As the battle for talent intensifies, small and medium-sized accountancy practices are seeking out new ways of attracting the brightest recruits – and keeping them
This article was first published in the February/March 2020 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
From accelerated career progression to access to a broader range of clients, small and medium-sized accountancy practices (SMPs) offer significant opportunities to their staff.
While larger firms may be able to rely on their name to recruit talent, SMPs are becoming increasingly creative in distinguishing themselves to potential and existing employees. Some strive to offer enhanced career and training opportunities, with others focusing on staff wellbeing and a better work-life balance.
Thomas Lee, partner at Lee, Au & Co, thinks corporate culture is one of the key differentiating factors between SMPs and larger players in the accounting sector. ‘It is our top priority that all staff are highly valued and respected,’ he says. ‘We listen to their needs and they are encouraged to voice their thoughts. Boutique firms are also usually associated with a better work-life balance.’
Pierre Vanrenterghem, general manager at Rosemont Business Asia, agrees, saying that his firm is constantly working to improve employees’ work-life balance. With this in mind, it has recently introduced work-from-home days and unlimited paid leave.
Vanrenterghem says the practice is highly beneficial in terms of both retaining and attracting staff, as well as increasing productivity. ‘In our experience, when employees enjoy a better balance of life and work, they are more productive. They are also keener to recommend their contacts, friends and former schoolmates come and join the team,’ he says.
Putting people first
The focus on staff sees many SMPs organise recreational activities, team outings and even holidays, as well as the chance to give back through participating in charity and community work.
Voon Hann Chen, managing partner at CAS Malaysia, says his firm has created a relaxation and chatting area in its offices, while it has also introduced a merit point system for promoting good morale and positive teamwork.
Fateen Nur Hazila Binti Mohd Jalal, an auditor at CAS Malaysia, thinks belonging to a smaller firm also makes it easier for junior employees to have their voices heard.
‘It allows us to voice our opinions more easily as there is less hierarchy compared to larger firms. Auditors are more comfortable raising issues directly to their senior manager or even a partner,’ she says.
Renganathan Kannan, partner at TraTax, says his firm puts a high emphasis on rewarding staff. ‘If staff perform very well after three years, as a reward, we send them to global tax conferences, which are attended by renowned tax experts,’ he says.
Alongside the different corporate culture, smaller accountancy practices also offer staff more opportunities and exposure to different sectors and industries. Vanrenterghem says that this illustrates the more entrepreneurial approach that many SMPs take, with employees given greater responsibilities at an early stage of their career.
‘Larger firms have hierarchical structures that do not move easily, while SMPs will put you in contact with clients and challenge you,’ he says.
Kannan says TraTax is able to attract young talent because of the challenging work it carries out, enabling employees to work with high-level clients very early on in their career. ‘In the morning you will be servicing a government-linked organisation, probably in the afternoon you will be servicing a business. There is a great opportunity for different exposure,’ he says, adding that the firm also has a fast-track system under which accountants can become partners in under seven years.
The fact that SMPs typically have fewer staff also means that employees tend to be exposed to a greater variety of companies and sectors, while they may also have to take on a number of different roles within the firm.
‘Working in a smaller firm has benefited me in terms of experiencing a full audit cycle,’ says Fateen, adding that in larger firms, audit work tends to be more siloed.
Chen believes that SMPs also pay more attention to their employees’ careers. ‘We offer a structured career development programme with periodical performance appraisals,’ he says. ‘Employees have faster career advancement and promotion, and exposure to a variety of functional areas of the business.’
Many SMPs also offer their staff overseas exposure. Vanrenterghem says that as a regional firm, staff at Rosemont Asia typically work on international matters every day. ‘As a result, they learn about other jurisdictions. We are in constant contact with our offices in Hong Kong, Vietnam and Thailand,’ he says.
Lee agrees that overseas exposure is one of the key benefits of working for an SMP. ‘We have clients across South and South-East Asia, and our staff get to travel to some exotic places to work. These are highly valuable life experiences,’ he says. Lee, Au & Co also collaborates with a firm in Delhi, with staff from both firms working together.
Another area in which SMPs are looking to distinguish themselves from their larger counterparts is in training.
‘In addition to in-house training and mentoring and some tuition reimbursement, we ensure our staff’s technical competencies, as well as all other soft skills, are properly developed and enhanced,’ Lee says. ‘We also assign an assistant to each of our professional staff so that they learn and be equipped with appropriate managerial skills to move up the career ladder.’
At TraTax, the focus is on tailoring development to the needs of the individual. ‘We support their studies and provide customised training because each employee has a calling to a different area,’ Kannan says.
Meanwhile, CAS Malaysia offers staff a structured training programme for building competencies. This includes in-house and external technical training, as well as sponsoring professional study and paid exam leave.
Fateen certainly thinks her career will benefit from being at a smaller firm, pointing out that employees get the opportunity to hold management-level positions much earlier. ‘This is an added value to our career development as we are gaining golden opportunities and knowledge beyond our role,’ she says.
Ultimately, says Vanrenterghem, SMPs value their employees as individuals more than larger firms. ‘In larger firms, all employees are replaceable,’ he says. ‘In an SMP, your importance within the company will quickly grow.’
Nicky Burridge, journalist
"Larger firms have hierarchical structures that do not move easily, while SMPs will put you in contact with clients and challenge you"