Family can account for eight decades of service

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 April, 2007, 12:00am

Eric Li Ka-cheung's family has used them all - abacuses, adding machines, mechanical and electronic calculators, and computers - as its three generations of accountants wielded the tools of their profession over more than eight decades.

Former legislator Mr Li's grandfather, Li Shiu-wing, was among the few people to work as an accountant in large Hong Kong enterprises in the 1920s, when apart from a few trading firms the colony was dominated by farming and fishing.

'At that time, there was not much professional career choice for educated people and my grandfather and great uncle opted to join accountancy in the 1920s. It was a time when Chinese accountants still used the abacus,' Eric Li said.

Mr Li's father, Li Kwan-hung, followed the same profession, setting up his own accounting firm as a listed auditor in 1947. He started as a sole proprietor before being joined by two partners in 1960 and renaming his firm Li, Tang, Chen & Co Certified Public Accountants - the name still used today, though the two partners withdrew in the late 1960s.

'It was a relatively simple affair to set up the accounting firm 60 years ago. All it needed was to rent a place and to buy some furniture,' Mr Li said.

His father 'hired just one or two people to help him do the clerical work to start'. The firm had grown to 30 people in tandem with Hong Kong's expanding economy by the time Eric joined in 1978, partly through a process of elimination.

'I am the sixth child and my elder brothers were all studying - to become a doctor, an engineer and an architect. When I was young, I thought I was pretty useless compared to them,' he said.

'I hated blood, so I could not cut a frog or take the subjects needed to be a doctor. I do not like to take machines apart and reassemble them, and cannot draw well enough to become an engineer and an architect.

'But my father strongly encouraged me to study accountancy in England. I also thought it might be suitable for me as I was good at figures and maths,' Mr Li said.

'Only when I joined my father's company did he teach me that the key to be a good accountant is not just your ability to count but really your ability to understand the needs of people's firms and find practical solutions for your clients.'

Thirty years later, Mr Li can appreciate the tough time taking examinations in England and the hard work being apprenticed to his father.

'Working and living with my father basically meant a 24-hour day,' he said.

'One important thing he taught me is that I should never compromise on ethics. If you maintain the best ethics as a core value, you find clients who share the same values as you and you get the best-quality clients.'

Mr Li took over the helm of the firm in the early 1980s and the company has now expanded, with 200 people at its peak. Through alliances with international counterparts for client referrals it has become one of the largest home-grown local accounting firms. Mr Li does not think Big Four firms are necessarily direct competitors.

'We are mainly serving a different client segment,' he said. 'The competition is more in recruitment, especially when many young talented people have acquired a preference to work for big-brand companies.'

Mr Li's combination of professional and public duties, which include 13 years to 2004 as legislator for the accountancy sector, was highlighted when he won the Accountant of the Year award in 1993 from the Hong Kong Society of Accountants (now renamed the Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants).

Finding time for public duties was partly made possible by the fact Mr Li is his own boss.

'It is much more flexible for me to run my own business,' he said. 'If I were a partner of one of the Big Four firms, it would be very difficult or even impossible for me to spare time to work as a legislator.'

One cloud hangs over the firm - the problem of succession. Mr Li's only daughter is not an accountant, although she is working at an investment bank.

Mr Li said other partners could keep the firm going.

But he added: 'Having said all that, I think this is not the end of the story yet. My daughter is still young and has not finally decided on her lifetime career. Maybe one day she will decide to be a rare fourth-generation accountant in Hong Kong.'