For Agnes Cheung FCCA, a director and head of tax at BDO Hong Kong, the key to success is being ahead of the game in a fast-moving business environment
This article was first published in the April 2017 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
Agnes Cheung attributes her high-flying career to good luck. But a brief chat with the director and head of tax at BDO reveals the key elements behind her success: great business vision; a wealth of specialist knowledge in tax and asset management; passion for client services; and excellent interpersonal skills.
Since joining BDO in September 2015, Cheung has taken in her stride the challenges of adapting to a new working environment and the much-increased responsibilities of a head of tax as compared with her previous position as a tax director. ‘As the leader of the tax services team, I am in charge of the overall business development and direction of our firm’s tax practice,’ she says. ‘People development is another area that requires my close attention. I need to motivate my team members to constantly enrich their professional knowledge and sharpen their technical competencies to keep pace with the latest changes in the tax regulations.’
Cheung has been driven to make the most out of career advancement. ‘I’ve been willing to put in the extra time and energy in developing new skill sets. The additional responsibilities allow me to hone my skills in time management and prioritisation,’ she reflects.
Under Cheung’s leadership, BDO’s tax services department has already achieved positive business growth. Cheung has successfully inspired her team members to properly look after clients’ needs by delivering top-notch services so that she can focus more time and energy on planning ahead. ‘Apart from looking after the current clients’ needs and meeting market demands, a forward-looking mindset is essential in business development,’ she says. ‘I am tasked with mapping out the future direction of the tax practice. One of the keys to maintaining our competitive edge is to have well-defined positioning and differentiations.’
Drawing on her wide-ranging expertise in tax issues, Cheung charts the practice’s course of future development. ‘When I predict future changes, potential opportunities are identified. The challenge for us is to further strengthen the team’s competencies to tap these opportunities,’ she says.
In addition, Cheung’s pleasant personality and outstanding people skills make it easy for collaboration with the heads of the other departments at BDO who refer clients to her regularly. Her department’s operational efficiency is progressively optimised through close cooperation with such departments as IT and finance. She considers her collaboration with the other team leaders at the company a highly rewarding experience. The fruitful cooperation is also one of the reasons behind her smooth transition to a new firm and a more senior position with additional responsibilities. ‘I have enjoyed great support from my team and other departments,’ she says. ‘As soon as I was on board, I was able to be focused on business development. The coordination with other departments has been great, thanks to BDO’s corporate culture that emphasises collaboration to achieve goals.’
Client work is her passion, Cheung admits. ‘Despite the increased responsibilities, I always try my best in meeting clients personally,’ she says. ‘I derive tremendous satisfaction from offering helpful advice and services tailored to meet the needs of individual clients. I relish the close business relationship with my clients, which I consider a partnership.’
The diverse aspects of tax practice also include risk management. Cheung leads in the careful selection of client engagements. While growing business is important, the tax services department has the responsibility to evaluate prospective clients before it gets engaged with them. BDO’s internal risk management team provides significant support, Cheung notes. ‘As tax advisory, we need to carefully consider whether our advice to a particular client will have an impact on the independence of BDO’s auditors helping the same customer. I make the judgment in respect of the delicate balance between the tax advisory and auditing teams. I sometimes personally communicate to our audit partners about how our work will not affect their independence.’
Hong Kong is a regional financial hub, so Cheung’s team is busy with IPO cases involving public responsibilities, which are relatively more risky than advisory engagements, she believes. ‘To ensure that our advice is of a high standard, it is my responsibility to put the cases through the internal stringent technical and risk management review procedure,’ she explains. ‘Because this type of projects requires more comprehensive and in-depth consideration, a lot of effort goes into external risk assessment and internal quality management.’
Another challenge for tax advisory in Hong Kong is the recent changes in the taxation landscape across the globe as a result of the OECD’s introduction of the BEPS Action Plan in late 2015. Because Hong Kong’s tax system is relatively straightforward, the city is usually reactive to changes, Cheung observes. ‘Although the fast-changing environment represents a challenge, we have always stayed on top of it. At the same time, many new opportunities do emerge from the challenges.’
Cheung has been able to tap these opportunities because of her in-depth understanding and knowledge of tax-related issues. Between 2008 and 2016, she was one of the technical reviewers for Wolters Kluwer’s Hong Kong Master Tax Guide. She is also an active member of the tax committees of various professional bodies, including ACCA Hong Kong. ‘This provides me with firsthand information on the latest changes,’ she says. ‘I have also participated in government consultation exercises for tax policies and have benefited a lot from the ideas exchanged with other seasoned professionals.’
