ON SOME days when Lee Hee Hang looks out of his 32nd floor office, which has a close-up view of the Empire State Building, he wonders how a small town boy from Raub could rise to become a partner in one of the biggest accounting and management firms in the world.
Lee, 41, a partner of Ernst & Young, which has over 5,000 employees in its New York Headquarters, still remembers the days when he used to help his parents tap rubber in their smallholding farm. Their house had no indoor plumbing, and they used carbide lamps at night.
Observing him as he tells his life story, you can't help but imagine that life wasn’t easy and he had to work hard.
Lee, who credits much of his success to his parents, was born in Sitiawan, but the family moved to Raub where his father had a rubber smallholding. It took seven years for the rubber trees to mature for tapping so in the meantime the family planted vegetables and reared pigs.
“The closest neighbours were probably 1km away and to go home from school, we had to walk almost an hour every day from the nearest village where the school bus would drop us,” he said.
Their lives became better when they moved to another village when he was 12. There was water and electricity but no TV, as his parents felt it would affect his studies.
A student of Mahmud Secondary School until Form V, Lee decided to further his studies in Toronto, Canada in 1982.
“Five of us from the same school decided to go to Canada for this. My parents placed a premium in education and borrowed from relatives and friends to ensure I had the funds to go overseas.
“Both my elder sisters joined my parents to tap rubber and they all worked hard to support me.”
Relatives questioned his parents' sense in incurring so much for his education, he said. “But they knew it was the right thing.”
Lee admitted to not being straight A’s material but said he was a decent student when “I really put my effort in what I did.”
“My parents always taught us about working hard. Growing up, we (there were two sisters and two brothers and I was third among the siblings) always helped our parents tap rubber before and after school and during school holidays.
“In fact, we hated school holidays because it would mean more work on the farm. And we loved the rainy season because we did not have to go and tap rubber when the trees were wet. But we did learn the value of working hard.”
He recalled his mother telling him that even if it rained gold, you would still need to go out and collect it. “Meaning you had to work for what you want,” he said.
From Toronto he moved to the University of Louisiana (formerly the University of South- western Louisiana) in Lafayette to do a bachelor's degree in management, as he was aspiring to become a bank manager.
Living in a small town, one of the most visible professionals he had seen was the local bank manager who always looked important signing papers and documents.
He was 20 when he finished college and was planning to do his master's when he decided to go home for a break before beginning the programme.
“I was having such a good time in KL that I decided not to pursue my master's degree. But while I enjoyed KL socially, the timing was bad professionally as Malaysia was in recession,” he said.
“I was not able to find a stable or suitable job and the only jobs available then were in sales. So financially it was a disaster. I remember going to a petrol station with only 50 sen in my pocket!
“Unfortunately, or fortunately, credit cards were not popular in Malaysia back then.”
After two years with not much progression in his career, he decided to go back to do his master's, enrolling at the Cleveland State University for a programme in Accountancy and Financial Information Systems.
He chose the programme, he said, because he felt he needed a technical degree to have the cutting edge.
While looking for work in KL, he had realised that he was competing with high school and college graduates.
“I believe that 20 years ago, businesses did not place much value on business degrees such as management,” he said.
“I decided on accounting because it was more relevant in Malaysia if I ever decided to go home.
“However, this time around my parents were only willing to provide US$3,000 (RM11,400) to get me started – enough for just a quarter of the course work.”
Thanks to the credit card he got while studying in Cleveland, he was able to buy a ticket to New York City for a nine-month break to earn money to finish his master's programme.
He worked two jobs – as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant where he asked the owner to allow him to work seven days a week; and washing cars and boats in the rich enclave of Hamptons before the restaurant opened on weekends (the restaurant only opened at 3pm on Saturday and Sunday).
It was here that he met his future wife Ellie Mai, and they now have two children – Samuel, nine, and Rachel, six.
When he returned to the university he was granted a graduate assistantship, which meant free school fees and a stipend.
He used the money he saved to support a brother and a sister who came over to the US.
Upon graduation he returned to New York and started work at Ernst & Young.
Lee believes in goal setting, as “you must know what you want to be and dare to set high goals or expectations.”
“I have always wanted to be a partner in one of the big accounting firms and it is not easy achieving this in a foreign country,” he said. “The two biggest challenges are the communication barrier and cultural differences.”
He learned that among the first challenges to overcome were cultural differences.
“It is also important to understand how to be successful. We, in Malaysia, have been raised to be modest and respectful but the American culture appreciates individuals who are outspoken and opinionated.
“You have to be aggressive and it is okay to sell yourself a little,” he said.
Another thing he learned was the importance of having both personal and professional mentors.
“I wish I had mentors earlier in my life,” he said. “Professionally, a mentor is someone who takes interest in your career development. Someone you can talk to about your career and help you navigate through the challenges.”
He said he was fortunate to have a few wonderful mentors over the years.
Lee, like many people who came to the US, saw the country as a land of opportunity.
“New York City attracts the best talent from all over the world and there is no place better than the Big Apple for those who are interested in the capital markets,” he said.
Despite being away from home for more than 20 years, Lee has not lost touch with the progress Malaysia has made.
He also makes it a point to go home as often as possible. Last year alone he was back in Malaysia four times.
His parents still have their smallholding and still do things they used to.
“I love the small town of Raub that is surrounded by hills and has wonderful fresh air.
“I also value family and friends and the cultural offerings of Malaysia. And the food, Oh, yes! there is no substitute for the ‘real’ thing.”
Lee, who likes golf, gardening and fishing, recently helped to set up the National Asian American Society of Accountants, a professional organisation for Asian accountants.
He also founded a group, EY/Asia, within Ernst & Young to promote diversity and greater appreciation of Asian cultures.
He feels the prestige of being a partner and the personal satisfaction of achieving something that very few are able to do.
“Obviously, there are financial rewards with this as well,” he confessed.