impact and environmental protection,” says Woo.
Providing expertise in these areas requires capacity building. Last year, Woo helped the Hong Kong Management Association’s board of examiners to launch their sustainability award, which aims to encourage capacity building, help build skillsets and may lead to new training courses in related disciplines.
In tandem, new accounting methods are emerging for socio-economic and environmental evaluation. Woo points to KPMG’s True Value accounting system, which helps companies assess their impact on society and to use incentives such as clean energy tax breaks and adhere to green products standards and non-financial reporting requirements. KPMG has done a number of local projects using the true value methodology to help companies including a real estate investment trust understand their positive societal impact.
Another area where the overlap between accounting and sustainability is clearly seen is in the work of the G20 Financial Stability Board, which has set up a Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures chaired by Michael Bloomberg. The task force developed voluntary guidelines for companies to disclose the impact of climate-related risks such as extreme weather in their financial disclosures.
More than two hundred companies have already committed to support the recommendations. “That’s the real sweet spot for somebody like me – being able to help companies to work that out,” says Woo.
These areas comprise a natural extension of accounting expertise, he says, for those seeking a specialization and could become part of the building blocks of the CPA qualification.
“The institutional money is just going to ask more and more about the sustainability strategy of the organization, in particular with regulatory changes relating to global warming.”
Woo’s unusual career path has given him a dual vantage point of working both in practice and in business. While he has gained insights and valued experiences from both perspectives, he believes he is now in the environment that best suits his interests and personality.
“When I came back to KPMG, my world opened up again to a much broader view of business in general,” he explains. “I’m exposed to a lot of regulatory changes, business transformational cases, disruptive technology and innovation, changing tax laws, venture capital. Being at a firm like KPMG, really you can make anything happen if you want because there are so many different areas you can get involved in.”
That suits Woo very well, he adds. “I am, in general, more of a breadth person than a depth person, so I really appreciate having that very broad view of what’s really happening in the business community, not just in Hong Kong, not just in China but globally with the KPMG network,” he explains.
Outside of work, Woo is on the boards of several NGOs. He enjoys travel, eating out with his wife and playing football with his two sons, aged 10 and 12. He has taken part in hikes at KPMG. “I did my Oxfam Trailwalker in 2015. That was on my bucket list, so now that’s crossed off the list,” he says with a laugh.
Looking back over his career to date, he has the satisfaction of knowing that he left behind an acorn of sustainability at his family’s company that has continued to grow in his absence. The 12 companies in the original consortium have now increased to more than 40 members and of these, he says the most successful is the one that took sustainability seriously and led reforms from the chairman level.
That success has reinforced Woo’s belief in the positive benefits of CSR to companies. “They see CSR as a critical success factor for their industry and it has proven to be the case,” he says. “Once you are there, it gives you that credibility. Then you attract a different investor base, so the institutional money is usually much more willing to invest in these companies. And it’s just going to grow. The institutional money is just going to ask more and more about the sustainability strategy of the organization, in particular with regulatory changes relating to global warming.”
To succeed, companies need to align sustainability with their business strategy, and not lose faith in the ultimate benefit to their business. “What that tells me is there is a lot of foundational work you need to do,” says Woo. “You may think it’s not working in the initial stages. But once it comes in, you’re in the right place at the right time, with the right foundation. That’s where I would recommend companies to be. That’s where we’d like to see the Hong Kong-listed companies move towards, and there are a number who are already there.”
Woo was previously founder and chairman of the Sustainable Fashion Business Consortium, a group of Hong Kong-based companies in the textile and apparel sector committed to promoting and increasing the use of sustainable practices across the fashion supply chain.