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ICAEW award winner Carlson Tong: the lessons learned

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 12 May 2022

“When I was a trainee accountant, everyone said as an auditor you were a watchdog not a bloodhound. Now you have to be like a detective,” says Carlson Tong, winner of ICAEW’s Outstanding Achievement Award 2022.

If you want something done, ask a busy person, so the saying goes. And for Carlson Tong, the recipient of ICAEW Outstanding Achievement Award 2022, it couldn’t ring more true. Since retiring as Asia Pacific chairman of KPMG just over a decade ago in 2011, Tong has forged an illustrious portfolio career spanning financial services, public sector and senior roles across regulatory bodies.

“The things I’ve done since I retired weren’t planned – it all just happened,” Tong says. Delve a little deeper and it soon emerges that Tong has a network to die for and an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time when it comes to capitalising on opportunities. Progress and career development are clearly part of his DNA. 

Since joining KPMG in 1979 as an audit senior, Tong rose steadily up the ranks over the course of his 30-year career with the Big Four firm, becoming an audit partner of the Hong Kong firm in 1989. He was elected Chairman of KPMG China and Hong Kong in 2007, before becoming Asia Pacific Chairman and a member of the global board and global executive team in 2009. 

Being at the helm of the firm in China during the financial crisis and ensuing recession was, he admits, an extremely challenging experience. But it also taught him some incredibly valuable lessons that continue to ring true today. 

“I remember, I was on the plane coming back from a global board meeting, the markets were collapsing, and Lehman Brothers was just about to go bankrupt. I learned one thing; when you sack people you usually end up losing the good ones, so I asked people informally what they wanted to do – cut everyone’s pay, have a shorter working week, or get rid of some people.” 

The consensus was that everyone should stay and have a shorter working week with less pay, in what was to prove a fortuitous decision. Six months later, the firm was appointed as the receiver for Lehman in Hong Kong SAR and Asia Pacific, and everyone was brought back to a full working week.

“The decision not to get rid of people was right,” Tong says. It’s a lesson that businesses today would do well to heed, bearing in mind the post-lockdown economic rebound and frenetic recruitment market. “People are recruiting like crazy now and the ones that managed to hang onto people are now able to capitalise on the rebound and a growth market.”

The war for talent is galvanising the focus on social mobility and the need to encourage job candidates from a diverse range of educational and social backgrounds. But the profession’s hitherto obsession with graduates from Russell Group universities is a relatively new phenomenon, Tong says. “Fifty years ago, there were no hard and fast routes to entry.” 

Tong recalls his own experience starting out in the 1970s as a school leaver post A-levels on a five-year training contract with a small firm, adding up the pounds, shillings and pence in his head to bypass the queue for the one rather clunky office adding machine. 

The digital revolution aside, the last 40 years have seen enormous change – in working practices but also in regulatory pressure, Tong says. As an independent non-executive director of Standard Chartered plc and Standard Chartered Bank since 2019, Tong says the regulatory hoops and governance requirements that financial services players must jump through has ramped up significantly over the course of his tenure. 

“It’s a tough market today,” he says, with seismic changes including the conversion of Libor to a risk-free rate, the resolvability regime, the emerging crypto assets market and the challenges posed by the need to address climate change risk. The expectations on independent NEDs too are huge, he says. “Just wading through the reams of paper in preparation for board meetings takes several days. When something goes wrong the regulator wants to set standards that everybody has to live up to, but it’s never ending.”

Similarly, Tong is conscious of a ramping up of pressure across the firms and the need for accountants to exercise ever more scrutiny over clients. “When I was a trainee accountant, everyone said as an auditor you were a watchdog not a bloodhound. Now we’re looking out for fraud, so you have to be like a detective. You have to challenge everything and that’s tough. When I was an auditor I had that mindset – I challenged everything I was told!”

The job may be harder but, at the same time, the opportunities across the firms continue to evolve.

Tong’s son, who lives in London and collected Carlson’s ICAEW Outstanding Achievement Award on behalf of his father at the ceremony at Chartered Accountants’ Hall on 22 March, isn’t an accountant but works for Grant Thornton in the firm’s advisory practice. 

Tong’s career advice to his children is clear: “Hard work is a given, it’s all about preparation – I always over-prepare. And never be overconfident. Then it’s about ethics. When I became a head of audit and partners would ask me about issues with clients, I would always say, imagine you are in a court of law and the judge asks you to explain yourself. If you can justify everything you’ve done, you’re ok.” 

At the same time, giving your team members credit for their hard work will pay dividends, he says. “If you’re the leader, you will automatically get the credit. But some people find that hard. The other thing is, when I give someone a job to do, I always make sure I understand the problem. I won’t necessarily have the answer, but I understand how you need to approach it. A lot of people just throw the problem at them.”

After retiring from KPMG in 2011, Tong was appointed a non-executive director of the Securities and Futures Commission, becoming its Chair in 2012 until he stepped down in October 2018. He oversaw a number of major policy initiatives during his term including the introduction of the Hong Kong and Shanghai/Shenzhen Stock connect schemes and the mutual recognition of funds between the mainland and Hong Kong SAR. Tong also sits on various Hong Kong SAR government bodies, including as a non-executive director of the Airport Authority of Hong Kong, Chair of the University Grants Committee and a member of the Hong Kong Exchange Fund Advisory Committee.

Looking back over his illustrious career, Tong says qualifying with ICAEW was his proudest moment. “I didn’t go to university so I’ve only got one qualification – my ACA. It means everything to me. Gaining experience as you learn things, that sort of training is invaluable. I was lucky – in the right place at the right time – and I had good mentors.” 

The secret to career progression is to set goals but not overly ambitious ones, he maintains. “When I joined KPMG, I told myself I wanted to be a manager, then a senior manager, but if someone had told me 50 years ago that I’d end up being the chairman of KPMG China, I’d have said don’t be crazy. Honestly.”

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