Cheung’s expertise in tax has also been cultivated through a sharply focused career. ‘Among the various accounting specialities, I developed an interest in tax at university because it focused on tax legislation and case law. After graduation, I was recruited as a tax accountant in a Big Four firm while many of my classmates went into the other specialities. Since then, I have continued working for CPA firms and stayed focused on tax.’
Initially Cheung dedicated her efforts to Hong Kong tax compliance work. In 2007, she got the opportunity to diversify into international tax under the guidance of a senior tax partner, she recalls. ‘In those days, international tax involved mainly crossborder tax issues between Hong Kong and mainland China because many overseas companies leveraged the city as the platform for investment on the mainland.’
Through intensive on-the-job training, Cheung quickly soaked up the essential professional knowledge in various aspects of international taxation, including crossborder transactions and advising foreign investors’ business interests on the mainland. These assignments naturally led to extensive exposure to China tax advisory. Her scope of expertise continued to broaden along with changes to Hong Kong’s business environment, such as the introduction of double taxation agreements with overseas countries. The territory’s tax treaty network has quickly expanded to include more than 35 countries. ‘As China intensified its outbound investment drive by encouraging domestic enterprises to go abroad, I got the opportunity to provide tax services in relation to outbound investments and the asset management industry, thus developing expertise in yet another area,’ she notes.
Diverse global perspectives
The ACCA Qualification was the first professional qualification Cheung achieved, she says. ‘I still remember the thrilling sensation when I learned that I had got on the qualified accountant payroll shortly after getting the ACCA Qualification.’
The benefits of the qualification go beyond merely monetary reward, she believes. ‘As ACCA is the professional accounting association with the longest history in Hong Kong, many members are seasoned accounting and finance professionals working in diverse sectors in addition to CPA firms. I have always learned a lot through interaction with them at various conferences and events organised by ACCA,’ Cheung says. ‘I always try my best to attend ACCA’s CPD events. ACCA’s comprehensive electronic publications are a great source of knowledge, full of market and technical updates and business reports. ACCA’s edge is that it helps members get the broad and diverse global perspectives: it not only features in-depth reports on China’s development but also has extensive coverage of the latest market trends in the Asian-Pacific region and Europe.’
Professional bodies like ACCA Hong Kong thrive in the city because of its secure position as a regional financial centre, and Cheung sees many new opportunities emerging for tax services in the coming years as Hong Kong introduces new legislation, a transfer pricing rule and new incentives for funds. ‘The government has also recently launched the corporate treasury centres regime,’ Cheung says. ‘There are many favourable tax incentives to promote Hong Kong as a financial hub. These measures bring many opportunities to tax advisory specialists. Their services will continue to be in strong demand from many companies, ranging from listed entities to enterprises with investment on the mainland and abroad. There is a lot of room for further development; I therefore will continue to devote my time and energy to further strengthening our tax practice in the next few years. We hope to sustain business growth in the tax services by deploying sufficient human resources to drive the growth.’
Cheung adds that she would also like to leverage BDO’s strong presence in mainland China; according to the 2016 ranking report from the Chinese Institute of Certified Public Accountants, BDO China, which has over 30 offices with more than 9,000 professionals, was ranked the third largest accountancy network in China, in terms of revenue. ‘Hopefully, we will be able to strengthen cooperation with BDO China’s network in China so that we can diversify from the Hong Kong market to the mainland,’ Cheung notes.
BDO’s international network translates into comprehensive services delivered without any geographical boundaries, which also gives the firm a competitive edge. ‘The BDO global network has member firms in 155 countries and I have built personal connections with many partners and team leaders from offices around the world,’ Cheung says. ‘When my clients have some specific needs outside Hong Kong and China, I can easily get support from overseas firms in particular locations.’
Cheung well understands that one’s career advancement is commensurate with the amount of time and energy invested. While Cheung is still on a learning curve in her latest position, she is aware that she needs to spend a lot of time and energy on her work and accomplishing assignments to her satisfaction. ‘Because I have great passion and interest in my work, perhaps I spend more than 50% of my time on my career,’ says the mother of two. ‘I think the balance is achieved through optimising the quality of time spent with my family. I ensure there is zero dealing with work during my family time. Even when I have to bring work home sometimes, I make sure that I will only start working after putting my kids to bed.’
Wilson Lau, journalist
"I relish the close business relationship with my clients, which I consider a partnership"