A shortage of professional accountants is the biggest challenge
facing the profession in Hong Kong, according to the new Hong Kong
Institute of Certified Public Accountants president, Albert Au. He
speaks with Carolyn Canham about his career and
future plans for the institute.

The Hong Kong accounting profession is constantly discussing the
shortage of accountants, according to Hong Kong Institute of
Certified Public Accountants (HKICPA) president Albert Au.
Albert Au, HKICPA
“I think that is one of the main challenges for many of us,” he
tells TA. “The overtime that [accountants] are putting in
I think is a reflection of the scarcity of resources, the scarcity
of accountants.”

This challenge leads to Au’s main goal for his term as president –
to promote the HKICPA qualification. He plans to kick-start a
couple of initiatives that he hopes will continue for years
ahead.

“One of the things that I would really like to see is to enhance
and deepen the educational thrust of the institute,” Au says.

“From the supply side we are looking at a huge shortage of entrants
into the profession. We need to put a lot of emphasis on our
qualification programme, I think that is something that we need to
build upon. But I think what is even more important is the
continuing professional development programmes that we offer to our
existing members. That is an area which I’d like to put a lot more
emphasis on because there are a lot of smaller firms and
accountants who are working in the business sector that are looking
towards the institute to provide that area of support.

“Also we have a lot of changing accounting and auditing regulations
at the moment. We need to help our members to cope with all these
challenges.”

Canadian education

Au studied at a university in Canada, graduating in 1976. He then
articled with the former Arthur Andersen firm in Canada, before
returning to Hong Kong. Au worked briefly for Price Waterhouse
before establishing his own firm. That firm grew steadily and in
1997 became the BDO member firm in Hong Kong. It now operates as
BDO McCabe Lo and Au is the managing director.

Au was elected to the HKICPA council in 2003. He says serving on
the council at that time was “a lot of fun” because the
organisation, which was then known as the Hong Kong Society of
Accountants, was embarking on a rebranding exercise. “At that time
I was a rookie on council and I love changes so they asked me to
head up the rebranding task force,” Au recalls.

“I think that year gave me a very good opportunity to get to know a
lot of people in the industry, in the profession, and all the
council members. I thought that was a very good start for a rookie
council member. I also headed the editorial board, which came up
with a new look for our new magazine as part of the rebranding
exercise. 2004 was a very exciting year for me; it was a year of a
lot of changes.”

Marketing roots

The rebranding exercise was a resounding success, according to Au.
“In the past we had to introduce ourselves and this was quite
clumsy, as ‘I’m an associate member of the Hong Kong Society of
Accountants’ doesn’t sound terribly sexy,” he confesses. “I’m not
suggesting that CPA is sexy, but at least it’s quite well
recognised, not just in Hong Kong, but globally.”

During the subsequent years Au has dealt primarily with membership
services. “I also chair the small and medium practitioners [SMP] committee, which is basically comprised of all the non-Big Four
firms,” he says. “I think that gave me some very valuable
experience – being aware of the problems and issues that the
smaller practitioners face every day.”

The top of the list of challenges is lack of resources. “Resources
in training, resources in technical backup and so forth,” Au says,
adding that during the past two years the SMP committee has come up
with two products to assist members from SMPs. The first of these
is a quality assurance manual, ‘A Guide to Quality Control’, which
assists members with practice management issues such as tone at the
top, independence requirements, conflict of interest, human
resource requirements and training.

“It’s like a guide book for practitioners who want to start up
their own practice, a very useful guide,” Au explains.

The second publication is an audit manual that provides guidance to
the institute’s smaller practicing members on how they conduct an
audit. Both manuals were developed with assistance from the
Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants and are based on
similar Canadian versions that have been domesticated for use in
Hong Kong.

Strong global links

The HKICPA has good relationships with a number of international
accounting bodies, including mutual recognition agreements with
most of the major accounting institutes, Au says. The institute
expects to secure an agreement with the American Institute of
Certified Public Accountants soon.

One very close relationship, according to Au, is with the Chinese
Institute of Certified Public Accountants. The HKICPA also works
closely with the Chinese Ministry of Finance (MoF), which Au says
regulates and deals with most of the international issues relating
to accounting and auditing.

“[In December last year,] our institute signed a joint declaration
with the MoF [by which we agreed to] assist the Chinese government
with a comparison project between Hong Kong Financial Reporting
Standards and auditing standards with those of the mainland,” Au
explains.