A career in tax goes beyond crunching numbers and helping your company be tax efficient – it’s about helping others. Joseph Ho, ex-group head of tax, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa at British Telecommunications PLC, tells Jeremy Chan the key lessons he has learned so far as a young and ambitious tax expert, the countless opportunities for growth found within the field, and why being a true tax professional means taking a macro view of business
Photography by Calvin Sit
Of all the things that got Joseph Ho intrigued about the fascinating and ever-changing world of tax, it was doing charity work. Eager to dedicate his free time towards volunteering during his college days at the University of Toronto, he stumbled upon an opportunity to help low income families – many of them immigrants – file their income taxes. “Many of these families do not know how to file their own taxes. It’s also a more complicated process in Canada compared to Hong Kong,” says Ho, ex-group head of tax, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa at British Telecommunications PLC, or BT for short. “So when I saw this volunteer opportunity at a career centre, I applied for it right away.”
He spent the next few years visiting families around town and helping them file their taxes in the comfort of their homes. As Ho remembers, the most striking aspect about the experience wasn’t just the satisfaction that came with helping families in need, but the conversations he’d have with them during the whole process. “Sometimes they’d open up and talk about their family, kids or parents. I was really able to meet people from different backgrounds and hear their story,” he says. He recalls helping one Pakistani family who lived in India before emigrating to Canada. “They talked about the Pakistan-India conflict, how they dealt with their cultural differences, and yet, how similar they were to each other. Though I had never travelled to these places, it felt like I was able to travel the world through each story. It was all so interesting.”
During his last year of university, he applied for a summer internship at EY and, fortunately, his charity work did not go unseen. “The firm noticed my volunteer work in my CV and offered me an internship in corporate income tax in their Hong Kong office. In a way, that kickstarted my career in tax,” says Ho, a member of the Hong Kong Institute of CPAs.
A knack for tax
Ho, who flew back to Hong Kong from London in late February, had spent more than three years at BT. He spent over a year working at their London office, which is located a five-minute walk from the iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral.
BT was first incorporated in 1846 as the Electric Telegraph Company. It is the world’s oldest communications company and the first company to develop a nationwide communications network. The brand British Telecom was introduced over a century later in 1981, shortly before the company went public in 1984 on the London Stock Exchange. Today, it has operations in over 180 countries and is the largest provider of fixed-line, broadband, mobile services and subscription TV in the United Kingdom.
Ho joined as a regional senior tax manager in October 2017, and was promoted to his last role two years later and presented with the chance to work at their headquarters. As he recalls, he was immediately struck by how different life was when he first arrived. “The weather is totally different compared to Hong Kong, and most people prefer drinking tea with milk to coffee over there,” he laughs. “It’s a melting pot of people from all over the world, and there’s a very rich cultural mix within the company as well.”
Being stationed at the company’s headquarters, Ho adds, also meant a change in his role. “I had to start making decisions and solving problems from a more macro, global perspective,” he says. “As group head of tax, I looked after all things related to the tax function from an international perspective, which includes direct tax, indirect tax, restructuring and the business of our offices in 88 jurisdictions across Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa,” he says. “I needed to plan and engineer the tax risk reporting process in order to ensure we monitored and assessed the tax risk of each country. I provided input from a tax angle to our group’s initiatives and also ensured local tax managers implemented these initiatives accordingly. Back when I was a regional senior tax manager, I was more focused on local tax issues, such as tax filing, advisory and business transactions within jurisdictions such as Hong Kong, Mainland China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand.”
The most challenging aspect of his last role involved effectively communicating tax issues while, at the same time, building strong relationships with the company’s stakeholders. “I’m always prepared for them to ask ‘why?’” says Ho. “Tax professionals are subject matter experts, so a lot of the time, we give advice solely from a tax perspective. Since tax terminology and language is unique, unless you’re a tax or finance expert, you probably won’t understand it – and you won’t get your stakeholders’ buy in if you can’t get your message across.” This, Ho adds, required him to not only make complex tax jargon more accessible, but to also put himself in the shoes of stakeholders. “To have your stakeholders’ support until the end, you need to think about the tax and business impact before suggesting any ideas or solutions. That’s what I found to be the most challenging.”
“To have your stakeholders’ support until the end, you need to think about the tax and business impact before suggesting any ideas or solutions.”
