Up Close & Personal with Michael Andrew

  • Business
  • Saturday, 10 Aug 2013

MICHAEL Andrew never once thought that he would one day be jet-setting around the world, experiencing different cultures and tantalising his taste buds with the array of food native to the countries he tarried at.

Since his entry into Big-Four accounting firm KPMG in 1984, now global chairman Andrew has travelled to 104 countries.

“It is a fantastic experience for a boy from Melbourne who never thought he’d travel,” he tells StarBizWeek.

“My poor wife doesn’t know where I am half the time,” he laughs.

Branding himself as the world’s expert on travel, Andrew believes that his life is much akin to George Clooney’s character in the movie Up In The Air.

The movie is about Ryan Bingham, who travels around the United States to inform workers about their dismissals in place of their employers, and has an ambition to earn 10 million frequent flyer miles.

“It’s scary, its so much like my life,” he says.

He adds that he probably spends 85% of his time travelling. The remaining 15% is spent in Hong Kong, where he is currently based.

“Last year, I did 210 flights and went to 63 countries,” he reveals.

Andrew now lives in Hong Kong with his wife Mardi, while his elder daughter lives in Melbourne, and his younger daughter has set up base in New York. Although most of his time is taken up by work travel, he and his family have at least one vacation together each year.

KPMG’s brand, Andrew says, is all about being independent and objective because the firm and its employees has a public interest of responsibility to the broader community.

“We have to ensure that we uphold the governance standards in every country for our multi-national clients. They expect the same standards in Kuala Lumpur as they do in Johannesburg, Frankfurt or New York,” he says.

He adds that corporate governance defines the KPMG brand. “If we don’t meet the governance standards, then people won’t have confidence in our business. Integrity is at the heart of everything we do.

“This is ensuring that we understand that our duty is to the broader community than just to any particular client or particular transaction. Because if we do some work, which turns out to be incorrect, it’ll affect our global brand,” he says.

Every three months, KPMG employees are required to sign a declaration to maintain their independence around their audit clients.

Prior to his promotion to global chairman of KPMG in 2011, Andrew served the firm as KPMG chairman of Asia-Pacific and Australia from 2007. He started at the firm in 1984 as a tax accountant, due to his background in commerce and law. Known as KMG then, which was in the midst of completing the merger deal with Peat Marwick, it sent Andrews to Amsterdam “because it wanted a lawyer to do all the governance and controls”.

A handicap he says was the fact that he was from Asia. “In the 80s and 90s, Asia was still quite small. Europeans and Americans didn’t think a lot about Asia,” he says.

However, his experience dealing with Japanese clients among other Asian clients provided him with the understanding of the culture, as well as the potential for the Asian region.

In 1992, KPMG sent him back to Amsterdam to open the firm’s offices in Central East Europe, and to write the first Asia-Pacific strategy. KPMG told him: “Well, if you wrote the strategy, you might as well go and do it.”

So he went back to Melbourne and soon after became managing partner there in 1997, where his work involved dealing with issues in corporate governance, risk management and audit committees.

When his predecessor vacated the global chairman role, the board looked for someone with experience in emerging markets, Europe, and Asia. “It was quite surreal because I never had any impression when I first joined KPMG that I would one day become the global chairman. When I look back, it was sort of serendipitous to have the overseas experience, that I was able to build relationships, understand the Asian business culture, and have had opened offices in Europe,” he says.

The first decision he made as global chairman was to move the office to Hong Kong as the country represents a large capital market and is a large investment place. “As much as I love Melbourne, it was too far, and the time zone is wrong. The people I want to meet, the global CEOs, they all come to Hong Kong to talk to their investors,” he says.

Hong Kong, Andrew says, is where he spends is time looking at markets in the region, and making sure that KPMG has the right business strategy because he believes the firm’s future growth will come from those markets.

Andrew’s parents decided to move from the countryside in Victoria to bustling Melbourne when Andrew was just five years old. It was when he was attending Year Eight at age 13 or 14 that his parents pushed him to sit for a scholarship exam for Melbourne High School. Melbourne High is a selective-entry state school for boys in Years Nine to 12, and is known for its strong academic reputation.

“I had not heard about it before, but I sat for the exam anyway and won the scholarship,” he says. When he left Melbourne High to go to university, Andrew applied for a law degree.

“I applied to go into law but I didn’t pass the law mark. Instead, I got the commerce and law mark, which is the best thing that happened to me.”

Andrew spent five years at Melbourne University majoring in accounting and economics. “I actually loved economic history. More importantly, university is where I met my wife,” he says.

He was standing behind an attractive lady in the pie and chips queue at the university’s canteen during lunchtime one day. “We started talking, and that’s how I finished up getting married,” he laughs.

His wife, Mardi, is a language teacher. After university, she planned to go to Europe for some overseas exposure. However, Andrew managed to convince her to stay in Australia. Ironically, since joining KPMG in 1984, Andrew has not stopped travelling.

Andrew and Mardi have now been married for 33 years. “She was not my first girlfriend, but she was most definitely the important girlfriend,” he cheekily says.

Andrew reveals that when he was younger, he aspired to become a professional tennis player. He says he ranked quite highly, in terms of his age group. “I was a very good player in Australia, which is quite a high standard,” he says. So, when he was around the age of 15 or 16, he faced a tough decision: devote his time to become a full-time tennis player, or concentrate on his studies.

I got the best advice from my mother, he says. She told him: “You’ll never make money being a professional tennis player. You might be number eight in Australia, but that’s not an economic proposition. You have to focus on your studies.”

He took his mother’s advice and focused on his studies, while tennis merely ranked as his hobby or preferred sport rather than a career choice.

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