Nostalgia as veteran accountant leaves HK

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 April, 2006, 12:00am

After more than half a century, the 'father' and founding president of the Hong Kong Society of Accountants, Sir Gordon Macwhinnie, has left Hong Kong for retirement in England with his wife.

Many of the industry's leading lights attended a farewell lunch for the 83-year-old former senior partner of Peat Marwick Mitchell & Co and former auditor of HSBC at his home away from home - his beloved Hong Kong Club.

Sir Gordon, who was knighted in 1992, is considered the institutional memory of accountancy in Hong Kong, having gone through the city's post-war reconstruction in the 1950s, the riots in 1967, the stock market booms and busts in the 1970s and 1980s, and the 1997 handover to China.

The Hong Kong Society of Accountants (HKSA) - since renamed Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants - was born out of necessity.

Prompted by a desperate shortage of accountants at a time when only chartered accountants from England and Australia could work in Hong Kong, Sir Gordon and founding members, including former stock exchange chairman Ronald Li Fook-shiu and Peter Poon Wing-cheung, began formulating plans in the mid-1960s to establish the society.

The aim was for Hong Kong to have its own certification system and clear the way for locals to join the profession.

With $200,000 government support, the HKSA was set up on the first day of 1973, with Sir Gordon as founding president.

To ensure the society did not evolve into a social club, the Professional Accountant Ordinance was introduced, which meant no one was allowed to practice accountancy in Hong Kong unless certified by the society, which was to become a self-regulatory body with statutory backing.

Membership has gone from 566 on its debut to today's 25,000 - a figure that is expected to grow further as all the major accounting firms recruit accountants to meet increasing demand from China for their auditing and initial public offerings.

While Sir Gordon is happy with the growing membership, he is less pleased with the government's proposal to end the accounting body's pure self-regulation model.

The move, following accounting scandals in the US and Hong Kong, has seen the government submit a bill to legislators for debate. Approval of the amendment will see the establishment of a Financial Reporting Council to take over the investigative work of the institute on audit failures or other accounting scandals of listed companies, although retaining disciplinary power over its members.

'I do not agree with the change. It is a crazy idea to let someone outside the profession to discuss accountancy cases. Accountants are all well-trained and the profession worked well with the self-regulatory model,' Sir Gordon said.

It remains to be seen whether such counsel will be heeded, but one thing is for certain: the founding father of HKSA has come a long way since his own father ordered him to take up accountancy.

As a young man, Sir Gordon left his home in Scotland to study accountancy at an accounting firm in London, working as a clerk under a chartered accountant. In addition to mastering figures, he also had to learn how to make tea and clean windows.

But his training was soon to be turned upside down by the second world war, during which he served as a captain in India and Burma. And little did he realise when he arrived in Hong Kong with the British army in 1945 shortly after the surrender of the Japanese army that he would be back.

'You learn everything in the army, including something you could never learn from a book. You learn how to look after yourself and look after others,' he said.

In 1946, he returned to London to continue his studies. He joined Peat Marwick Mitchell, which was auditor of Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp.

The banking giant requested its auditing firm to set up a branch in Hong Kong, which resulted in Peat Marwick transferring Sir Gordon to the colony in 1950.

'There were no 747s at that time. I came by ship and it took a month to travel from London to Hong Kong,' said Sir Gordon, who arrived in a city blighted by poverty and flooded with mainland migrants.

'When I first arrived, local Chinese accountants were using abacuses to calculate figures,' he said, recalling how Peat Marwick's start-up branch consisted of two partners and only five staff. Today, the firm - which has since grown and been renamed KPMG - has 1,600 people in Hong Kong alone.

In 1968, Sir Gordon became a senior partner, a position equal to chairman.

At Peat Marwick, Sir Gordon hired and trained many accountants. Among them, he recalled, he had interviewed and hired 'a very smart young man' - Marvin Cheung Kin-tung, who later became chairman of KPMG, president of HKSA in 1990 and is currently an Executive Council member.

Mr Cheung describes Sir Gordon as the father of the HKSA.

'He was also my mentor and boss during our times at Peat Marwick,' Mr Cheung said. 'He recruited me from London to join Peat Marwick in 1969 and taught me a lot about integrity and aspiring for the highest professional standards. He invited me to become the first Chinese partner in Peat Marwick in 1994.

'His record of community service in Hong Kong over the years is second to none. His contributions to Hong Kong will be felt for many years to come.'

KPMG partner Carlson Tong Ka-shing, who never worked with Sir Gordon, pronounced the HKSA founder as a great man of the accounting industry, as well as in society, for his many public duties after retiring from the firm in 1978.

Sir Gordon has been chairman of the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club and of Ocean Park, director of the Mass Transit Railway Corp, and deputy chairman of Hong Kong Polytechnic.

When he was with the Jockey Club, Sir Gordon helped manage the $2 billion construction of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which opened in 1991. At the end of last year, he stepped down as chairman of Allied Group and Allied Properties (HK) and as director of Sun Hung Kai & Co in preparation for his move to Kent with his wife.

His sons, who live in Kent, are following in their father's footsteps - one is an accountant, the other is active in charity work.

'I will miss all my friends here and I will miss the Hong Kong Club, which I feel is my second home,' Sir Gordon said. 'What I dislike most is that the city is now surrounded by fog. The pollution is the worst aspect of the city.'

For his valedictory, Sir Gordon offered some tips for youngsters.

'For anyone wanting to be a successful accountant, he or she should learn all the basic things in an accounting firm and then leave ... to join the private sector,' he said.

'It is better for them to work as an accountant in the business sector so that they could be exposed to new skills and knowledge.'