Joseph Ho, ex-group head of tax, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa at British Telecommunications PLC, looked after the direct tax, indirect tax, restructuring and business of its offices in 88 jurisdictions across Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.
From Brexit to BEPS 2.0
Ho explains how Brexit – which saw the U.K. withdrawing from the European Union on 31 December 2020 – affects how goods would be transported from the U.K. to E.U. countries. “Before Brexit, when goods were shipped from the U.K. to other E.U. countries, there was a lot less documentation and paperwork to file since the U.K. was still part of the E.U.,” explains Ho, adding how new regulations also imposed added duties on their customers. Tax professionals at companies, he says, have been discussing ways to cope with the changes. “These changes forced us to reassess whether we should continue with these imports and exports between the U.K. and the E.U. or split our business between both. This would make conducting business, imports and exports easier in the long run. These are alternatives we’ve been looking at.”
Developments such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) initiatives, he adds, have added to the workload for tax professionals like himself. “BEPS 1.0 focused on increasing transparency within the system of international taxation and updating the approach to transfer pricing, principally through the recognition of the importance of economic substance, and the appropriate reward of activities that lead to value creation,” says Ho. “With BEPS 2.0, we will have to explain our transactions in greater detail to tax authorities – in short, tax authorities want to ensure that you don’t allocate money to other countries for the purpose of getting taxed unevenly,” says Ho. Though BEPS 2.0 is still in its draft form, he adds, companies have been discussing the impact of digital tax, how to deal with lower tax jurisdictions as well as lower effective tax rates.
“Tax authorities will question how we do business. They will challenge us or propose other ways to tax our revenue. We need to determine whether current tax laws have matured enough for them to tax certain forms of income,” Ho elaborates, noting this is particularly the case for companies in the industries that are constantly evolving, such as technology, media and communications. “We have a very non-traditional way of doing business now. How quickly tax authorities can adapt to new ways of doing business and then tax you is another question.” This requires tax professionals like Ho to discuss with different tax agents whether a company is being taxed correctly. “As a tax expert, I need to be able to strike a balance and come up with a reasonable settlement or proposal.”
Consistency, especially when it involves transfer pricing documentation, for example, is something that Ho needs to ensure. “In the past, a lot of corporations used a regional approach in handling or managing their transfer pricing documentation. But many companies have since adopted a more centralized approach. This means it is handled by their headquarters so they can ensure that information disclosed is consistent,” explains Ho. “So, one of the biggest challenges I face is making sure that information such as transfer pricing or country-by-country reporting is consistent when disclosed to tax authorities. A lot of the time, tax authorities will ask us about the nature of certain transactions and will ask us to provide information to support these transactions. There cannot be any discrepancies in what we report.”
BEPS 2.0, Ho adds, will provide clearer guidelines for businesses that run digital platforms in allocating their profits. “Taxpayers will need to be aware of new taxing practices and also better substantiate the allocation of profit,” he says. “Taxing profits in the current digital world is no longer only a company’s obligation. Tax experts also need to be aware of such taxing obligations.”
Therefore, Ho says it’s imperative that all tax experts stay on top of developments to do with BEPS 2.0 to ensure that companies comply with existing and evolving regulations. “As tax professionals in the commercial sector, we should always be thinking about how to address a company’s BEPS 2.0-related concerns. We have to be aware of their operation’s practice and see if their existing business has already been exposed to the risk of digital tax,” he says, adding that companies should also dedicate resources to compliance. “Though we still face risks, these are all reviewed continuously to ensure we comply with the latest practices.”
Ho worked at EY for over nine years after graduating from the University of Toronto. He then joined Huawei Technologies for a year before taking on his role at BT, where he worked for more than three years. He is also a facilitator and marker for the Institute’s Qualification Programme.
Thinking outside the box
Ho credits his time at EY, which he joined after graduating, with providing him with a firm foundation in tax and interpersonal skills, which he still relies on today. “The most interesting aspect about my career in EY was the opportunity to work in different tax departments,” he says. During his more than nine years there, Ho worked in departments such as tax and business advisory services, transaction tax, and tax accounting and risk advisory services. “As a tax expert, it’s important to be exposed to challenges in different roles,” add Ho, who dealt with M&As, tax due diligence and restructuring when he worked in the transaction tax department, and helped with listed multinational companies in the United States with their group tax reporting and tax practice efficiency advisory during his time in tax accounting and risk advisory services.
