This article was first published in the September 2016 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Born and bred in Hong Kong, Patrick Wong, AECOM Asia’s executive vice president, finance, takes great pride in the company’s infrastructure projects. ‘When I go out with my son I point out projects we’ve worked on and tell him, “This is my company’s project”. He’s seven years old. He takes it very seriously; he wants to know what I’ve done,’ he says.

As head of finance for Asia, Wong and his team’s input play a critical role in both strategic financial management of the global, integrated infrastructure firm across its Asia-Pacific marketplaces, operationally deciding whether or not to give a project the green light and follow through its financial performance until completion. 

‘We need to ensure that we advise the project team of all the potential cost implications so that when they prepare for the bidding they factor in the cost budget, otherwise a big win could become a big loss,’ Wong says. 

This is particularly important when dealing with big projects such as the Olympic Games – AECOM was involved with the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Games and the upcoming games in Tokyo – and crossborder mega projects, where the first things for finance to consider are the foreign currency risk and the tax exposure. 

‘That and the forex can impact the P&L,’ Wong points out. ‘In this industry a lot of the payment is by milestone, so we must look at cashflow and the payment terms, and then the payment schedule, before we commit to any project. We also look at how to manage employee tax as our people move around the world to serve projects.’  

Ensuring timely payment by milestone – and thus a steady cashflow – is one of the challenges of the job, particularly in Asia. It is more challenging compared with other parts of the world when it comes to cashflow management, and more prevalent when the economic climate is poor. Turnover in Asia is typically higher than in other countries, such as the US and Australia. Faced with this challenge, ‘We need to be clear upfront in signing the contract, take action early and follow the client closely. We also need to actively manage by doing a little in-house reminder. The aim is to pass on the message that the firm is serious about timely payment – and avoid having to resort to legal action because we’d prefer not to burn bridges,’ Wong says. 

Keep on top of cashflow

Keeping on top of cashflow is one of the top finance functions. Wong’s team advises those working on key projects to remember that it’s important to finish the job with quality and within budget. To this end, AECOM Asia recently introduced a project bonus scheme. 

‘Once the project leader has set up the project to make a certain target margin, AECOM provides the incentive that if the project team can hit that target, the incremental profit will be shared between the regional business and the project team, Wong says. ‘That gives an extra incentive to the project team and makes financial management more relevant to them because hitting their target will enhance their compensation.’

He notes that staff such as engineers and architects are more interested in the technical aspects of managing a project than the financial ones, such as reviewing the details of the contract. Wong has been instrumental in helping roll out a comprehensive training scheme over the last six years. 

‘We train them from a risk management and financial management perspective,’ he explains. ‘Our employees usually attend a half-day lecture. There are also courses for the newly joined and newly promoted. Our aim is to ensure that our people are equipped with the knowledge and guidelines at their levels to participate in the bidding process.’ 

AECOM offers online training courses – both technical and soft skills – and beginning this year all staff are assigned set courses to take. Their supervisor is responsible for choosing the course and the aim is to give the team the skills and the confidence to connect to the company’s mission to enhance and sustain the world’s built, natural and social environments. AECOM has also invested in systems to enhance operation efficiency such as distributing designated financial information via tablet apps to people at different levels of the organisation. 

‘I feel proud to be part of the company, and I feel strongly about helping my team to connect to the meaning of the company and the role that their work plays,’ Wong says. ‘They need to see there’s more than just doing the invoicing and accounting; we want to engage them.’ 

AECOM has grown significantly in Wong’s nine years with the firm. It took US$4.2bn in revenue during fiscal year 2007 and in 2015 that was up to US$18bn. Much of that growth is due to mergers and acquisitions; in 2014, AECOM bought its peer URS – which was even bigger than AECOM – and spent the following year integrating the company. Such a major acquisition resulted in US$5.3bn in debt following the close of the deal; and paying off that debt on a timely basis every quarter is a matter that the firm takes seriously. ‘We have a role to deliver cashflow so that the company pays down the debt in the schedule that we planned. A healthy cashflow is the most important thing to continue,’ Wong says. 

Holistic view

As the company has grown, so has Wong’s role. In addition to his duties as the head of finance, he works closely with the management team and is seen as a business partner. This gives him a more holistic view of the company and puts him in a stronger position to make calls on key financial issues. 

‘I join our CEO at the town halls once a year to talk about the company’s direction and priorities, and travel to different offices almost every quarter to meet with them,’ he says. ‘It is important they don’t see me just as finance – I’m an operation partner. Sometimes informal channels work more efficiently than formal channels. I find maintaining good communication lines on both levels gives me the edge to be able to collect a lot of intelligence from the ground and channel it up.’ 

In February, for the second year running, AECOM was named on Fortune magazine’s list of the ‘World’s Most Admired Companies’. Wong notes that of the magazine’s nine criteria, three are financial components: financial soundness, wise use of corporate assets and long-term investment value. He believes this shows that the success of AECOM is not just down to the quality of the management and innovation but also to the financial discipline. 

‘The equity structure is a very important focus and requires a lot of discipline,’ he says. ‘How do you want to use your money? To repurchase the company’s stock? Invest in the systems and people? Or pay down the debt? All this requires a lot of analysis in capital allocation. We drive the cash consciousness throughout the organisation; it’s not just within finance.’ 

Almost 30 years in business, starting as an auditor with Deloitte, have given him great experience in a multinational environment and across all aspects in strategic planning to operations. ‘Since I left audit in 1991, I have taken up regional roles in multinational companies and that has given me a lot of exposure to business dynamics from a different perspective to finance professionals who are not working for a corporate,’ Wong says. 

He studied for his ACCA Qualification immediately after graduation. In those days it meant passing 18 papers and he learned much about company law, financial management and accounting. He earned his Qualification in 1989 and says it opened the doors to the companies he wanted to join, but he insists that it is just the starting point for those who want to get ahead. 

‘An ACCA Qualification gives you the knowledge to go into a company and ask questions. If you go into a big company as an accountant, do what you are told and go home at five o’clock then you’re not using the full potential of what your ACCA Qualification has given you,’ Wong says. 

He advises accountants to be curious and look beyond the remit of the job. By asking questions outside of your immediate scope, you will come to understand the business more fully and be better able to advise on financial issues. 

‘If you only focus on finance you will only see the finance element,’ Wong concludes. ‘If you aspire to something broader than traditional accountancy, you need to think more broadly about the purpose of finance and act like a business manager, not just an accountant.’ 

Kate Whitehead, journalist