Changing Paths Dispensing financial advice

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 May, 2009, 12:00am

If, for any reason, Hanford Cheung Ho-fat ever decides that things aren't working out in the field of corporate finance, he will always have a fail-safe career to fall back on. That's because, before returning to Hong Kong in the middle of last year to test his mettle in the world of mergers, acquisitions, deals and financial analysis, he had already qualified as a pharmacist in Canada and made his mark as a rising star with one of the country's largest chains.

'I pursued pharmacy because it is probably the most stable career in Canada,' said Mr Cheung, who migrated to Vancouver as a 13-year-old in the early 1990s and subsequently completed a five-year bachelor's degree in pharmaceutical science at the University of British Columbia in 2003. 'I had found in school that I really liked chemistry and biology. I wanted to have a clear professional destination after graduation, and the money was good.'

The training required a sense of logic and a highly analytical mind to understand a patient's history and interpret various diagnostic signs. It also took considerable application to digest the necessary amount of medical information and all but memorise the two large volumes of the pharmacopoeia of drugs. However, in the practical phase of his studies and later, as he worked his way up the ladder with Shoppers Drug Mart, what gave Mr Cheung most enjoyment was the interaction with patients.

'I used to work in a lot of small towns and had a close relationship with many of the patients,' he said. 'Especially during Christmas, they would ask me to their family home for dinner, so I found it very rewarding and, in that sense, a very 'human' job.'

Having five or six good job offers on leaving college, he understandably chose the one that held out the best prospects for promotion. Within a year, he had moved up to pharmacy manager and, besides the duties related to treatment and dispensing, also found himself in charge of ordering inventory, managing costs, mentoring and disciplining subordinates, and ensuring operations ran smoothly.

'To move up, you do have to move around to get management and store operation experience,' Mr Cheung said. 'Luckily, I was quite interested in the business side as well. After becoming an associate owner in 2005, I was in charge of two pharmacies, a post-merger integration and the construction of a new store.'

Though unaware of it at the time, that period was to prove a definite watershed. Mr Cheung had realised two things. Firstly, he did not have the managerial skills and business knowledge to cope with bigger challenges that would inevitably come his way if he moved up to district manager. And, secondly, he had developed a genuine interest in finance: the way certain investments could generate returns or understanding what it took in terms of restructuring, marketing and public relations to turn, for example, two losing businesses into one winner.

To plug these gaps, he signed up for a full-time one-year MBA at the Richard Ivey School of Business, which turned out to be far more of a catalyst for change than he had bargained for.

'During the programme, I learned that everything is interconnected, the world is bigger than Canada and that you should not confine yourself,' Mr Cheung said. 'Halfway through, I decided to move back to Hong Kong. I realised that if I just applied my finance skills in pharmacy in Canada, I would hit certain limits. But if I had the mainland as a platform to explore, I could expand my horizons and the sky would be the limit.'

He gave himself six months to a year to land a job in corporate finance or private equity but, despite the downturn, it took no more than two months. As an associate with corporate finance advisory house, Mr Cheung is now analysing different businesses, dissecting the industry dynamics, comparing financial strengths and working on the pitch books for prospective mergers and acquisition deals. So far, he finds the scope of work suits him to a T. One day it can involve sounding out a potential acquirer, the next it might be a question of examining a takeover target's sales and distribution network on the mainland, checking the details of a scientific patent or scrutinising audit reports to weigh up the attractiveness of an investment.

'I can look at the financial modelling and understand the dollars and cents of the business,' Mr Cheung said. 'But in different scenarios you also have to understand such things as the politics in a mainland company or a huge firm in the United States and the [element of] human nature in the deal.'

At times, the pressure can be intense, but Mr Cheung is taking that in his stride, along with the inherent instability that nowadays goes with any job in finance.

'I think it was the right thing to get into,' he said. 'If it hadn't worked out, I would have gone back to pharmacy in Canada. I am still registered there, which gives a good safety net.'

Action plan

How to get the idea Saw need to sharpen business skills and was inspired by MBA course

How to plan Simply decided to move back to Hong Kong and hunt for a job

How to make sure it works out well Be committed to hard work, continuous learning and remaining competitive

Advice If you want a change, prepare well and just do it'