Catherine Williams spent more than a decade in Hong Kong as a forensic accountant. Now back home in Sydney, she tells A Plus about how she coped with technology, fraud, and male domination in her wide-ranging career, and advises how CPAs can join a stimulating specialty field.
Like many international accountants assigned to Hong Kong, Catherine Williams figured the city would help grow her international profile. And, like many of her peers, she stayed far longer than she intended. “I took a two-year secondment – that was in 2005 – and I stayed until 2016,” she says.
Williams, a Hong Kong Institute of CPAs member, is now based in her native Sydney but on a flying visit back to Hong Kong, she explains over coffee at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club how the special administrative region became an integral component of her career as a forensic accountant.
In 2005, she was a director and forensic accountant at the Australian firm Ferrier Hodgson in Sydney. While she was confident about executing the work brought into the firm, she sought a bigger role.
“I wanted to see if I could [bring in work],” she recalls. “Winning the work is part of getting yourself into a position where you can look towards a partnership – you’ve got to bring in the clients.”
In the 1980s, Ferrier Hodgson Co-founder Ian Ferrier expanded the firm’s reach into Asia, and Hong Kong was the firm’s regional hub. “I thought a change of market and a change of scenery would be good,” says Williams. “Perhaps being in a different environment might enable me to be a bit bolder, and a bit less competitive in terms of male domination and the glass ceiling for women.”
Despite Asia’s reputation as a patriarchal region, Williams was surprised at the gender balance when she arrived in the city. “I found that there were more women in high-profile roles here in Hong Kong than in Australia,” she says. “Australia could be better… there’s still a bit of a glass ceiling.”
Williams was also struck by how quickly Hong Kong’s working women returned to the labour force after giving birth. “They don’t stay out of the market,” she says. “And so I think it is more important not to lose that foothold here, so they’re back at work a lot quicker. It’s a different lifestyle – it’s a lot faster, a lot more expensive – so they definitely need two incomes.”
Aside from the societal shift, Williams found her work in Hong Kong to be professionally and intellectually rewarding. “In Sydney, they don’t have the variety of matters that we get in Hong Kong so you see a lot of [Australian forensic accountants] flying up here.”
Williams has witnessed huge changes in forensic accounting since she entered the field more than two decades ago. “Technology has been transformative,” she says.
“I think it was in the early 2000s that we first had some software that you could use,” she adds. “It was cumbersome, difficult to learn, and it wasn’t intuitive.” Williams cites data analytics as a game changer. “When Ferrier Hodgson was bought out by FTI Consulting in 2010, the first thing they came to the table with was data analytics,” she says.
“I jumped at it, knowing what it would mean to be able to get my data straight from the accounting system, rather than have to go through hard copy documents,” she adds. “It was something that I immediately knew would make my life easier.”
In 2011, she co-founded – with Chris Fordham, Forensic and Integrity Services Partner at EY and Irene Siu, Executive Director, Fraud Investigation and Dispute Services at EY, among others – the Institute’s Forensics Forum, to gauge the level of interest and participation in forensics and developing services in this area.
The Forensics Forum quickly generated interest and attracted a substantial membership among Institute members. Given this support, the Institute turned the forum into a more permanent Forensics Interest Group the following year.
“One of the things that we strove to do was expand the knowledge about the area and the discipline but we also wanted, at a point in time, to try to kick a qualification off the ground. In Australia, a specialist forensic qualification has been developed, offered by the University of Wollongong and Macquarie University – and it’s increasingly required.”
Williams has suggested forging stronger links with the universities in Hong Kong to achieve similar results. “They just need someone to champion it,” she says.
Today, Williams sees forensic accounting as a multidisciplinary area of expertise. “You now have people working in specialist valuation, and they have a certain skill set that they bring which they can work with accountants. For example, Hong Kong has a lot of arbitration work where you would require those forensic valuation skills.”
Williams did not plan to be an accountant. “Accounting picked me,” she says. “I started work after I left high school – in fact, the day after I left school – selling shoes in a retail boutique. I wanted a career in fashion.”
