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Latin take over

CW CPA is gaining a foothold in Latin America and Spain. Kate Whitehead finds out what inspired its co-founder, Thomas Wong, to think outside the box, and start one of Hong Kong’s most unique CPA firms.

It was the bluesy guitar melodies of Latin Rock musician Carlos Santana that helped shape Thomas Wong’s way of thinking. “I grew up listening to Santana. Listening to foreign music as a teenager made me very international,” says Wong, Partner at Hong Kong-based medium-sized firm CW CPA, and a Hong Kong Institute of CPAs member.

Another inspiration for him was the book Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, which provides insights on how businesses can create an offering so differentiated that it makes competitors irrelevant. “I want to stay away from the familiar. I don’t want to compete with my peers. This is the idea behind a Blue Ocean Strategy,” he says.

Wong read the book in 2006, the same year he decided to break into a market that many people were steering well clear of. That year, he set up the Latin American and Spanish business advisory department at a professional advisory firm where he was a founding partner. It all started with a high school friend who introduced him to a Colombian-British business owner who ran a retail shop. Wong helped the man set up his operation in Hong Kong and later, over a long lunch, was introduced to some of his Latin American friends, including the daughter of the Colombian Consul General. “As an accountant, you can’t just sit in the office, you have to go out to look for opportunities and see where you can meet some good friends,” he says.

The Latin American market became his niche area. In 2011, he began taking Spanish lessons – a Colombian teacher would tutor him in his office – and is now comfortable speaking Spanish in informal contexts.

At CW CPA, which Wong founded with another partner, Rosanna Choi, Wong’s team offers services including audit and other assurance, tax, corporate secretarial and business process outsourcing. The company logo is a nod to his love of green apples and his belief in the Blue Ocean Strategy.

In less than two years after CW CPA’s establishment, the firm has opened offices in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Shanghai and has footprints in Barcelona, London and recently Bogotá. The firm has now grown to around 100 staff members. To date, over 70 percent of its clients are overseas, including Latin America.

Localized services

These days, Wong manages to practice his Spanish regularly thanks to his staff. He has employed three Mexicans in the Shenzhen office, and the Hong Kong office has Brazilian and Portuguese staff working on business development. Together, they make up CW CPA’s Latin Department, which was set up in view of Latin America and Spain increasing trade with Mainland China. The team offers services to Spanish and Portuguese-speaking clients who want to set foot in the Mainland via Hong Kong.

“This year, I have hired one more Latin staff member who would report duty within the next few months. Our firm’s revenue from Latin American clients achieved strong year-on-year growth this year. I am very thankful to my helpful colleagues who have supported me in expanding our network and developing the markets,” he says.

With the help of the department, which generates over 30 percent of the firm’s revenue, CW CPA has an extensive network with members of the Latin and Spanish community around the world, including in Hong Kong. The network covers a range of organizations including consulates, trade promotion offices, chambers, banks, law firms and others.

Increasingly, he says, the firm is being seen in Latin America as the go-to firm for entry into Mainland China. Recently, it helped a large Brazilian IT company and a Mexican fashion group to establish their operations in the Mainland. He notes that he is the “go-to man” for newbies in Mainland China, giving them advice on everything from finding decoration workers to doctors. “You are not just dealing with numbers, you have to use your connections to solve their business problems when they ask you. Our clients put their entire trust in us.” says Wong.

The biggest change he has seen recently is the huge surge of interest in the Greater Bay Area (GBA). Wong says he was promoting the GBA even before Premier Li Keqiang announced in the annual government report in March 2017 that the authorities were going ahead with the initiative. “I foresaw GBA becoming one of the leading economic regions and one of the largest and most sophisticated markets for consumer goods and business services. The development of GBA will act as a gateway for Latin American and overseas clients looking to expand their businesses into the Mainland and also for Chinese companies to reach out to overseas countries,” he explains. “An example will be a great collaborative opportunity and synergy between Brazil’s expertise in software development and the Mainland’s in hardware manufacturing.”

