Ex-convicts are more than just a number for accountant with a heart
Thomas Lau helps former prisoners regain their dignity by giving them jobs in his company
As a devout Christian, Thomas Lau Kam-tai signed up to serve convicts in jail some years ago. Before his first visit to Tong Fuk Correctional Institution, he’d pictured big menacing guys covered in tattoos.
“People turned out to be quite mild and civil,” Lau says, remembering how he came to let down his guard. “In fact, a lot of them came across rather wilted. Many of them used to have ‘face’ in their communities, but now they were reduced to caged up underdogs. It was sad to see.”
The experience of interacting with the prisoners stayed with Lau, even after he stopped making visits. So an idea sparked from within when an ex-convict friend suggested to Lau, how about helping those who are out?
“I realised they don’t need ‘help’ per se. They have just lost direction and need someone to walk together with them the path of a new life.”
Lau, a US-trained Certified Public Accountant and Chartered Global Management Accountant who once worked for a prestigious Big Four, decided to make use of what he knew. In 2013 he opened his own accounting firm, Navigator Consultancy, in the humble neighbourhood of Yau Ma Tei, and hired ex-cons to work there.
One of them, “Ah Mo”, has done time both on the mainland and in Hong Kong.
“He’s great with maths,” Lau says, “Mo was an accountant before, but fell into gambling and ended up embezzling money.”
At first, it was a typical situation – the jaded ex-con who has lost confidence and vigour for life.
“No one is willing to hire them back into an office, so very often these people, who used to make money with their brains, are left doing poorly paid labour jobs.” Lau says. “Worse yet, they’re often not good at manual work, so it chips away even more at their self-worth, and it becomes this vicious cycle.”
That was Mo’s experience, until he found an opportunity at Lau’s social enterprise, where he picked up the calculator once again. Three years on, Mo is living life as a confident, renewed man, who spends his free time paying it forward through jail visits and other volunteer work.
It’s not been all so smooth sailing, though. Extra effort is always required with new recruits, most of whom don’t have an accounting background. And there’s the issue of getting business, which means convincing clients of the firm’s ability and its staff members’ integrity.
“There’s no short cut to this; things like reputation and integrity have to be earned. But this is what we offer – a chance for anyone willing to earn people’s trust again.”
There have also been cases in which the recruits took advantage of the firm and left it in jeopardy.
“At one point I had just a few thousand dollars left in the bank. I really wondered if I was just asking for trouble.” Still, Lau never wanted to give this up. “I see it as homework in faith.”
Navigator Consultancy has been nominated by Healthy Seed for a Corporate Citizen Award in the Spirit of Hong Kong Awards, organised by the South China Morning Post.
What keeps Lau, 43, happy, is to see these brothers and sisters helping each other out.
“It’s really warming to watch them grow up and learn to support each other along this path. If you imagine their background, what they’ve been through, you’ll see how incredible it feels to see them working hard together like this.”