She had applied for a job that included a traineeship to become a fashion buyer at Mark Foy’s, a Sydney department store chain that existed between 1885 and 1980. While she was offered the traineeship, she began working in the store’s back office.
“I used to count the money from the registers in the morning and reconcile sales in the afternoon,” she says. “And then a particular person that had a bit of influence with the director had a daughter who wanted to be a fashion trainee buyer – and she got the position and I did not. It’s always who you know.”
But that disappointment propelled Williams into a new career. “I worked for Mark Foy’s for 10 years and I probably did every accounting and clerical function that you could ever manage for them. I did debtors, I did creditors, I did bank reconciliation. I trained the staff in stores how to do this.”
Deciding she needed to formalize her experience and qualifications, she pursued a business studies diploma at an institute of technical and further education, while she worked in fashion retail, wholesale and manufacturing. “I acquired a lot of commercial exposure that, in retrospect, has helped me enormously in what I do as a forensic accountant.”
Later, while working for insurance company Prudential Assurance as a contractor, Williams obtained a bachelor of business and finance and accounting at the University of Technology Sydney. “I was a mature age student and the others were young, and often looked to me for advice as to how their career would pan out,” she says. “I particularly liked working with the Asian students, because they demonstrated a different way of thinking and a different approach to the work ethic, which was really fascinating for me.”
Williams advises young accountants pursuing a career in forensics should spend a few years working in a commercial or professional accounting role before specializing. “Accounting and business experience helps a great deal when trying to unravel the facts in any investigation.”
Williams says all accountants should “embrace technology” to get ahead. “Computer forensics and data analytics tools save time and are more accurate,” she says. “Know how to apply them, and understand their limitations.”
While at university, Williams heard a radio interview with the late PwC Australia partner Paul Carter, a prominent forensic accountant. “He was describing the skills you would need to do forensic accounting: you need to be analytical, that’s me; a bit of a troubleshooter, that’s me; a problem-solver, yes that’s me; and you need to understand accounting really well. I thought that’s what I want to do. That one interview changed my entire direction.”
The future of fraud
Several years later, as a qualified accountant at Ferrier Hodgson, Williams would face off against Carter in a case: a product liability claim for insurance by the Totalisator Agency Board. “I was sitting on the other side of the table looking at my role model – and thinking, ‘oh my God I have to tear down his arguments.’”
During her career, Williams has seen her fair share of high-profile investigations, including the long-running Moulin Global Eyecare Holdings fraud saga in Hong Kong, and the recent trade dispute between Chinese telecoms company ZTE and the United States Department of Commerce.
“By and large, fraud is fraud, but there are indicators that you would be taught in the Western developed areas that you wouldn’t apply in Hong Kong,” she says. “For example, a complicated structure is something you’re taught to watch out for, because it can be used to hide issues.” she says.
“Here in Hong Kong, a complicated structure is not unusual. For every asset a company buys, the cultural thing is to have a company that owns that asset, so your structures get complicated. They open a bank account for each asset, so those things are not really an indicator of fraud.”
Williams says her current ambition is retirement – but it’s proving an elusive goal. “Forensic accounting is quite a stressful job because your clients are constantly in crisis, so you’re constantly in demand.”
However, her departure deal with FTI means she has to tie up some loose ends. “I still have other matters that are on-going. My last job in Hong Kong is Moulin, which was also my first job in Hong Kong. They collapsed in 2005, and the current trial is for negligence against one of the independent nonexecutive directors (INEDs).”
Williams described Moulin as a challenging case that involved “all facets of forensic services” from investigative accounting, quantification and valuation of loss and damages, to litigation support, expert witness and computer forensics. “It covered both criminal and civil actions, and made new law in Hong Kong,” she says.
Williams sees an INED role in her future. “I’ve also undertaken a course in Sydney with the Australian Institute of Company Directors, using my knowledge and qualifications. Given the way things are manipulated in books and accounting records, I figured I might be able to help on an audit committee or a finance committee.”
At her home in Sydney, Williams enjoys working at home in her family’s one-acre garden as well as travelling both internationally – to South America – and within Australia, such as to Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. But that retirement plan remains on hold.
This article was originally published in the January 2019 issue of A Plus. You can also read the digital edition.