From Student to CFO -- In Just Ten Years

It was November 1999 and Alvin Chan Wing Hang had just graduated from City University of Hong Kong with a Bachelor of Business Administration (Honours) in Accountancy degree. Soon after, he signed up to become a project accountant for a British-Korean joint venture that had a civil engineering contract with the MTRC, Hong Kong’s subway operator.

In quick succession, Chan moved on and joined a diversified conglomerate, became a fellow of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants and member of the Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants, helped in the Hong Kong listing of a fashion shoe retailer, an electronics firm, a mining company and a state-owned enterprise. Last year, he was appointed CFO and company secretary of reinforced materials maker Sijia Group, which makes inflatable boats, among other products – at the ripe young age of 32.

His is by no means the only sped-up finance career in Asia, especially in Greater China. I have interviewed other senior executives in his age group, including one or two who co-founded a start-up and was then elevated to the CFO post after the firm went public.

The combination of China’s red-hot economic growth and limited supply of finance talent is revving up the careers of many Generation Y professionals. Chan’s trajectory is fairly typical. Over the past 10 years, he has held seven finance posts, each one increasing in responsibility and, of course, compensation.

I often wonder how sustainable these careers on steroids are going to be. I’ve been told worrying anecdotes in China about young finance professionals on the verge of burnout because the responsibilities thrust on them are too heavy for their capabilities and experience.

Older CFOs have also pointed out to me that frequent job changes are preventing younger colleagues from managing a business through an entire business cycle, leaving them unprepared for crisis situations like the recent global recession.

Why He Leaves

Not that Chan is looking burnt out, judging from the two encounters I have had with him. Before the blackout period in the run-up to Sijia’s release of its interim financial report, he briefed stock analysts and media on the company and its prospects. Later, he sat down for a one-on-one interview in Sijia’s Hong Kong offices. “I didn’t plan any of these [job changes],” says Chan, a slight, quietly confident man who is fluent in Cantonese, English and Mandarin. “It just happened.”

It was fascinating to get inside the head of someone who went from being a student to CFO of a listed company in just ten years. Chan says he does not change jobs for the sake of changing jobs or because he covets higher positions and increased pay.

For example, his first job was as project accountant, and so when that project was completed after two years, he had to look for a new one. He left his second job because the company, which owned a chain of supermarkets in China, wanted to relocate him to Guangdong province, something that the Hong Kong-born and bred Chan did not want to do.

In a third case, he felt he could not operate effectively because of the business culture. The Chinese state-owned enterprise, which was huge and sprawling with more than 100 subsidiaries,  hired Chan to be its Hong Kong-based financial controller, qualified accountant and company secretary. “It was like working in a government agency,” he recalls. “It was quite difficult to work with management.”

Sijia, his current employer, is almost the exact opposite. The Fujian-based private-sector enterprise makes reinforced polyester fabric composite materials, which are sold to other companies and used for Sijia’s own end products such as biogas tanks, membrane structures for buildings, inflatable boats, waders and protective clothing and large-scale inflatable toys. It prides itself on being forward looking and innovative – Chan says 5% of revenues, which last year came to RMB570 million (US$84 million), is spent on R&D every year.

It’s a young organization where Chan fits right in. Chairman and substantial shareholder Lin Shengxiong co-founded Sijia in 2002 when he was 39. CEO Zhang Hongwang is 33. The head of finance, who is based in Fujian, is 30.

“They’re all younger than me,” Chan says of the 30-strong finance department. It helps that top management has a finance background. Lin is an accountant who once headed the finance department of a plastics company. Zhang has a degree in finance and accounting.       

Recipe for Success

Chan is lucky to be in a market with abundant job opportunities for finance professionals. Hong Kong’s open economy was hit hard by the global recession but neighbouring China continued to expand. When job-hunting, Chan simply read help wanted ads in the South China Morning Post and other Hong Kong publications. He would send in his CV and would almost invariably be asked to interview.

What’s on the CV matters, of course. Without specially meaning to, Chan has tied himself to China’s economic fortunes by taking jobs mainly with mainland firms. But it took time and effort.

Being a Hong Kong finance professional does not automatically guarantee a job in China. You need to speak Mandarin, for a start. “I honed my Mandarin in my second job,” say Chan – this was the conglomerate that owned supermarkets and other business such as printing and textiles. Mandarin is taught in Hong Kong schools, but the medium of instruction is typically Cantonese and English.

Your written Chinese can help or hinder career prospects as well, says Chan. In one of his interviews, he was asked to take a written test. “They wanted to find out whether I could write in Chinese in a style similar to theirs,” he recalls. “Hong Kong written Chinese, Taiwan written Chinese and mainland written Chinese are different in tone and style.”

Before the interview, Chan studied mainland business websites “to see how PRC people write in Chinese.” He also listened to mainland Chinese radio stations to familiarize himself with current events and how Mainlanders express themselves.

Above all, Chan has positioned himself in a role that is particularly suitable to Hong Kong finance professionals working with Mainland firms. Most of the companies he signed up with were planning an initial public offering in the city. Sijia, for example, was due to do an IPO in January this year until adverse market conditions forced it to postpone the exercise (Chan joined the company last October). The offering was finally completed in April.

Within this specialized niche, Chan has steadily built up expertise and experience in due diligence, valuation, prospectus writing, investor road shows and, after the listing, being company secretary and overseeing investor relations, in addition to the usual financial compliance and reporting roles.

What about risk management, strategic planning, analytics, business partnership, overseeing HR, IT and other related functions, and other strategic roles that the modern CFO is increasingly being asked to play?

“The finance function, internal control, company secretarial and investor relations – these four important areas take up all of my time,” Chan replies.

It will be interesting to see how this young CFO and other high-fliers of his generation will fare as China’s economy and businesses mature and the mismatch between supply and demand of finance professionals ease in the coming years.

About the Author

Cesar Bacani is senior consulting editor at CFO Innovation.

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