Margaret W.S. Chan, the Institute’s new Chief Executive and Registrar, spent the first few months on the job talking to people about the challenges of the profession. She tells Jemelyn Yadao how now is the time to take action in areas such as strengthening the value proposition of the profession, energizing members in nurturing and retaining talent, Greater Bay Area opportunities, and improving the Institute’s member services
Photography by Calvin Sit
After leaving her previous job, Margaret W.S. Chan wanted to take some time off and maybe retire. But with a call from a headhunter, and her unwavering curiosity, plans changed.
“As an Institute member myself, I was interested to know more about the development of the profession so I went in for the interview,” says Chan, the new Chief Executive and Registrar of the Hong Kong Institute of CPAs. “I wanted to talk to stakeholders and others and they gave me a lot to think about. I thought that I would like to see whether I could do things in another way.”
Chan, who assumed the position in July, says the first three months at her new role has been all about building relationships and laying the groundwork for future major achievements. “What I’ve been trying to do is get to know people by meeting with them so that they can tell me how they think the Institute can do better. I’ve been engaged in a lot of communication with staff, committee members and members-at-large, and this has made me realize how very energetic the profession is. We contribute a lot to the community but, of course, we are facing a lot of challenges. There’s a lot we can do better to bring the Institute and the wider membership forward in facing these challenges.”
The Institute’s series of members’ forums held last month was particularly useful in opening up an honest discussion on how the body can improve. “I heard directly from members and from there I understood what the key focuses should be,” she recalls. Based on views shared, the Institute is working on specific goals, which will be incorporated into a strategic plan, says Chan. “Members’ suggestions, in areas like public perception of the profession, improving members’ welfare and wellbeing, how we can do better as a regulator, helps me to set the plan for our upcoming strategy.”
The forums are just a starting point. Chan views it as her goal to hear all segments of the Institute’s diverse membership. “I could only get to 900 people through the forums – we have more than 44,000 members. I would like to see more engagement between us and different groups of membership. Sometimes, getting to them is very difficult.
“I have always been a professional accountant in business (PAIB) myself and I didn’t really go to the Institute because my organizations had continuing professional development (CPD) programmes for me, so my interaction with the Institute were limited to the annual renewal process. There’s a huge gap,” she says. “We want PAIBs to know what we are doing for them and for the profession. And if they have any news and views on the challenges they face, we certainly would like to hear them because the profession now is changing very fast.”
Hong Kong’s audit regulation reform has passed the regulation of public interest entity auditors to the independent Financial Reporting Council (FRC). The FRC also has oversight of certain Institute functions, the arrangements of which Chan was also involved in negotiating, leading to the agreed statement of protocol. “Going forward we need to work with them on how to implement the oversight arrangement in line with our statement of protocol and work together to ensure the standards of auditors as a whole.”
“There’s a lot we can do better to bring the Institute and the wider membership forward in facing these challenges.”
Chan recognizes that one of the challenges of the profession is the difficulties in attracting and retaining talent. “This is happening in all industries because we are talking about a generation of people who may have different aspirations in life rather than in work.”
Taking more of an interest in human resources could help CPAs effectively tackle the issue, Chan believes. “We should help train our members to communicate with and engage their staff through soft skills. The target is not to make people stay at a company for life but to make them more aware of what they can learn from the job, which adds value to their career. I think this learning capability and aspiration can better attract younger generations,” she says. “Of course, we understand that SMEs and SMPs have a lot of imminent business challenges so they might not be able to focus on the area. We will need to keep an active dialogue with them on how we can help in various ways.”
While the Institute already organizes CPD courses covering soft skills, Chan would like to see more focused on HR and mentoring. “I have gone through that process myself,” says Chan, whose previous role as director of corporate services at the Hong Kong Housing Society also covered HR. “I was not involved in HR before I joined the Housing Society. There were a lot of soft skills areas, such as building the company culture and engaging with staff to perform, which we needed to devote time to in order to maintain a stable and cohesive workforce. The least we can do is make staff understand that we value them through having programmes that bring people together, and helping them understand the direction of the organization. Based on surveys, people value this.”
