11 Feb 2011
Yeo Ek Khuan, FCPA Singapore, Senior Partner of BDO LLP advocates the virtue of hard work.
You have achieved tremendous success in your career. What contributed to your success?
When I joined Arthur Young, Azman, Wong & Company (AYAW) in 1968, I was happy to have a job to go to, and to learn. It was not easy to get a job back in the 1960s. Thus I put in a lot of effort into whatever assignment I was given. Although I was only an audit clerk (a post for those not having a degree in accountancy), I really wanted to excel. I wanted to know what I was doing and how to deliver a good job. Probably this enthusiasm towards my work was spotted by the managing partner, Mr Joseph P L Wong, when he decided to help me to get to a post at Arthur Young, Sydney, and for me to study for the Chartered Accountancy examinations as well.
When I was leaving Singapore for Sydney, Mr Quek Shi Kui, who was also engaged by AYAW, gave me all the encouragement on how to succeed in my studies and my work. All these encouragement motivated me all the more to want to earn the Chartered Accountancy qualification.
When I was at Arthur Young, Sydney, my enthusiasm to work did not subside. I always checked with my managers whether I was doing the right thing. Whenever I was given an out-of-town assignment, I would try to finish it in a shorter time so that I could get back to Sydney, and go onto my routines (including studying). Probably it was the enthusiasm and perseverance I had shown in my work and the eagerness to learn that also earned the attention of Mr Bernard F McInerney, the managing partner of the Sydney office, even though I did not report to him directly. In my second year (1971) with the firm, during the year-end Christmas party, he approached me and enquired why I did not go to Singapore for holidays. I briefly mentioned to him that after paying for my living expenses, the savings from my salaries were not enough to pay for my home trip. Guess what? Immediately, he promised to give me some cash in the following year (1972) in order for me to go back to Singapore. I did talk to him in 1972, and he gave me A$200 (about S$750 then) which was not treated as my taxable income.
Another partner who helped me in Australia was Mr Lewis Arthur Ting. He took a personal interest in my career development and well-being. He imparted some management skills to me. I observed how he handled both colleagues and clients. Some of his virtues had been passed on to me.
In addition, my six-monthly increment was comparable to that of the local graduates, even though I had yet to complete my Chartered Accountancy course.
From my experiences, we can draw a conclusion that for as long as we have a positive attitude towards our work and interact well with our colleagues and business associates, such attributes would be greatly appreciated.
What do you consider to be the highlights of your career?
Like all young accountants, we all do aspire to become a partner of a firm one day. We would imagine how much more income we can earn as a partner when compared to being an employee. I decided to move to a local audit firm, Foo, Kon & Tan in 1978, with the hope that I would be admitted as a partner. In 1980, my dream became a reality because I was admitted as a partner of Foo, Kon & Tan.
Whilst I had just joined the firm for six months, the firm also gained its first major international representation, Alexander Grant Tansley Witt, which evolved to the present day Grant Thornton. I was engaged on most of the referral assignments. At the same time, I was involved in introducing and revising the audit documentation processes for the firm.
By the early 1990s, I was appointed Chairman of the Grant Thornton Asia Pacific Audit and Accounting Committee. I had only a personal assistant to help me to organise the annual regional meetings and trainings, which required lots of time in correspondence and making arrangements. I had to search for convenient venues to hold the meetings and trainings, together with finding accommodations for all delegates.
Moreover, I was also involved in the annual inhouse training programmes, especially conducting courses on the audit manual. There were also audit staff recruitments to be taken care off. All of these routine duties were very time consuming, but at the same time they were rewarding, as I could see that the quality of the work of the firm was improving.
In early 2000, I decided to move on. BDO is a good name, so I ended up joining BDO. I saw an opportunity to help the firm to grow. Together with my other partners, especially Mr Frankie Chia (who is now the managing partner), we were able to transform the firm as it grew from about 90 personnel then to about 300 people today. This was achieved amidst the challenges which every audit firm needs to face, including the trainings, shortage of staff, and other resources, among others.
How do you manage your time, given your heavy responsibilities?
We are limited to the number of hours each day. With careful planning of my time and cooperation of staff, clients and business associates, and as most of my non-professional work-related meetings were scheduled in the late afternoons or evenings, I managed to meet deadlines and was able to attend meetings. There were times when timing of some meetings clashed. This situation requires me to prioritise and attend to one that is most relevant to my work.
Did you find it challenging when you are starting out in your career? What problems did you face and how did you overcome them?
When I started out as an audit clerk at AYAW, I did not know what debits and credits were. It was through a lot of discussions and studies which I now realise it is quite simple. When I was given my very first big assignment in Singapore before going to Sydney, I was asking the financial personnel of the client lots of questions. I had no experienced senior to guide me at that time. The questions appeared obvious to most experience accountants. The financial personnel of that client were quite tolerant of me, I supposed.
I even had to read the Arthur Young audit manual and had taught myself on flow-charting and audit sampling, long before attending any audit seminars. These skills were very useful when I joined the Sydney office. I was quite independent with my work. I was even guiding first-year graduates when they were working with me on some assignments.
