In the second part of the special series, students of the Institute’s specialist training programmes tell Jeremy Chan how they have benefitted as professionals and individuals since completing them
Photography by Calvin Sit
(From left to right) Karen Poon FCPA (practising); Kenneth Ho CPA; Iky Tang CPA (practising); Dick Tang CPA and Summer Li CPA.
If Kenneth Ho CPA had to describe the Hong Kong Institute of CPAs’ Financial Controllership Programme (FCP) in one word, it would be “practical.” Ho, who completed the programme at the beginning of 2020, values the specialist knowledge he has gained since. He joined the FCP to not only sharpen his existing skills in finance, but to equip himself with the required financial and business acumen to one day take the helm of a company’s finance function. “I aspire to become a chief financial officer one day,” says Ho, Finance Director at Oracle Systems Hong Kong Ltd. “But there’s a lot you need to know before becoming one.”
Ho is one of thousands of students who have participated and graduated from the Institute’s specialist training programmes, with the goal of expanding their skill set and broadening their career opportunities. Currently, the Institute offers specialist training programmes in financial controllership, insolvency, taxation, business valuation and forensic accounting. The programmes are taught by experienced course directors and facilitators (read more here) and made up of modules that cover key aspects of the specialism in detail. Students complete the programme either through attending all modules or passing a final assessment, after which they will attain a professional diploma in their chosen specialism.
Ho says the FCP’s five modules – management competency development, accounting for performance and decision making, strategic finance, risk management and corporate governance, and business ethics – provide professionals like himself with not only technical knowledge, but the necessary foresight and communication skills to be an effective finance leader. One factor that sets the FCP apart is its use of case studies, Ho explains, which help students understand how to apply their knowledge in a real-world scenario. “I remember the lecturer for the accounting for performance and decision making module was fantastic,” says Ho. “He wasn’t only a CFO, he also worked as a general manager, so the way he approached and discussed problems was very interesting. He shared his experience from both a finance and business owner perspective. He paced the classes well and always gave high-quality answers.”
CFOs require knowledge in aspects beyond finance, and Ho says the FCP modules are designed with that in mind. “Within finance is a large spectrum of skills; you need skills in financial reporting, management reporting, treasury, internal control, investment appraisals, fundraising, listing – all kinds of different things. But to be a CFO, you need to know more than just finance,” he says. So Ho was thrilled to be given the opportunity to learn from skilled professionals in the field. “In the strategic finance module, a lot of technical knowledge is covered such as bonds, listing, bank loans and how to deal with banks. They also invite speakers from different industries to talk to us about topics such as automation, treasury management and blockchain. The business ethics module covers a lot of other topics in addition to anti-money laundering, such as ethical standards as expected from a finance professional, and laws and regulations in different countries surrounding corruption.”
Because classes are often jam-packed with content, Ho urges other students to prepare well before each one. “You can’t show up to these classes on a Saturday morning and expect to relax,” he laughs. “You really have to read the class materials before the lesson. Given how tight the schedules are, you won’t be given extra time in class to read case materials, which are expected to be studied beforehand. Coming unprepared would limit your ability to participate and contribute, which is key for your learning in this course,” he says. “You have to give it 100 percent. Participate at the fullest and don’t be afraid to speak up and share your views, especially during case studies and workshops.”
Ho says the FCP has indeed made him a much more well-rounded finance professional. “The programme gave me a lot of confidence and really refined everything that I’ve learned from my previous work experiences. It connected all the dots,” he says. “One key lesson I learned from the course was that as a finance person, everything you do has to support the overall strategy of a company. In my role now, I’m more involved with the strategic side of things, which involves strategic planning, and the course has been very helpful in that regard.”
As a young auditor relatively new to the world of forensic accounting, Summer Li CPA knew that participating in the Institute’s Professional Enhancement Programme in Forensic Accounting would give her a head start. “I applied for the programme because I’d never really received systematic training in forensic accounting – not in university nor in my career so far,” explains Li, a Manager at Alvarez & Marsal (Disputes and Investigations). Li began her career as an auditor at Deloitte where she worked for four years before wanting to explore a different field.
The programme, first offered this year, was held via webinars over five weeks, and covered topics including local and international legal systems, expert witness work, interview and investigation skills and forensic engagement reporting. The webinar on expert witness work was particularly useful, Li says, as it helped to address a specific area she had previously struggled with. “When I first started out at my company, I was assigned to expert witness projects, which was something I knew little about at the time,” she explains. “But after attending, I gained a much better understanding on what expert witness work really is, the types of expert witnesses, the differences in their roles, and how to prepare expert witness claims.”