The firm saw a growing number of enquiries from Latin American companies, he adds. “They were considering using Hong Kong to set foot in Mainland China by setting up a holding company in Hong Kong in between their headquarters and their wholly foreign-owned enterprise in the Mainland, to enjoy comparative advantages and benefits such as the Mainland and Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement, tax benefits and more,” says Wong. “Our firm’s expertise in accounting and consulting allows us to provide overseas companies a total solution for both Hong Kong and Mainland China – two wins.”

Wong also notes that as the Mainland has ushered in a new era of trade relations with Latin America in line with its new growth model based on innovation and domestic consumption, new opportunities are already looming on the horizon for Latin American companies to provide a wider range of goods and services. “Nowadays, more of our Latin American clients are supplying agricultural products like fruits to Chinese customers,” he says.

He believes many people’s preconceived ideas about Latin America are keeping them from entering the market. “People are sceptical, and they still don’t believe in this market,” he says. “Due to language and cultural barriers, many people think it is impossible for someone Chinese, like me, to have fruitful business with Latin American people without a huge amount of resources. In fact, many Latin American businessmen speak English very well and are well-educated. Many clients and I listen to the same songs and support the same football teams. We share many values in common.”

Four-hour lunches

He credits a good part of his success to having a strong team who he trusts and empowers. “I have an able lieutenant, Delilah Li. She knows my marketing concept, knows how to lead a business in four areas – sales, delivery, marketing and fee collection. She leads the team through what I’ve been inspiring her, and she delegates to the Latin staff. Delegation is very important,” says Wong.

Avoiding getting involved in the practical day-to-day details frees him up to look at the big picture and nurture client relationships. Doing business in Latin America and Spain successfully comes down to having good relationships, says Wong. “Handling a business with Latin America requires relationship building. It is crucial to earn their trust over time, by showing them you are capable of being their support to do business in Mainland China and Hong Kong. Relationship building takes time but allows me to make a lot of friends from those countries.”

Respecting and adapting to the culture in Latin America is vital, he notes, which can sometimes mean embracing a four-hour lunch or not eating dinner until 9 p.m., yet he’s happy to adapt and is still curious about the world – two traits he encourages in young CPAs. “I encourage young accountants to be more open and visionary and set their sights on overseas as well as Mainland China. Be a business advisor. They need to be IT-equipped and to value honesty,” says Wong.

He highlights that the handling of time has been challenging for him. “In terms of meetings and appointments, a little lateness is expected. Arriving on time or earlier than the schedule might show that we are too eager, which can be interpreted as something negative, he says. “Challenges are always there: different languages, different rules, different mindsets and different practices. Yet there is one way we can overcome them – mutual respect.”

Chasing the dream

It was Wong’s high school friend Elton Chiu, three years his senior, who advised him to follow his lead and study accounting at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. After graduating in the early 1980s, he spent two years working for the government in the Treasury Department and then a couple of years for a privately-owned garment company before deciding to sit for the CPA exam. “Two people really inspired me – my class teacher at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Doug Oxley, and my friend Patrick Tam, who suggested I sit the Institute’s exam,” says Wong.

He says he had always dreams of starting his own business. “I had a dream of setting up my own business and offering career opportunities to people,” he says. “When I graduated with an accounting degree, I did not have enough money and experience to start a firm. Luckily, before I set up my firm, I was able to accumulate sufficient money through two previous jobs.”

Wong is a keen marathon runner and manages to find time for a run even during the most intense business trips. “My most memorable time is running in the early morning every day when I am in Latin America and Spain. I enjoy embracing new environments and my business ideas mostly come from the one hour when I am running in the morning.”

In the late 1990s, Wong took up opportunities to travel to Mainland China, organized by the Institute and the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, and he urges young CPAs to seek similar opportunities to broaden their outlook. “A lot of accountants still want to sit in the office and micromanage. That is still a problem unless you can convince them to listen to some rock music,” laughs Wong.

This article was originally published in the September 2018 issue of A Plus. You can also read the digital edition.