To the sound of cheers and applause, Charanjit Singh Grewal FCPA sliced cakes and clinked glasses with his clients and employees. It was the 46th anniversary of his accounting firm Grewal Commercial Service, and he felt humbled to celebrate the moment with his team – many of whom have been working with him for over 30 years.
Looking back on the challenges he faced over the last four decades, he can’t imagine how his life would have panned out if he had stayed in India instead of taking a leap of faith and moving to Hong Kong. “Back then, I knew nothing about accounting or bookkeeping, but I knew Hong Kong was a place full of opportunity. So I came without a second thought,” says Grewal, Founder and Chairman of Grewal Commercial Service.
Grewal was born and raised in Gujjarwal Ludhiana’, a village in India’s state of Punjab. He notes that during the first 18 years of his life, he was raised in a tough environment where he lacked the resources and opportunities to improve his quality of life, and he knew career choices would be limited. “I could have chosen to either become a farmer, a teacher, or at most, join the army at that time.”
He first heard about Hong Kong in 1964, after a friend of his uncle who had visited the city shared his experience with him. Inspired, he decided to pack his bags to see Hong Kong for himself. After moving to the city in 1965, Grewal started off working odd jobs. “In the 1960s, it was very difficult for an Indian to find an office job unless the company was also owned by an Indian,” Grewal explains. “When I told people that I wanted to study and become a professional, people laughed at me – but I didn’t care about what others thought. I tried to find ways to improve myself.” Though most courses in Hong Kong were taught in Cantonese, the material was written in English, allowing Grewal to get up to speed. In late 1966, he managed to acquire an Elementary Bookkeeping Diploma from Bennett Airmail Correspondence College in the United Kingdom and in 1969, he acquired his Intermediate Bookkeeping Diploma from the London School of Commerce.
“Having employees from different walks of life helps you to make better decisions; they are able to see things from other perspectives.”
The next few years, however, proved challenging for Grewal, as the companies that hired him as a bookkeeper were forced to close due to financial difficulties. To stay afloat, he decided to work as an auxiliary police to support his family and continued working part-time even after he was eventually hired by Price Waterhouse (now PwC) as a trainee audit assistant in 1974. In 1976, to increase his income, Grewal started a one-person accounting firm specifically providing accounting and taxation services in addition to his role in PwC, while assuming his role as an auxiliary police officer in his spare time. He worked seven days a week. “I hardly remember taking any breaks during that time. I worked as an auditor for my employer from nine to five, then as an auxiliary police officer from six until midnight. On my off days, I’d go to my own clients’ office in the morning to handle their accounting and taxation projects and take the night shift as an auxiliary police officer,” Grewal says.
In 1978, Grewal decided to resign from PwC and the police force to focus solely on growing his firm, and began hiring staff to handle his ledgers and basic bookkeeping. “My pager was my office, and I didn’t have an actual office until 1985,” he says.
Grewal has spent nearly 45 years growing his firm, and ensures that he provides equal opportunities to each employee the same way he was afforded an opportunity as a young and budding accountant from a different background. “I have staff from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China and Hong Kong. Having employees from different walks of life helps you to make better decisions; they are able to see things from other perspectives,” he says. “My first staff members and clients are still working closely with me. The satisfaction you gain from maintaining a long-lasting business relationship and friendship with your employees and clients is incomparable. I have witnessed how Hong Kong society has changed since the 1960s and can say proudly for the last 15 years, people are now kinder, and there is no open discrimination.”
The first female secondee
Yuka Shigetomi FCPA (practising), Partner at Ernst & Young, Hong Kong (EY Hong Kong) and Greater China Assurance Leader for Japan Business Services, was born in Fukuoka, the prosperous city of commerce located in Kyushu, Japan. She worked at Ernst & Young ShinNihon LLC (EY Japan) as an auditor for five years after her graduation before being seconded to EY Hong Kong in 1998. “The CPA exam in Japan is rather challenging but rewarding at the same time. This qualification has presented me with more career choices,” Shigetomi adds. “Traditionally, Japanese companies offer office rotation and relocate employees once every few years, and the promotion ladder is relatively slow, unlike in Hong Kong. And I came for overseas working experience and exposure to foreign cultures.”
