This article was first published in the June international 2016 edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Numbers certainly seem to run in the Lau family, with father and two offspring holding the ACCA Qualification. Despite juggling busy schedules, we managed to get two of the three ACCA members in the family – Lau Kau Chin and eldest son Lau Kah Hee – together in the same room to muse about their deep passion for the accountancy profession in Singapore.

If the fact that Kah Hee is dually qualified as both an accountant and a lawyer isn’t impressive enough, consider that he managed to complete 11 out of the 14 papers required for the ACCA Qualification while he was completing his national service (NS).

‘It was difficult as I had to juggle both my part-time ACCA course as well as my NS commitments,’ Kah Hee says. ‘This meant that many of my weekends and nights were spent studying. Luckily for me, I’ve always enjoyed challenges, and for me getting my ACCA was akin to running a marathon or scaling a mountain.

‘One of the distinct advantages of the ACCA Qualification is its flexibility,’ he adds. ‘You don’t have to take it on as a full-time course and can pursue it at your own pace.’

Playing a crucial part in encouraging Kah Hee to train with ACCA was none other than Kah Hee’s dad, Kau Chin – affectionately known by friends and associates as KC and owner of KC Lau & Co. ‘Even though he had already been accepted into law school, I encouraged Kah Hee to gain the Qualification, as I felt it would help him in both his legal studies as well as his future career,’ KC says.

This advice proved invaluable for Kah Hee, currently a partner at Derrick Wong & Lim BC, who sees his dual qualifications as a distinct advantage in his career. ‘While many lawyers tend to avoid numbers, I am one of the few who are equally comfortable with numbers and words,’ he says. ‘When you’re dealing with commercial cases, sometimes you need to perform a detailed review of transactional information, balance sheets, profit and loss statements – that’s where my ACCA background helps. Instead of spending my time trying to understand the numbers, I can focus on other more important matters relating to the case.’

A self-confessed pragmatist, KC rationalises his entry into accountancy as one guided by necessity. ‘It was different for our generation,’ he recalls. ‘I came from a humble background and, for me, the important thing was to find a career that made a decent livelihood. Accountancy was one of those professions.’

Established in 1986, KC’s firm specialises in auditing, taxation, corporate secretarial and management consultancy services, including valuation of companies. Tax is, however, KC’s passion.

‘All accountants know accounting, but not necessarily tax,’ he says. ‘Deciding to specialise in the latter, I greatly increased my odds of running a successful business. I guess that decision has paid off.’

Today, however, running the firm is less about necessity and more about pursuing a passion. Kah Hee provides some insight. ‘My dad likes tax and accounting – especially tax. Even when he’s 70, I’m sure he’ll still come to work on a daily basis, and not because he needs the money but because he enjoys it.’

Indeed, even though KC runs a profitable and reputable accountancy firm that is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, he is still very much involved. ‘I’m still keeping myself as busy as before,’ he says. ‘I have built a brand name, where I no longer need to market my services. When people have a tax problem, they know that KC Lau is the person to go to. I handle all the investigation cases myself because I thoroughly enjoy what I’m doing.’

Worth inheriting

Despite his love for his job, however, KC admits that after more than 30 years in the industry, it would be nice to step aside one day and let somebody else take over the business.

‘I have established a practice that I think is worth inheriting. I have put a lot of effort into getting my firm known for its expertise and reliability in terms of professional services,’ he says. ‘Today, I have more than 500 clients and it would be nice to have one of my children take over.’

In fact, with Kah Hee’s unique dual qualifications, a possibility in the future might be a business that merges both accountancy and law. ‘It would be good for clients to enjoy a one-stop service for both accounting and legal services,’ KC says. ‘Accountants already handle a lot of the legal matters, and the only thing we cannot do is litigation. I see a future where two separate firms – law and accountancy – operate separately but under one entity.”

