Southeast Asia is the one of the areas where the Institute
of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales has its strongest
representation outside the UK. Carolyn Canham speaks with the man
who has been appointed to spearhead the organisation’s expansion in
this fast-growing region.

Mark Billington is an accountant who, soon after qualification,
decided he wasn’t interested in accountancy per se.

Yet after a 17-year career in the telecoms industry, which took
Billington to Singapore to escape Slough, he has returned to the
heart of the profession as the Southeast Asia director of one of
the world’s largest accountancy organisations – the Institute of
Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW).

Billington is an ICAEW member. He qualified at UK firm BDO Stoy
Hayward but soon discovered he was not interested in the audit and
assurance business.

“One of the great things about the training I got at Stoy Hayward
was it was broad-based, with a full range of activities and not
limited to audit and assurance. I just knew that I needed to do
something else,” he says.

“At the time, back in 1992, I decided the most exciting place to be
was in IT and telecoms, and British Telecom (BT) was just about the
biggest telco that you could join.

So Billington joined BT and forged a career path that gained him
experience in areas including project management, network
management and IT.

The BT career also drew Billington to different geographic
locations. He served as a director in France, and then when BT
floated its wireless arm, which became O2, he moved to work at the
Dutch business.

Three years later, when O2 sold its Dutch business, Billington
decided he did not want to move to the company’s UK
headquarters.

“I still felt like there was a world journey going on, I didn’t
want to go to Slough. So they asked if I wanted to go and run their
Asia-Pacific operations based in Singapore and that is how I came
out to Asia,” he says.

Rediscovering accountancy

Six years later, Billington is back in the depths of the
accountancy profession as the Southeast Asia director of the
ICAEW.

Southeast Asia is one of the regions where the institute has its
strongest reputation outside of the UK. It already offers training
in Singapore and Malaysia but is looking to established a stronger
presence.

The ICAEW effectively began running a fully-functional office in
Singapore when Billington was recruited in the middle of February.
Existing staff in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, have been
drawn into a regional team and there are plans to grow this to
cover the whole region.

“We will continue to grow the organisation; really what it is about
is getting us off the ground in terms of our key objectives of
supporting our members, driving influence and reputation, and
growing our members,” Billington explains.

The root of the ICAEW’s presence in Southeast Asia can probably be
traced to the UK’s past colonial presence.

Billington says that from a Singaporean and Malaysian perspective,
there is a history of the recognition of the “quality and the
premium nature” of the ICAEW brand.

“It was kind of a right of passage that people would look to go
from Singapore and Malaysia to the UK to either get their
university education or further their education,” he
explains.

“You found a lot of people going from here to the UK, studying,
becoming chartered accountants, and then coming back to the
region.”

But now the training demands have a more local focus.

“Singapore particularly is positioning itself as an education hub
and looking at how it can become a leading provider of accounting
services throughout the Southeast Asia region, and that is how we
found it important to be here,” Billington says.

He predicts there will also eventually be training capabilities in
the other large economies.

The ICAEW already has members right across the regions, and they
generally occupy quite high positions in practice or in
industry.

“We are already seeing interest for training from places as varied
as Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, we are talking to people in the
Philippines, so there is really desire across all the territories
here,” Billington says.

“They recognise the fact that in moving from their current status
of development, to being where they potentially want to be, they
have to engage business. If they are going to engage business, they
want to have a framework to help business flourish and as ICAEW and
as our members we are ideally positioned to help provide that
framework.”

In terms of providing localised member services, Billington says
that without “trying to reinvent the wheel”, the ICAEW is looking
to ensure the thought leadership activities it provides in the UK
that are relevant in Southeast Asia are available, not just to
members, but to the accounting profession generally.

“We will look primarily to do that in conjunction with the local
partners,” he explains. “The range of access that they have to
their members is obviously very different to the way that we would
engage with those members. So it is really about partnerships to
achieve this goal and not about us trying to be an entirely
standalone organisation.”