This article was first published in the March 2015 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

RSM Chio Lim was founded in 1985 as KH Chio & Associates, a small, four-person practice. It expanded quickly by growing with their clients; since 2004, RSM Chio Lim has consistently been ranked the largest accountancy and consulting firm in Singapore outside the Big Four. 

The firm offers a comprehensive range of advisory and business solutions under the umbrella name of Stone Forest. It also has a wholly owned subsidiary in China that supports foreign businesses there. This year, the firm celebrates its 30th anniversary with its combined headcount of 1,200 staff.  

‘Throughout the years, we have positioned ourselves as advisers to growing businesses,’ says senior partner Teo Cheow Tong, who leads talent management for the firm. ‘We operate in our own niche market, and we are recognised as the obvious choice in that market. This has worked well for us.’

This niche market is clearly distinct from the type of clients served by the Big Four firms, explains audit services partner Derek How. ‘Our clients are typically owner-managed, entrepreneurial and internationally active businesses. We organise our services around helping them grow their businesses and doing business outside Singapore. 

‘In addition, our other value-add is that we are able to support them in their non-core areas so that they can better focus on the revenue-generating aspects of their businesses.’

RSM Chio Lim’s clientele and strategy require the firm to focus on two key areas. The first is talent retention, because the firm’s approach so heavily emphasises interpersonal contact and the direct involvement of senior people. The second is client service, which the partners describe as a critical success factor in its growth over three decades of operation.

Encouraging talent to stay

Despite its size and healthy growth, RSM Chio Lim faces the same talent shortage as the rest of the accountancy sector. Hence, say partners, the greatest challenge is to ensure that they have sufficient experienced people with the skills to cater to the increased clientele and their growing needs.  

‘The most effective solution is to groom and nurture the talent we already have’ says Teo. At the same time, the firm is always on the lookout for external talent. They practice ‘hire first, deploy them later’. This recruitment strategy supplements the ‘grow-your-own-timber’ policy to provide the firm with the capacity to handle busy periods well. Indeed, the firm has been known to reject new work so that they can focus on the work on hand and commit to completing them well. In so doing, the staff is also kept motivated.

To encourage people to stay on, RSM Chio Lim’s working environment is made as friendly as possible through small but meaningful gestures. For example, each person is given a desk of their own rather than having to share work spaces.

‘Hotdesking is supposed to be popular these days, but the concept of having your own desk is dear to the firm’s founders. It is part of treating your staff with respect,’ says Teo.

He describes other seemingly insignificant features of the firm’s working environment that have made an unexpectedly large difference. For example, when RSM Chio Lim’s offices were located in buildings with central air-conditioning, condensers were installed so that staff who came back to work at night or on weekends could benefit from air-conditioning. In the firm’s current offices at Wilkie Edge, air-conditioning is on demand 24/7 and allows staff to set the temperature to their preference.

‘It might look very trivial. But to us, it’s important, especially for staff who come from working environments that don’t have such features,’ says Teo.

The firm also cultivates a strong culture of mutual assistance. Partners and managers take pains to help staff out wherever possible, he says. ‘As a firm, we recognise that the profession is already tough enough as it is. Our people are faced with technical demands, time commitments, reporting deadlines, and so forth. So we try to make life less stressful by emphasising to the staff that we are here to help. As we see it, our staff are here to learn, or they would be working in a job that allows them a slower pace of life. So as seniors, we help them learn instead of creating more stress for them.’

Finally, and possibly most significantly, the firm’s policy is to evaluate performance strictly on merit, so that everyone is able to work on an even playing field. No family ties are allowed to influence recruitment or advancement.

‘The founding partners were generous enough to allow people to make partner on the basis of no equity and no goodwill. Our founding partners made it a practice not to have children or immediate family members of partners in the firm,’ Teo explains.

Client service focus

RSM Chio Lim’s main growth factor over the decades has been client referrals, and to support this, the firm has tried to inculcate a client service model into its culture, says How.

‘Client service means two things to us,’ he explains. ‘One is speed; clients’ minimum expectation is that we must be able to meet the deadline, so we focus on meeting – and beating – it. Our response times are generally prompt, and we can turn around jobs faster. We take pride in saying that we compete in terms of speed.’

The other aspect is adding value. Partners routinely encourage clients to be open about any problems they face, so that the team can provide them with professional advice and help them resolve the issue. This approach is generally well received, says Ang. ‘Our clients are typically business owners, and they appreciate anything we share with them as added value,’ he elaborates.

However, as RSM Chio Lim continues to grow, maintaining that culture becomes more challenging. Skill-wise, the firm already leverages on technology to help people do their work more effectively and efficiently. In addition, clients are segregated into key industries such as funds, real estate, oil and gas, retail, food and beverages and so on, so that the expertise of various departments can be brought together.

‘With audit, for example, we do not just focus on audit,’ says How. ‘We bring in tax, risk management and other related areas to provide our clients with more value-added advice.’

This approach, while holistic, requires considerable investment in training and development. The people working with each vertical market, particularly senior people, need specialised knowledge and skill sets in order to advise clients.

‘If we want to serve our clients better, we need to be sure that our knowledge is up to date. We cannot act in a silo manner,’ explains How. Hence, people are regularly seconded to other firms in the RSM International network to provide them with relevant exposure.

More important is the client service mindset, say partners. To cultivate that mindset, the firm has implemented a series of training and recognition initiatives emphasising the importance of client service. 

For example, RSM Chio Lim is currently the only firm outside the Big Four to have a full-time soft-skills training manager. Other programmes include one-day seminars during which senior personnel share their experience with client service, and an iC.A.R.E Award which recognises outstanding staff.

‘It goes back to the principle of treating our people with respect,’ says Ang. ‘We offer our clients and staff the same level of transparency and honesty at all times, even if we have to tell them negative things sometimes. That level of honesty attracts new talent and contributes to client and staff retention.’

Ultimately, says Teo, sticking to principles is what will keep RSM Chio Lim moving forward: focusing on its advantages of client service, speed and value-add, and ensuring that the business advisory services can continue to support the audit practice.

As he sums up: ‘We are committed to growing those services to support our clients in their pursuit of growth.’

Mint Kang, journalist