The course’s speakers, Li adds, were dedicated and conveyed their message or explained concepts through storytelling. “For example, during the expert witness course, one speaker used an interesting story to explain the differences between factual witnesses and expert witnesses,” she says.
Since completing the programme, Li has found herself more confident in her everyday role as a forensic accountant. “The course actually taught me how to write an expert witness report, which is something I often have to do as part of my job,” she adds. “The programme itself is really comprehensive and provides students with a good overview of what forensic accounting really is. It also covers international and Hong Kong legal systems and how forensic accountants fit into the picture.”
She advises future students to allocate time for the webinars and to inform their managers about them ahead of time. “There were eight sessions, around two hours each, and they were all held in the afternoon during work hours. Let your boss know in advance that you’ll be doing this course so you don’t miss a webinar,” she says. “Prepare some questions in advance before the webinar – this way, you’ll have a better idea of what you want to get out of it. Lastly, write a short summary after each one. This will allow you to test how much you really understand from each webinar and then revisit any points you are unclear about.”
“One key lesson I learned from the course was that as a finance person, everything you do has to support the overall strategy of a company.”
Having worked in restructuring and insolvency for over a decade, taking part in the Institute’s Professional Diploma in Insolvency programme was the perfect opportunity for Dick Tang CPA to update his technical skills in the specialism. “I came out to work in 2008, during the global financial crisis, and there was a great need for fresh graduates with insolvency skills to help out,” remembers Tang, who for the last two and a half years, has been a Manager at EY-Parthenon’s Turnaround and Restructuring team. “But a lot has changed within the last 10 years – business models are becoming more complex as a result of multiple jurisdictions and new economy industries. I felt the need to sharpen my skills in this area and therefore enrolled in this course.”
The programme is made of two modules – Module A Liquidation and Personal Insolvency, and Module B Corporate Rescue & Restructuring and Cross-Border Insolvency. Students have to complete both modules before being able to sit for the exam and, upon passing both the paper and presentation, can attain their Professional Diploma in Insolvency.
Tang, who completed the course in 2019, was struck by how in-depth and well-run the programme and its modules were. “I had already worked for some time before joining the programme, and I noticed that it discussed actual issues that I had come across on the job, for example, when it comes to adjudicating creditors’ claims.” His knowledge on the subject was further reinforced by a tricky question in the final exam. “In the exam, we were told to adjudicate creditors’ claims, which involved calculating the dividends creditors are owed,” he says. Challenging questions like these are not only helpful, but necessary, notes Tang, as they prepare students for what they will experience at work. “In a real-world situation, we’d usually have weeks or months to adjudicate a claim,” he laughs. “But we had to do this – and complete all the other questions – in less than three hours during the exam. Luckily, I completed everything on time.”
Tang also appreciated the opportunity to learn not only with fellow accountants, but also with lawyers. “You see accountants gaining more legal knowledge and lawyers being equipped with financial knowledge – all from an insolvency perspective. As an insolvency practitioner, you need to understand different kinds of legislations to deal with different legal issues,” he says, adding how there was one workshop where the course director invited seasoned speakers from a reputable law firm. “They gave us a few minutes to prepare for the workshop questions, discuss them with our course mates and then one of us would share our views,” adds Tang.
Students should try to open up and make friends at the beginning of the programme, as doing so will provide much needed support. “You’ll be able to proactively speak to them about any issues experienced during the course,” says Tang. “You’ll also have a much better understanding of what you understand so far.”
Tang finished the programme with a new outlook on insolvency, and says he is eager to stay in the specialism. “I often look back on what I was taught when I handle real-life cases,” he says. “The course has really helped my analytical and communication skills as an insolvency practitioner.”
Iky Tang CPA (practising) completed the Institute’s Advanced Diploma in Specialist Taxation programme a decade earlier and – knowing how the knowledge she gained still helps today – she had no doubt that enrolling in the Business Valuation Programme would be equally beneficial. She first touched upon the fundamentals and methodologies of business valuations while completing a part-time master’s degree in corporate finance at Hong Kong Polytechnic University also a decade ago, and since then, has seen increased demand for valuation expertise in the city. “As an auditor, I realized that demand for independent business valuations was growing and that supply was yet to catch up in Hong Kong,” explains Tang, a Director at CNG Partners CPA Limited. “The business valuation landscape has changed a lot within the last 10 years as a result of changing technology, compliance and legal requirements, and increasingly stringent requirements for fair value measurements and disclosures in financial reporting. So I enrolled in this course as a way to update myself on the industry, the latest skill sets and methodologies, and to gain knowledge on the preparation and review of a valuation report.”