Ho, an avid traveller himself, also enjoyed the frequent trips to Mainland China that were part of his role. “Our APAC tax accounting team was based in Shanghai, so there was a lot of flying back and forth for training in tax accounting, as well as meetings in Shenzhen,” he says. Ho also shared his experience as a tax professional with students through school visits and seminars on behalf of the firm.
He then made to jump to the commercial sector, joining Huawei Technologies as a senior finance manager in September 2016. He was responsible for tax functions such as overseeing its tax structure, corporate tax compliance and the tax reporting of its Hong Kong office and its overseas branches and subsidiaries. But he soon realized he needed much more than tax knowledge to add value in his role. “In practice, I was more concerned with the technical and tax side of things, but when I stepped into the business sector, I had to think about how my decisions would impact the bigger picture,” explains Ho. “A lot of plans or ideas are not only tax-related, but driven by business or legal matters. So the challenge was implementing ideas from a tax perspective, while also taking our stakeholders’ expectations and the business into consideration.”
Eager to strengthen his knowledge in business, Ho is currently pursuing an Executive Master of Business Administration degree offered by the University of Oxford, which he started during his time in London. “I wanted to learn how to think from a more business perspective. I have also had the chance to meet a lot of people working in different industries through the degree,” adds Ho. This, he says, is key to becoming a well-rounded and future-ready tax expert. “Tax is important, but it isn’t the only thing tax professionals must focus on. We need to be able to think outside the box, and from other angles. We also need the right interpersonal skills to present our views to different people.”
Ho says his CPA training has not only provided him with a firm foundation in accounting and tax, but also with a lifelong hunger for knowledge. “As tax experts, it’s important that we study different tax laws, especially in our own time. We have to be independent, and I feel like my CPA training has taught me the importance of doing so,” adds Ho.
Within the Institute, Ho also sets aside time to help as a facilitator and marker for the Qualification Programme’s (QP) taxation module. “I really enjoy being a facilitator and sharing my experience with other students,” he says. “I want to give them a sense of what being a tax professional is like. Many think we are only ‘bean counters,’ or that we help companies just to save on tax – but that isn’t the case. I tell students that it’s our duty to mitigate tax and business risks for companies, and that we add value by doing so.
“The new QP workshop focuses on core enabling competency skills such as critical analysis, time management and project management. I share my day-to-day work experience and demonstrate how I apply these skills so that students understand why they are important to being future CPAs. More importantly, I tell them that these skills do not only apply at work, but also in our daily lives,” he says. Though some students, Ho says, may choose a career path outside of accounting after obtaining their CPA qualifications, he emphasizes that these skills are transferrable to any area, which further motivates them to participate more in the QP workshops. “This is the important message that I often deliver to students as a QP facilitator – equipping these skills do not only make you a better CPA, but also a better person.”
“Tax is important, but it isn’t the only thing tax professionals must focus on. We need to be able to think outside the box, and from other angles. We also need the right interpersonal skills to present our views to different people.”
The sky’s the limit
When Ho isn’t working, he enjoys kicking back and enjoying a good book. He continues to teach himself and learn about one other field that has captured his imagination and interest since he was a teenager – aviation. “Before becoming an accountant, I dreamt of being a pilot,” laughs Ho. “I’d always been interested in aviation. I wanted that responsibility of flying a plane full of passengers around the world.”
Though Ho had tried to realize his pilot dreams, he says he was, in a way, destined to become an accountant in the end – and that he is content with it. “I did apply for a pilot training programme, but I didn’t get admitted,” he recalls. “I remember my parents telling me that I could always try again in the future – or that I could travel the world as an accountant. So that’s been my mindset since. Luckily, accounting has brought me to different places, which I find to be quite amazing.”
But above all, Ho often thinks back to his days as a university student, and remembers that he became a tax expert in the first place with the intention of helping people. “It’s our job as professionals to help others. Not only can we help commercial companies or clients, but we can also help families and friends with their taxes too. That’s what inspires me.”
BT was first incorporated in 1846 as the Electric Telegraph Company. It is the world's oldest communications company and the first company to develop a nationwide communications network. Today, it has operations in over 180 countries and is the largest provider of fixed-line, broadband, mobile services and subscription TV in the United Kingdom.