Kah Hee agrees. ‘It is definitely an attractive proposition,’ he says. ‘Most corporate clients require accounting and tax work, and may from time to time face legal issues. If an accounting firm and a law firm can have a joint professional alliance or some arrangement to service the same group of clients, those clients would be saved the trouble of having to repeat the background of their business model or cases at hand to two different sets of professionals. This in turn will reduce costs and time, leading to savings for the clients.’

For now, though, their professional dealings are limited to legal and accounting advice, as well as case referrals. ‘For complicated tax matters, I will get my dad’s input,’ Kah Hee says. And, reciprocally, KC says that even though he tries as much as possible to avoid going to court, as it is not in the interest of the client, if there are cases requiring litigation, Kah Hee would be his first port of call.

As one of Singapore’s accounting pioneers, KC greatly values the role that ACCA has played in his success. ‘The association, as a globally recognised accounting body, opens up opportunities to work in any corner of the world,’ he says. ‘I came from Malaysia, worked in England and settled down in Singapore. This would not have been possible if not for ACCA.’ Kah Hee agrees. ‘ACCA has an impressive wealth of technical resources, activities and advice, which is readily accessible by its members. This helps me to keep my finger on the pulse of the latest developments taking place in various key industries around the world and to better understand the global economic conditions that my clients are facing. This in turn enables me to understand my clients’ business models so as to better address their needs and concerns.’

However, as with any successful career, there are bound to be challenges along the way. KC says that even though he runs a successful practice, he still faces challenges when competing with the Big Four. 

‘Big accountancy firms have the resources to perform a job efficiently, which translates into big fees,’ he explains. ‘SMPs [small and medium practitioners], however, have limited resources at hand. Even though individually the practitioners may be good, it can be a challenge as a firm to deliver the same results at a smaller fee.

‘We have to know our strengths and weaknesses. If there are cases where substantial resources are required, and if you’re lacking in them, you have to decide whether it is worth the risk. Fees are one thing, but reputation is even more important.’

At the other end of the spectrum, when Kah Hee was a senior associate in one of the world’s largest law firms, charging $700 an hour for his legal expertise (almost double that of local law firms), his challenge was how to justify the fees and bring value to his clients.

‘I always strive to be one step ahead of the competition – to be better, faster and stronger. I have to find the most cost-effective and efficient solutions to my clients’ problems,’ Kah Hee says. I see this as a constant challenge with increasing competition in the legal sector coming from foreign law firms.’

Something to talk about

While it can be quite a scene with two professionals discussing legal and tax matters at the dining table, add to the mix another two lawyers and an accountant and you have yourself a recipe for lively banter every family gathering. 

Besides Kah Hee, KC has three other children, two of whom are lawyers and another an ACCA-qualified accountant.

‘There’s always something to talk about, be it law or accounting, as we all have different points of views on different matters,’ KC says. ‘Having a family of accountants and lawyers has brought us together and closer as there are many overlapping areas of common interest. Knowledge is power and good knowledge must be shared for the benefit of yourself and your clients.

It takes some coaxing but KC eventually reveals the secret to success for new entrants to the accountancy profession: they must be willing to learn.

‘Accountancy is a very theoretical subject,’ he says. ‘What you study in school is the end part of the practice. When you enter the workforce, you start from the very bottom. If you don’t have a willingness to learn, you will lose out. Learn from the bottom and move to the top – then you will become a fantastic, well-rounded accountant.’

Kah Hee, meanwhile, believes that there comes a point in a career when you need to take a risk. That is why after having previously worked at some of the biggest local and international law firms in Singapore, he recently took on the challenge of going down the more entrepreneurial path by joining boutique law firm, Derrick Wong & Lim BC, which specialises in commercial, civil and criminal litigation.

‘Coming into the workforce as a young trainee, you must have perseverance at the beginning and have the energy to see it through,’ he reflects. ‘Eventually, when you reach a certain stage, you need to take calculated risks to build up your career. You must know when to make your move and what the end game is.’ 

Rufus Tan, journalist