Some of the many challenges I encountered were reading and learning from technical updates, and often, I was assigned to oversee assistants even before I was qualified. I was promoted to an audit senior in my third year (1973), two years before I qualified as a Chartered Accountant. I had to plan and discuss with my audit managers, and also to ensure the reporting timelines were met.
Whenever I encountered technical problems, I looked to my fellow practicing accountants, and those who have more experience and knowledge to assist me. One such person is Mr Kaka Singh, who is ever willing to give advice. He even contributed research materials and opinions in my completion of challenging assignments. We may be working for different accounting firms, but that did not pose a barrier for Mr Singh in helping me out.
Other problems which most of us encountered are related to human resources, and management of people. We all come from different background. As such, we have to work around the different situations in a variety of ways. For this I have also another experienced person to call upon. There was Mr Kon Choon Kooi, who was managing a corporate secretarial practice, Kon Choon Kooi Pte Ltd. His office shared the same premises as Foo, Kon & Tan. Whenever he was in the office, he and I would share conversations of challenges facing the firm. As he was a Christian, we would discuss and use biblical teachings to resolve our challenges. It was always very comforting to have someone with so much wisdom to have conversations with, and he really showed that he cared for others. He provided me with so much wisdom and guidance, which I can still use nowadays.
Work-related stress is an inevitable component of modern life. Personally, how do you manage stress?
We all know that when we are under stress, we may make irrational decisions and perform unexpected actions. When we are short of time to complete timelines and solve problems, we may tend to lose our temper. Perhaps a good way is to look at how we delegate our work to subordinates, and how we prioritise our work. Keeping a to-do list or a note book of activities to be accomplished may be useful.
We also need to take breaks from our work routines, such as doing physical exercises, attending Christian activities, and taking annual leaves for occasional oversea trips with the family also help to rejuvenate and refresh oneself.
As a leader, how do you pick out potential leaders? What traits do they possess?
We are in a very competitive world, especially so in our small nation of Singapore. If one is not prepared, someone else will do the job. Thus, as a leader, we should be able to spot good talents who would take up challenges and be successful. Good EQ (emotional quotient) and IQ (intelligent quotient) are basic requirements for good leaders. We are always interacting with people every day. We must know the needs and wants of others. We must know how to get along with others. This is a basic principle of Dale Carnegie’s teachings. A senior person in an organisation should set examples for subordinates and others to follow. Our business associates will look to us for solutions and meeting deadlines. Always remind ourselves that the customers are always right. It is a difficult principle to follow. But ask ourselves, who is the pay master?
As a leader, one must be able to command respect from others and be a catalyst for the business activities of the organisation. Leaders should step forward to provide solutions and prepare to “walk the talk”.
What advice would you give those starting out in their careers?
Stay focus on one’s responsibilities and take on challenges. When we take stock of the accomplishments of all past challenges which we were faced with during our career development, they all added up to our wide experience. It is the past experience learnt from completed tasks that will provide the future credentials for other assignments. Formal and on-the-job trainings are very essential to the development of one’s career. Do not take short cuts or an easy way out. Put one’s heart to learn conscientiously, and use it during our work. From experience, financial rewards will come with success. I would say we should not look forward to a bountiful reward if no hard work is put into completing the tasks effectively and efficiently. Experience counts a lot in the end.
I remember that when I was working at an international client, in Sydney, I was requested to do some additional special assignments for that company, and additional fees were charged. This went on for about three years. I worked at my own time, and I arranged for the firm to bill additional fees to the client. The partner-in-charge, Mr. Richard W Turner was pleased to see me with the additional billings, and he even commented that I should go out to this client more often, as I would bring back extra fees for the firm.
I am still very fond of the friendships developed amongst colleagues whom I have worked with, both from AYAW Singapore and Arthur Young, Sydney. Today, many of these colleagues are still in contact with one another. In Singapore, we still make arrangements to see ex-colleagues. Being in contact with ex-colleagues may bring potential referrals of work to each other. I am still in contact with quite a number of my ex-colleagues of both firms. We do meet up occasionally.
During the recent appraisal sessions with some staff members at BDO LLP, I related my past experience to staff members for them to think about and to see how they and the firm can make the work environment more conducive. In order for working conditions to improve, we all have to work towards it.
I just wish that our present day work environments will allow us to continue to be friendly and cohesive. It will make it a joy for everyone to want to come back to the office to work.
Are there any maxims or mottos that you live by?
“The Best is Yet To Be”, and “Always Give My Best”
Share and pass our experience to our younger colleagues. Our worst enemy is that we are often drawn into office politics. We should avoid it. Unpleasant situations cannot be changed overnight. We should discuss with the decision-makers and try to find a solution. At times we have to agree to disagree, so that execution of decisions can move on. Working as a team is better than working alone.
This world is very small. We must be tolerant and understanding. I have also made friends with partners from all the different network firms which I have worked with in the past and present. Even though we might have changed our respective representations of accounting networks, or had retired, we still keep in touch with one another.
An abridged version of this blog post will be featured in CPA Singapore Journal, March 2011 issue.
Share this Page