staying-power

This article was first published in the October 2013 Malaysia edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

‘I was waiting for my A-level results, and someone told me I could write to the then Big Eight firms to ask for a job,’ Tan recalls. ‘I did, and I was hired. I thought it was a pretty good deal then.’ The deal meant starting at the entry level, in the auditing department. Today, Tan is country managing partner for Malaysia, with oversight of its four main areas: audit, tax, financial advisory services and consulting.

When he started off in accountancy as a 19-year-old in 1977, Tan felt that his career path was quite uncomplicated. ‘Back then, a university degree wasn’t a prerequisite,’ he says. ‘For most of my peers and myself, it was sufficient to have passed our A levels.’ But once you were in, it was a whole different world. One thing that has stayed the same, of course, is the starting point for all who aspire to the profession: auditing. Everyone began there, and Tan was no exception. In fact, most of his 35-year career seems to have revolved around auditing. ‘After the initial auditing stint, I moved to tax, then went back to auditing again, before I started managing the practice,’ he says. But what was different then was the environment.

Although he laughingly says that all he started with was a calculator, within five years he was dispatched to set up Deloitte’s Johor Bahru branch.

Malaysia in the 1970s and 1980s was beginning to experience an influx of foreign investors. Overseas companies with deep pockets were ready to put their money down but were unsure of the risks. Deloitte, already a well-established brand name in mature markets, was well placed to advise them. Tan remembers a very busy period when the company’s main activity, at least at the Johor Bahru branch, centred on advising clients about setting up operations.

‘Green field’

‘Malaysia was a relatively green field, and we spent a lot of time with foreign clients who were interested in investing but needed to do extensive research before making final decisions,’ he explains. ‘We helped with the due diligence; sometimes our services even extended to setting up meetings with ministry representatives, and facilitating applications for permits and local financing. It was a very busy time.’

Under Tan’s stewardship, Deloitte’s branch in Johor Bahru grew from 12 to 80 staff – and Deloitte decided that it was time for Tan to return to headquarters. ‘One of the major plus factors about working with an international firm like Deloitte is that you are exposed to diversity very early in your career,’ he remarks. ‘When you begin that way, you can’t help but look at things differently.’

Having started at the bottom, his perspective of the industry is a well-rounded, comprehensive one, encompassing three-and-a-half decades of experience and running the entire length and breadth of accountancy services. One element that has changed drastically since he joined the profession is technology.

‘Technology has really altered the landscape,’ he remarks. ‘It’s amazing how much it has affected the way things are done today. In many cases, it has significantly lessened the tedium of auditing, for instance. Financial applications have expedited many processes.’ But » he is quick to add that it doesn’t make the work less complicated. If anything, the environment has grown more complex, and professionals today may find themselves having to cope with totally unanticipated situations.

Despite his senior position, Tan works the same long hours as when he first entered the profession, except that today his work encompasses different dimensions. ‘I spend a lot of time meeting with clients, talking with them and looking at their needs,’ he says. ‘It’s important to understand what they want because, with the shifting dynamics of different markets, what works for one client certainly will not work for another. All services need to be customised, and for this reason I also ‘manage’ the time of my partners and other staff so that we use our resources in the most efficient manner.’

Tan has a big team but is constantly on the lookout for new talent – another area where he is extensively involved. ‘Deloitte has a very structured internship,’ he explains. ‘Our interns have an ‘onboarding’ programme where they are trained, among other things, how to structure their time according to the projects they are allocated.

‘Besides this formal training, they have a session with me, too, where they are encouraged to ask questions, so that they get a comprehensive picture of the profession and are prepared as much as possible for the real world.’ To their credit, he adds, many of them are sure of what they want, and are very focused on a career in their chosen field.

Stringent selection

Even so, when it comes to staff selection, Deloitte goes to extraordinary lengths to get the best. Tan says that only 10 out of every 100 applicants are shortlisted – and the selection process is a stringent one. Applicants must go through several levels of interviewing, starting with phone interviews. They then fill forms and take tests and, if they survive these preliminary rounds, they are invited back to carry out simple projects as members of a team. ‘They’re observed every step of the way,’ Tan says. ‘At the end of this period, only three or four of the original applicants will be offered jobs with us. The tough screening is necessary because we want staff that fit. A degree, even a good one, is not a guarantee that the individual will be a good fit for the job.’

Deloitte does not confine itself to graduates with accounting degrees either. Because of its diverse client base, the firm, which is the largest professional services firm in the world, is constantly on the lookout for talent from a variety of fields. ‘If we have someone with a law degree, for instance, they can do tax law,’ Tan says. ‘Nevertheless, we value those who don’t have an accounting degree because they bring different perspectives to the table. Accounting incorporates myriad aspects of business, and it gears you towards a comprehensive understanding of business – so the more perspectives, the better. It’s a fact: you don’t need to be an accountant to be a CEO!’ But ensuring that the firm’s services continue to be provided at the levels expected by clients is not an easy task.

Despite being the top choice of many fresh graduates seeking employment, Deloitte still has to cast its net worldwide to find talent, he admits. The task is further complicated by the changing demands of the marketplace, which simultaneously create many new opportunities for young professionals entering the workforce while making it difficult for even large firms to hold on to this talent when they find it.

Besides continually keeping a lookout for local possibilities, Deloitte undertakes roadshows abroad, particularly to universities and institutions of higher learning in other countries with sizeable Malaysian student populations, where he has found them eager to come home to work, auguring well for the country.

This is a positive development. For many years, Malaysian employers have feared that the brain drain and a steadily diminishing talent pool would limit growth, but if Tan’s observations are correct, the profession and industry as a whole could avoid extensive stunting. But even with this bright spot on the horizon, he cautions those aspiring to the profession to proceed with care.

Being an accountant today means knowing much more than how to crunch numbers. As an example, Deloitte’s core services may cover auditing, tax, financial advisory and consulting, but in recent years these have extended to risk consulting, forensic investigations, due diligence for initial public offerings, rights issues, fundraising, corporate takeovers and mergers and acquisitions. The firm also collaborates with other professional bodies on state-of-the-industry reports.

Compared to what the industry was when he first entered it decades ago, Tan feels that the profession today demands more of its members, but in its efforts to meet market needs and deliver effective, efficient services, it is spurring the evolution of the profession as a whole. ‘Back in the seventies, choices were limited. You either became a teacher or you took an office job,’ he recalls.

‘I’m glad I chose accounting – although I think I’d have been a good teacher.’ What subject would he have taught? ‘Probably physical education.’ Why? ‘I like sports, and I wouldn’t have to mark homework!’