This article was first published in the July 2018 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

On a balmy workday afternoon at Richemont’s China office, COO Jenny Gu, who is also ACCA’s vice president, shares her enthusiasm about how Council can engage its members and modernise its governance.

‘Since day one, I have engaged actively in all sorts of ACCA activities,’ she says. ‘Back in 1999, ACCA China was still small but I, a newbie and just qualified, was able to engage in the International Assembly, as ACCA acknowledged the potential and importance of China’s market and economy.’

The role of vice president is one that Gu takes seriously. ‘I regard it as a sacred mission,’ she says. ‘ACCA Council is known for its delicate governance structure, and it’s our job to modernise this 100-plus-year-old accountancy body. We aim to drive change while keeping consistency in global practice, and engage more members and future finance professionals, to advance the profession and to help local economies develop further.’

ACCA’s Council has six committees – governance design, market oversight, audit, nominating, remuneration and resource oversight – play a key role in this process. Gu is currently a task force member of the governance design committee, which is responsible for overall planning  to aid the delivery of ACCA’s strategy, to reflect best global practice and to ensure a forward looking and future proof governance. Gu was, she says, very happy with the strong member support of the modernisation of ACCA’s  governance arrangements at the last AGM in 2017.

Since 2011 Gu has been vice chair and then chair of the market oversight committee, which is responsible for the oversight of ACCA’s market development strategy and implementation, as well as reviewing the relevance of ACCA’s brand to the needs of markets and providing oversight on execution and performance. In addition, she has sat on the nominating committee, which is responsible for ensuring that Council remains representative of the membership and that all members have the right skills and experience.

While Gu’s role at Richemont, a leading global luxury goods company, involves her in considering strategy and exploring opportunities for growth, as well as overseeing the whole company’s operations in China, her skills in finance remain central.

‘Finance has always been the cornerstone of my career and makes me who I am,‘ she says, adding that this has given her the ability to go further. ‘I’ve never been afraid of branching out beyond finance management into strategic planning, supply chain management, commercial and general business management, transformation management and consulting, let alone the most recent and hot trends in big data, artificial intelligence, robotics and digitisation,’ she says.

‘All experiences are mutually enriching and enhancing. And I believe these are also the challenges and opportunities facing many finance talents today. The broader your experience beyond finance, the stronger the leadership you can perform.’

Philosophical approach

Gu’s route into accountancy is not a textbook one. A graduate in philosophy, she went on to obtain a master’s degree but sidestepped into accountancy when she joined KWTF-BDO, a Hong Kong audit firm that then had the largest market share.

In the early 1990s, China was at the early stage of its economic transformation with an increasing number of multinational companies, including Procter & Gamble and Unilever, tapping into a huge market.

‘I was interested in numbers from the very beginning, especially their connection with general business management,’ Gu says, explaining that this has led her to take management accounting as an option at graduate school.

‘In the end it’s all about learning professional knowledge, in accounting and auditing principles and fundamental rules, then applying them in practice and working logically and artfully.’

When BDO-KWTF was recruiting ACCA trainees for its Shanghai office, Gu jumped at the chance. The firm offered trainees huge support, hiring overseas tutors and granting sufficient time to complete the training while performing initial public offerings and annual auditing for companies listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange.

Active role

Since qualifying, Gu has taken an active role in ACCA member events. In 1999 she became involved with ACCA’s global activities, attending both the regional Asia-Pacific gathering and the International Assembly that year. At the same time her role as Nike China’s finance director was giving her the opportunity to work with finance professionals around the world.

After a few years working in the US, Taiwan and Singapore on Nike assignments, Gu returned in 2005 and re-engaged with ACCA at a local level, working with ACCA China staff to help them drive member engagement, and in 2009 she stood for election to Council; she has been a member ever since.

Fit for the future

A key concern for Gu is the importance of ensuring that ACCA’s brand strength, qualification, financial position and Council are fit for the future. ‘We had about 80,000 members in 2009 but now we have over 200,000. The growing scale and complexity of operating calls for the modernisation of our governance structure,‘ she says, noting that diversity is one of ACCA’s core values.

Gu notes that one of the key challenges is technological advancement, both within the finance profession and beyond, as illustrated by the ACCA Shanghai CFO Summit, ‘Reshaping the future through innovation’, held last November.

Gu acknowledges that the digital age is reshaping the business model and that companies have to reassess their ways of value creation in order to secure new opportunities, noting that it should be embraced rather than feared. ‘Fears that artificial intelligence will destroy the accounting profession are exaggerated,’ she says, noting that technology will take on repetitive tasks that can be automated. ‘We need to shift our mindset and build robust tech know-how.‘ She adds that the key to driving value creation is to learn to use technology at a strategic level to enable a more constructive and insight-driven business dialogue. ‘For those at junior level, they may provide suggestions on processing improvement that can drive efficiency, while for those at senior level, they should focus on issues on corporate and strategic level.’ This could benefit areas including business modelling; identifying potential disruptive competition; consumer/client engagement and service; business growth; and investment and divestment.

Collective leadership

Gu notes that the finance profession comprises a combination of many different disciplines. Besides a knowledge of accounting standards, an accountant needs to have a competent understanding of business law, taxation rules, best practice in corporate governance and ethics. It would be impossible, she says, for any robot to replicate the human mind in processing complex accounting issues.

Richemont is home to more than 20 well-known brands, including Cartier, Chloé and Montblanc, and Gu’s responsibilities cover finance, legal, HR, corporate affairs and logistics. ‘It’s always about gaining different experiences,’ she says. ‘I need to partner with the “maison” [brand] CEOs to collectively lead and drive the business.’

Gu’s time as supply chain director at Nike China pushed her beyond her boundaries. Besides routine supply chain management such as logistics, warehousing, transportation, IT and customer service, she was tasked with developing a distribution strategy to empower and sustain strong business growth leading up to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, with the target of quadrupling the business. Finance played a critical role in planning for capacity and investment; Gu partnered with Nike’s global supply chain organisation, which resulted in the creation of a dedicated, semi-automated, state-of-the-art logistics centre 50km from Shanghai.

Today, as part of Richemont, Gu has helped the company achieve 17% sales increases in Asia Pacific – the company’s largest region – in the year to 31 March 2018, totalling €3,903m. (Overall global sales increased by 3% to €10,979m, with operating profit of €1,844m and profit for the year of €1,221m.)  

As the luxury sector continues to grow, there will continue to be challenges ahead, Gu notes. China’s operating environment is complex, with legal, statutory and supply chain compliance presenting challenges. While there is an international perception of the country being a unified market, in fact it is in some ways more like the European Union, with different provincial, city and district fiscal policies to contend with. Added to this is the challenge of engaging with consumers.

‘Shoppers are younger and newly rich, while immensely digitally connected,’ Gu says. ‘How Richemont evolves our business strategies and stays connected and relevant beyond the traditional bricks-and-mortar retail model, tapping into China’s new retail model and delivering consistent and superior luxury client service experience, will be one of our determining factors for long-term success,’ she says.

One thing’s for sure: being an ACCA trained finance and business professional, with her years of experience in business management, Gu is ready for whatever lies ahead.

Ailin Zhou, journalist