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The Accountant with a Good Nose for China

Silas Siu-shun Yang

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Silas Siu-shun Yang

Source:Domingo Chung

When no one else was gung ho about China, Silas Siu-shun Yang daringly expanded his accounting firm into China. And when Arthur Andersen collapsed, Yang again moved quickly to grab his stricken competitor’s staff in China. Where does this seasoned China hand see new opportunities in Asia in 2010?

Silas Siu-shun Yang

By Sara Wu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 438 )

The personal career of Silas Siu-shun Yang, the chairman of the regional Asia Board at PricewaterhouseCoopers, reflects the rising fortunes of Asia as well as the momentous changes that have taken place in the global accounting industry.

Yang ranks among a small circle of top ethnic Chinese managers with an international profile. Born in Shanghai, Yang fled to Hong Kong with his parents at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. He grew up in Hong Kong, but received tertiary education in Britain, graduating from the renowned London School of Economicsand Political Science. After qualifying as a chartered accountant in London, Yang returned to Hong Kong in 1983 where he joined Price Waterhouse.

Back then, Hong Kong was the most competitive place in the Chinese speaking world when it came to the financial services industry. The economy of the British colony was also quickly taking off. The cultured Yang, who was promoted to partner in 1989 and became senior partner in 2001, resembles a British gentleman. Speaking in Mandarin with a Cantonese accent, Yang explains his expectations of his high-powered employees.

"The Hong Kong people do everything very quickly, but I want everyone to 'think more and do less' because it's not about who does a job fastest, but who is able to create the greatest added value,"Yang says.

Venturing Into China at the Worst Times

One of Yang's shining achievements during his outstanding career was his decision to expand into China at a time when no one else in the industry was positive about China's future. He also deftly seized the opportunity when rival company Arthur Andersen, then the world's biggest accounting firm, collapsed over its role in the Enron scandal, to hire their accountants and staffers in China and Hong Kong. As a result PricewaterhouseCoopers today holds a 45% market share in China, making it the biggest accounting firm there.

When Yang moved to Shanghai in 1993, China was still suffering from the economic fallout from the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, and there was frequent talk of the country's imminent collapse.

"At the time, the accounting firms would not send their most capable people to China. But I was a young partner and didn't want to be just a small fish in a big pond, so I mustered up the courage and went to China,"recalls Yang, who also remembers how his colleagues pitied him for this ostensibly unattractive assignment.

Within three years, however, Yang grew PricewaterhouseCoopers' operations in China from an office with seven people to a 200-people firm. Making good use of his professional training and career in Britain and Hong Kong, he trained China's first batch of modern accountants.

Business growth mainly stemmed from two areas, one being business consulting for foreign companies looking to invest in China, the other assisting Chinese enterprises to list on the Shanghai and Hong Kong stock exchanges or to go public overseas.

After Yang returned to Hong Kong in 1995, he continued to provide auditing, merger & acquisition and initial public offering services to China's major enterprises. The firm's clients include the heavyweights of the petrochemical, life insurance, banking and telecommunications industries such as China National Petroleum Corporation, China Life Insurance, Bank of China, and China Netcom. Therefore Yang was elected senior partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers's Hong Kong firm in 2001.

Siphoning Off Talent

When Arthur Andersen folded in 2002, thousands of its employees lost their jobs.

"The market treated collapsed Arthur Andersen in a humiliating way. But I thought that China still offered many opportunities and that we would need more talent, so we successfully signed many staffers on the basis of equal and generous conditions,"notes Yang in explaining his expansion strategy.

While competitor Ernst & Young merged with many of the ex-Arthur Andersen practices around the world in 2002, PricewaterhouseCoopers bought those in China and Hong Kong. As a result the firm was able to suddenly increase its staff to 4,500 people, which made it the biggest accounting firm in China overnight. That year Yang became the chairman and senior partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers, China and Hong Kong.

In 2008 he rose to his present post as chairman of the regional Asia Board, which is in charge of a vast area including 15 countries and regions including Australia, China, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan.

After the financial crisis, Asia looks to be set for an earlier recovery than the rest of the world. The International Monetary Fund has just announced that the Asian economy is expected to grow 5.5% in 2010 versus just 2.8% for the global economy. Yang has already toured the regional offices to announce his strategy. In the future he plans to consolidate the firm's business in five major areas, namely basic infrastructure, finance, health care, government and sovereign wealth funds.

Yang also has some advice for Taiwanese enterprises. "Protectionism is not the best way of facing competition, since you might be able to hold off the first competitor, but not the second. Most important is improving your own capabilities with the help of technology."Yang admires Taiwanese entrepreneurs for their spirit and efficiency, but he also observes that they need to become more professional with regard to globalization.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz

Keywords:

好友人數