The reputation of the profession is another area of concern amid recent media reports around the world of accounting and tax scandals. “I know audit firms try their best to put internal control systems and frameworks in place to mitigate the risk of not finding issues during their audits. Of course, scandals are not good for the profession’s image, so we need work closely with the firms to find out what the challenges are and ways to mitigate them,” she says. “It’s not something that will go away easily because the business environment is getting more complex.”
When it comes to enhancing the CPA image in general, Chan would like the “Accountant Plus” message further emphasized to the public, highlighting “that there is more to accounting than just accounting,” she says. “After qualifying, I see a lot of people moving on to cover other areas such as IT, governance, compliance and risk management. Those are the areas I think accountants can add value.”
She adds that people should know how the qualification can boost a person’s learning and development capabilities. “This capability and general business understanding of CPAs allows us to expand into different areas.”
Margaret W.S. Chan has over 30 years of experience in accounting and finance, and was previously director of corporate services at the Hong Kong Housing Society.
“The target is not to make people stay at a company for life but to make them more aware of what they can learn from the job, which adds value to their career.”
A new level
This year marks the launch of the new Qualification Programme (QP), which Chan believes couldn’t be more timely. It offers alternative pathways and greater flexibility for students with non-accounting majors to become CPAs. Based on her previous experience, Chan notes that the younger generation tend to pick a university degree based on their interests and think about their long-term careers later on. “After they graduate or after they have been working for a while, they might eventually decide to pursue this path, so the new Associate Level of the new QP allows them to join as student members and pick up the basic skills. I think it’s a very good programme, tailored to the current situation.”
She believes the new Associate Level could also potentially help solve the turnover problem of junior accounting staff. “Not everyone who completes that level wants to progress to the Professional Level. For small- and medium-sized businesses, we may need people with accounting knowledge to perform some core functions and stay with the organization for a long enough time.”
Sustainability in mind
The Institute, Chan says, will continue to advocate on issues affecting the profession, and ensure the views and concerns of members are effectively expressed on the global stage. One area she sees the Institute being increasingly vocal about is sustainability. “There are other organizations we think we can build a closer relationship with, such as Accounting for Sustainability (A4S). We can gain more access to what is happening outside and give them our Hong Kong perspective. A4S came for a roundtable meeting this month to see if they can get some concrete support from CFOs in Hong Kong.”
As well as its role in thought leadership, Chan sees the Institute playing an important part in forming an alliance among members and stakeholders in order to push initiatives or ideas forward. “Sustainability, for example, needs a lot of effort. Environmental, social and governance reporting might sound easy but if you need to implement it you need to align your processes, your reporting and people need to buy in because there would be extra resources involved. For accountants as well, it’s about collecting new data, not just financial data. Everybody needs to be aligned on why they are doing what they’re doing.”
Chan wants to move away from vague discussions about the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, and help identify and develop concrete business opportunities for members. “A lot of members say that they don’t need more talks about it, they want to see some results,” she says.
The Institute set up the Greater Bay Area (GBA) Committee in August. Members of the committee work on how to better serve Institute members in, for example, setting up an office in the GBA, and understanding the types of work Institute members can do there without Chinese Institute of Certified Public Accountants exam requirements. “There are Mainland cities that have arranged some highly subsidized workplaces that Hong Kong people can use. So we are gathering information and seeing if we can work out a pilot with one or two members to determine how they can establish a workplace there,” she says.
“We also understand individual cities may have good transport subsidies for people travelling back and forth between Hong Kong and a Mainland city. Can we make use of that and are we going to see other cities to have similar programmes? This is what we are trying to explore.”
Building a closer relationship with officials in the GBA is also crucial, and that will happen at the appropriate time, she says.