Tang completed the programme in June and says that all classes, which were held via webinar, were highly informative and insightful. The programme is split into four phases, namely valuation fundamentals, transactions valuation, financial reporting valuation and valuation application. Tang found the final phase’s case study, which involved analysing a valuation report, to be particularly helpful. “We were provided with a detailed valuation report, asked to spot deficiencies and note how the report could be improved, all within a set time. This case study helped me to analyse a detailed valuation report and all the assumptions I needed to be aware of,” she explains.
Tang highlights the programme’s case studies, which she says explains business valuations concepts such as intangible assets, and how they may impact its valuation. “We learned that we need to take into consideration all its intangibles, in addition to its financials, when it comes to the valuation of a company. So, whether the value of the company includes its trademarks, patents, its customer base and relationship with its customers,” she says, adding that the course also teaches students how to look at other relevant factors within the entire company itself. “Before taking all of this into account, we learned that one needs to know the company really well, such as its nature of business and its characteristics. We need to understand the company’s story, such as the nature of its business, its strategy, and what it does, in order to understand whether the valuation report contains deficiencies and whether it has accounted for factors that are important to both the company and its business.”
The comprehensive nature of the course has given Tang more confidence in not only her knowledge of business valuations, but also her abilities as a financial professional. “I recently handled an audit of a client, which involved a property valuation. I was able to discuss with the valuer in detail the purpose of the valuation, their suitability, and knew to ask when they valued the property,” says Tang. “I now have a better idea on how to speak with valuers before they finalize the valuation report – and what to look for in those reports,” she says.
“I now have a better idea on how to speak with valuers before they finalize the valuation report – and what to look for in those reports.”
Karen Poon FCPA (practising) first got into tax with the hopes of adding another professional skill to her arsenal. “I had limited exposure to tax when I worked at the Big Four. All I knew was audit,” says Poon, Managing Director at Amba Partners CPA Limited, about the year 2015 – the year she first enrolled in a specialist programme in taxation offered by the Institute.
She completed both the programme’s International Tax Course and China Tax Course, and attained her Professional Diploma in China Tax that same year. Poon then went on to found her own firm and soon realized that she needed to understand tax from a more local perspective in order to provide her clients a better advisory service. “There had been a few changes in tax laws and regulations in recent years, for example, changes involving transfer pricing, filing requirements and base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS),” she says. “I wanted to stay updated on all of this.” So in 2019, she enrolled in the Advanced Hong Kong Tax Course and obtained her Professional Diploma in Hong Kong Tax.
For Poon, the most practical aspect of the programme was the workshops. The guest speakers, who often came from different professional backgrounds, helped students to look at tax from different angles. “We had one speaker from academia and then another from the Big Four,” recalls Poon. “Both provided really good real-life examples. For example, they both put a lot of emphasis on corporate tax planning and individual tax planning. The course really reinforced the notion that tax planning can’t only be looked at from one angle. We have to look at the whole picture.”
Clear and practical examples were key to helping students like Poon understand tricky tax topics, such as BEPS. “I hadn’t learned about BEPS before and the speakers shared their knowledge and experience on the topic, for example, how big corporations would shift profits from one entity to another, and how it would be impossible for them to do so in the future,” she explains. “Their examples during the lecture made learning about international tax really interesting. It was a combination of theory and story-sharing, and didn’t involve too many calculations.”
Poon was also grateful to learn among students from different professional backgrounds. “Many of my course mates were part of the internal tax team at multinational corporations or were finance professionals who were seeking to improve their tax planning skills,” she says. This led to a diverse set of questions being asked during tutorials and lectures, she adds. “This, in a way, helped me to understand how my clients would think, which I found to be very valuable. I didn’t expect to gain this from the course.”
Poon has been thrilled to apply her knowledge at work. “Say one client comes to me and asks about a Hong Kong tax problem – now I’ll ask whether they have considered their individual tax exposure and also their exposure in their home country, say, in a foreign country. So this is something I learned from the programme. I have a better idea of what’s happening in the world of profit shifting and double taxation. Our clients have found this to be very helpful – they didn’t expect me to know much or anything at all about initiatives or potential challenges associated with other jurisdictions,” she says. “My knowledge from this course has also helped me in my role – I’ve learned how to look at tax problems from a new perspective.”
The Institute offers specialist training programmes in financial controllership, insolvency, taxation, business valuation and forensic accounting. More details on these programmes can be found on the “Specialist Practice Development” section of the Institute’s website.