All the business world's a Cantonese opera stage
BDO's Albert Au draws on the skills he learned from his theatrical family to build and run a successful firm
Had it not been for a fire, Albert Au Siu-cheung might have ended up as a film star rather than an accountant.
Au, chairman of Hong Kong's fifth-largest accounting firm, BDO, was cast in a movie by his aunt, legendary Cantonese opera star Pak Suet-sin, when he was nine. Alas, the set went up in flames in an accidental fire and the film was abandoned.
But Au, 61, didn't forget his family roots and the skills he learned from his relatives. Many of the things he picked up from them came in handy later on in his corporate career. Qualities such as teamwork, an eye for detail, casting the right people for the right roles, and saying the right thing at the right time are as desirable in someone running a stage show as they are for a person running a 1,000-strong office.
Au's two grandfathers were also both well-known opera stars but the family wanted the succeeding generations to have white collar professional careers, so Au went to study accountancy in Canada instead of going into the entertainment industry.
After graduating, he worked for a few years at accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers in the 1970s and then had a brief stint in the Canadian property sector. He returned to accountancy when he joined McCabe & Associates in 1981 as an executive director and three years later expanded into auditing.
By 1997, the 29-member firm had grown to 160 and completed its first merger by combining with BDO's Hong Kong operation.
A merger with KL Lee & Partners in 2005 raised the headcount to 350 and another merger in 2009 with Shu Lun Pan Horwath Hong Kong brought the total to 600. Two years ago, a merger with the erstwhile Grant Thornton Hong Kong catapulted the staff strength to 1,000. Au took time out at his office in Sheung Wan to talk about the art of handling mergers and applying the skills of theatrical production in the corporate world.
You came from a family of opera stars. Does that background influence your management style?
Yes. On a personal basis, any opera singer needs to sing or perform on stage in a way that will move the audience.
Likewise, as a chairman at an accounting firm or any company, you need to be a great performer as you have to deliver speeches and present convincing business plans so that your staff and clients accept your ideas and proposals.
For a film or a stage performance to be successful, one cannot work alone but needs a whole team of people working together to make sure everyone has taken the right position and is speaking the right lines at the right time. Likewise, in an office with more than 1,000 people, you need to ensure that every staff member has the right role to play.
My aunt Pak Suet-sin was known to be very demanding on film sets as she was particular about every single detail. You need to be the same way in running an office.
Why did you choose accountancy over opera?
The family didn't want the younger generation to go into the entertainment industry. So I chose accountancy. My son is also an accountant while my wife and my daughter are in the fashion industry.
But I still enjoy Cantonese opera, which is part of the family tradition and I am very proud of it.
Your firm grew by merger. Do you think mergers are a better way to expand your business than organic growth?
It depends on the stage of development. At the initial stage, I think one has to be patient, build up a team and business gradually by organic growth. If you sell your business too early, your team would be completely absorbed by the bigger firm that takes over your business.
However, when we grew to about 160 people in 1997, we thought it was the right time to expand through a merger as we had reached a certain size and client base. At this stage, I would say expanding by way of acquisitions would be a better option as it helps to expand quicker.
How do you ensure a smooth merger?
Initially, we arrange some social gatherings, meals and drinks, to let the staff of the two firms to get to know each other. We also mix people in different teams. This is how people can really work together.
We make sure everyone from both sides feels they are respected and being treated equally. Almost all of our staff have stayed on through the mergers, which has been my mission.
Next, we have to make sure the clients of the two firms get better service than before the merger. We let the partners who handle the clients continue to do so after the merger. It's not an easy process but when people see you treat them equally and respectfully, they like to stay on.
I try not to lose any staff or clients after a merger and we have successfully achieved the retention goal over the years.
Will you be going through any more mergers?
Yes, we would like to continue to expand by merger. But we are pretty strong in auditing already. In future, we would like to merge with accounting firms that would add to our repertoire of expertise, such as advisory services for corporate restructuring, mergers and acquisitions and forensic capabilities.
More specialists would help attract bigger clients and government and public bodies that would expand BDO's client base.
Any retirement plans?
It's always on the cards as I have reached retirement age. I do not have a concrete timetable yet, however.
I did think of going into politics but I think I'm too old to start a political career now. I think I would like to take up some community work to contribute to society, and maybe have more time for travel with my family.