Chan majored in finance and minored in accounting at university and has CPA qualifications from both Hong Kong and Australia.
“Members need to continue to learn and we want them to. It’s a matter of whether we can deliver the right training to them.”
Chan developed a business sense at a young age, helping her parents run a small Shanghainese restaurant in Kowloon. “I spent all my holidays there and needed to work in all areas – I served the food, washed dishes and did a little bit of the cooking, mainly noodles. My accounting experience started from sitting at the cashier all day,” she laughs.
“I knew having a business degree would be useful to me, so I majored in finance and minored in accounting at university. My first job was at the accounting department of Bank of China (BOC) group, converting manual processes into IT systems.”
She later on moved to Australia where she obtained her CPA Australia qualification, before moving back to Hong Kong and gaining her Institute qualification, which, she says, has been extremely beneficial to her career development. “I’m glad I got it and got it early,” she says. “Even if someone has moved up to C-level, they would need to understand accounting to be able to read through the numbers to explain things and know about what drives the company performance. You can’t just rely on your CFO to tell you about it. If you don’t learn it early, you’ll need to later on.”
After BOC, Chan moved to the credit card industry, working for American Express. “I felt that I needed more exposure,” she says. She then joined the Land Fund Trust, set up before the 1997 handover. Upon the establishment of the Special Administrative Region (SAR) in July 1997, the assets of the land fund were vested in the Hong Kong government. “We managed half of the land premium that the then Hong Kong government got from land sale and then handed it over to the current SAR government,” Chan says. “We were basically an asset management house but the fund source is different from other companies. So I got involved in investment, we set investment strategies, employed external fund managers, and we had in-house investment professionals. It was all very interesting.”
After the handover, the fund was managed by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority so she worked there before rejoining the banking industry, just before the Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) system came into operation. “The banking group wanted to establish their own MPF business so I joined the group to help set it up. We did all the preparatory work in terms of setting up a trustee company and an asset management company for the MPF business,” she explains. “Just when the business kick-started, I joined the Housing Society.”
Chan joined the public housing provider in 2000. Her role as director of corporate services saw her in charge of not just HR but also information technology and corporate secretariat. Eventually she became the director of corporate planning and finance. “It is a statutory organization like the Institute. It is governed by committee, and it works with members to form the strategies and direction for the whole organization.”
Transitioning from the numbers-driven investment industry to the Housing Society’s way of working was eye-opening for Chan. “It’s a whole different ball game. That is where my soft skills worked for me. In investment, you don’t need to explain much, the numbers speak for themselves. But at the Housing Society, we had to find a way to serve Hong Kong people in terms of housing and there are a lot of ways, and how we measure it is difficult to quantify.”
An ongoing challenge was ensuring organization-wide goal alignment. “With some projects, for example elderly housing, we were not measuring profit and loss, we had other key performance indicators. That was something we needed the whole organization to understand otherwise some colleagues will struggle and ask why on some days we talk about social projects and others its financial targets? We needed people to know performance is important, be in financial or non-financial.
“There were a lot of people projects that I was highly involved in. Those were very good experiences that help me understand people better, and understand different perspectives.”
An avid learner
Chan loves spending her free time outdoors, whether it’s doing hiking, outdoor photography or bird watching. “Now is a very good season for bird watching but I don’t have much time to go out,” she says, noting that Hong Kong has a more than 500 species of birds. “Of course, some are migrating birds so they just come during the winter season. So if you have the time, go out, open your eyes and you will find a lot.”
Her interest in birds surged after curiosity hit once again. “I would hear different bird sounds outside and it made me think, ‘what bird is that? how is it different from the other birds?’ so I joined the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society and took a course.”
Indeed, Chan is a proud life-long learner. “It’s why I believe CPD is the most important member experience with us,” she says. “Members need to continue to learn and we want them to. It’s a matter of whether we can deliver the right training to them, and identify the right areas that are relevant for them to continue to learn.”