Being the first Japanese female overseas secondee and subsequently localized in Hong Kong, Shigetomi was in charge of developing EY Japanese Business Service in Hong Kong and Mainland China. She is experienced in the areas of statutory audit, group reporting to Japan, internal controls audit, compliance, accounting services and initial public offerings (IPO). One memorable project was Uniqlo’s secondary listing in Hong Kong in 2014. “The project involved different partners, lawyers, and many other parties in Hong Kong and Japan. I gain tremendous satisfaction in helping companies expand their business in Hong Kong or the rest of the world,” Shigetomi says. “As an assurance partner, I have to be good with people, and I enjoy being the central point of contact for clients.”
Andrew (Dong Eon) Kim CPA (practising), Managing Director of IL Shin CPA Limited, was inspired by his father’s deep interest in foreign culture when he was a kid. His curiosity was met with opportunity when he was selected to join a batch of student representatives for a trip to visit universities in Mainland China in 1992. For Kim, who was born in Daegu, South Korea, it would be his first time visiting Beijing, Tianjin and provinces in the Northeast. “It was an eye-opening experience. Before diplomatic relations were formally established between China and South Korea in 1992, Koreans rarely had a chance to visit China in person,” Kim adds. “My father always encouraged me to look out at the world outside of Korea with a global and open mind. When I was in college, I luckily had more chances to learn about Chinese culture and the language earlier than others of my age.”
After completing mandatory military service and graduating in 2000, Kim decided to go to Beijing for a one-year language course, where he made friends, became acquainted with the food and history, and explored different regions of the Mainland. He then joined the assurance team at Samil PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in South Korea and was seconded to Hong Kong in 2004 for two years. “That was my first time visiting Hong Kong. I was selected because of my language proficiency in both Chinese and English, and knowledge of Chinese culture,” Kim explains. He learned as much as he could about forensic accounting, dispute analysis and litigation support, fields which were relatively new to the Korean member firm. “I was sent here to learn and bring the knowledge back,” he adds.
“For me, all cultures are equally interesting, but I was excited about Chinese cultural heritage, art, language and history.”
In 2009, to expand his knowledge, he went to Beijing University to study for a Master of Business Administration (MBA). After finishing his MBA the next year, he quit his job in South Korea and restarted his career in Hong Kong at his current workplace, he works with clients in the Korean segment from a variety of industries. “For me, all cultures are equally interesting, but I was excited about Chinese cultural heritage, art, language and history. My experience in 2004 introduced me to Hong Kong, and I knew it would be a good place to start again. It has a unique mix of Chinese culture and other diverse cultures from across Asia and other parts of the world. It also has unique values as a liberal and open society,” Kim adds. “Hong Kong is my second home. I have many social connections and a solid infrastructure to support my clients’ businesses.”
Kim specializes in assurance, international taxation, and cross-border advisory, so he regularly works with professionals from different countries and backgrounds. Before the pandemic, he travelled extensively to assist his clients. “The operation’s complexity, size and the people involved vary based on each project. I had to be familiar with different regions to give my clients precise business advice. Each trip gave me a chance to explore the culture of that place, and I got to meet a lot of different people in the process. Language, curiosity and a passion for learning about others has become the key to business opportunities. It has opened different doors for me.”
Kim believes inclusion and good communication are the keys to leading a team of diverse members. “People with different cultural upbringings will often come up with solutions that you have never thought of. I’m always amazed by the solutions my team members come up with,” Kim explains. “Creating an inclusive culture and maintaining transparency within the workplace is the best way to minimize conflict and unify a team.”