Accountants make it big in Shanghai


BY YAP LENG KUEN

FAILURE is no deterrent to a brave heart.  

For three Malaysian accountants in their thirties, it is a combination of youth, spirit of adventure and thirst for opportunities that has led them to persevere in a business they see tremendous potential in.  

After a few attempts, they finally succeeded in setting up their investment consultancy, Willsonn Partners, in Shanghai and the business thrives on a combination of skills and experience of its partners. 

Sonny Koong, William Leong and Willsonn Partners.

William Leong, 39, former head of the China department of a large accounting firm in Hong Kong, teamed up with Sonny Koong, 32, following a meeting at a Malaysian association dinner. 

Leong, having spent eight years in Hong Kong and already familiar with a lot of the corporate finance work in mainland China, was told he had to wait two more years before getting to be partner in the firm.  

“I couldn't wait,'' he told StarBiz when back here on Chinese New Year holiday. “China is booming and with its inclusion into the World Trade Organisation, opportunities will abound.'' 

Koong had taken a year off in 1997 to study Mandarin in Taipei and worked subsequently in Taipei and Hong Kong. He landed in Shanghai in 1999 and has never looked back. 

As the consultancy business grew, the duo invited another accountant friend, who was working for a large accounting firm in Shanghai and with whom they used to hang out with on weekends.  

Tan Eng Choon, 34, had spent the last three years in Shanghai, advising companies on risk management, business processes and improvement. While Koong does marketing, Leong and Tan share out the operations, with Leong more focused on closing deals and Tan on quality control. 

The company now has 50 clients, mostly multinationals from the United States, Europe, Japan and Hong Kong. Lately, it has seen interest from Malaysian and Singaporean companies. 

Most of the business is through word-of-mouth and referrals and life is certainly a far cry from the start of their business when there were only three clients. 

“But we were already profitable from the second month,'' said Koong, whose office is in the vicinity of refurbished downtown Shanghai, at Xintiandi, one of the most happening places in the city. 

It sounds exaggerated but the three men are so excited at the prospects that they describe investors coming in “truckloads'', and their company provides services in matters related to law, taxation, human resources, company incorporation, accounting and the whole range of services required by investors when setting up businesses.  

Favourite sectors for investment include trading, manufacturing, consulting, information technology, and bars and restaurants.  

How does Willsonn Partners differentiate itself from the many companies setting up similar services? Standardised services, best practices internationally and in China, quality control, and provision of multi-services.  

Tax filing and advisory, preparation of financial statements, outsourcing, drafting and reviewing of contracts, payroll management, social contributions and keeping of personnel files are some of the additional services that it provides. 

“Companies coming to invest in China do not know suppliers there, and we provide a one-stop centre to cater to their needs,'' said Leong. “It is a good base to build small- and medium-scale businesses.'' 

He noticed many Malaysian and Singaporean companies now making faster decisions to invest in China, after seeing how well the other investors were doing. Stories of past failures had created fears and rumours that had not been properly addressed, he said. 

According to the partners of Willson, many companies failedbecause they did not know the language, tried to set up their companies on their own and only sought professional advice when they got into trouble. A lot of the US and Japanese businesses seek proper advice before setting up. 

“In 2004, we foresee a big jump in our business,'' said Koong.  

Achieving geographical spread is the next target for the company as it plans offices in Beijing, in the western region (either in Chengdu or Chongjing), southern region (Guangzhou or Shenzhen). 

Willson Partners, which can be reached through e-mail (info@willsonn.com)liaises with the Malaysian External Trade and Development Corporation (Matrade), Malaysian Industrial Development Authority (Mida) and the Malaysian consulate in China.  

Tan sees Malaysian companies being mostly located in the southern region but gradually moving up from the Pearl River delta to the Yangtze delta. With Shanghai opening up, the Chinese government is promoting the greater Shanghai area. 

Many companies have relocated there to benefit from the availability of professionals, an increasingly English-speaking crowd and reduction in logistics costs. Manufacturers have set up their base there, and so have shared service and business support centres. 

People there also knew other languages such as Japanese, Russian, Italian, German and French, said the company's adviser Allen Ho.  

The former head of sales and marketing for US-based Armstrong World Industries, Ho advocates three basic key factors to success in investing in China: 

· Conducting proper market research (for example, by travelling to cities and mixing with dealers); 

·Drawing a game plan for China (for example, setting up of core teams to tackle different areas of coverage); and 

·Stationing trusted and hands-on personnel. 

“In China, one cannot cut costs,'' said Ho, who has eight years of experience working for Armstrong in China. “Investors should focus on their core businesses and building their profit centres while outsourcing many of their office processes to professionals who know the system and compliances.'' 

Among the latest attractions, the Olympics World Expo in Beijing (2008) and Shanghai (2010) are expected to draw a lot of investors. Hong Kong companies invest under the Close Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). 

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