From Taiwan to Kuala Lumpur, Patrick Wong, engineering giant AECOM’s Malaysia Country Director and APAC Leader for Global Key Accounts, has used his skills as a CPA to take up roles around Asia. He tells Kate Whitehead about how he realized his long-held ambition to be in operations
Photography by Iz Mady
Patrick Wong insists he’s been lucky in his career, but you can’t help wondering how much of that is luck, and how much can be attributed to his positive outlook, seeing opportunities where others may have groaned at the prospect of too much work. However, he certainly seems to have had a lucky star overhead when he made the jump from the consumer products sector to engineering company AECOM in 2007, just ahead of the global financial crisis.
“The timing couldn’t be better. When the Lehman crisis came in 2008, all the governments pushed infrastructure projects, so it was the busiest time for us. Very lucky,” says Wong.
AECOM grew fast. When he joined the company in 2007 as its chief financial officer, it had a staff headcount of about 3,500 in Asia. Ten years later that number had more than tripled, some through acquisition but most through organic business growth. Wong helped build up the finance team in Asia Pacific to match the rapid growth of the company.
“When I joined, we didn’t have any financial planning team or a tax team, we only had an accounting team, it was very basic because until then that’s all that had been needed,” says Wong.
Today he is AECOM’s Malaysia Country Director and APAC Leader for Global Key Accounts. He is effectively the programme manager in Asia Pacific, he says. His responsibilities include ensuring all the bids for the global accounts are coordinated and prepared consistently with clients requirements, with specific inputs from the global account managers; being the point person for all inquiries from the global accounts for potential projects in the region; and helping organize delivery teams for each key account. He says that an account may require architecture, engineering, quantity surveying, master planning and/or environmental review services.
With Malaysia among the Southeast Asian nations that have pledged to spend billions on infrastructure developments, Wong says he is very bullish on the country’s infrastructure prospects. “[This is] partly due to its strategic location in line with the Belt and Road Initiative (e.g. the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) and Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR)), and partly due to the urgent need for domestic transportation (e.g. metro/light rail lines in Greater Kuala Lumpur area) and aviation infrastructure.
“Although there was a setback after the election in May 2018, the opportunities are coming back gradually, namely the revival of ECRL and the green light of the Bandar Malaysia project (a mixed-use, transit-oriented development in Kuala Lumpur) both announced this month. I’m confident that the high cost issues of HSR and other projects can be resolved within a reasonable time.”
“Although there was a setback after the election in May 2018, the opportunities are coming back gradually, namely the revival of ECRL and the green light of the Bandar Malaysia project, both announced this month.”
As a fresh graduate in his early 20s, Wong began his career as an auditor with Deloitte. After three years he quit because he realized a career with a professional CPA firm wasn’t ticking all the boxes. He wanted to be in a commercial company.
“I wasn’t interested in going deep into the accounting standards and the rules, but I did enjoy talking to people when I was doing an audit. You don’t just talk to the accounts department – you need to talk to the IT department, the warehouse department and human resources. I enjoyed understanding the operation and thinking about where there might be a disconnect,” says Wong.
The decision wasn’t unusual at the time. He graduated in 1988 and says about half his cohort at the time decided to work somewhere other than a CPA firm. What he didn’t realize until much later was how fortunate he was to graduate in the era of Hong Kong’s great “brain drain,” when many middle and senior management professionals emigrated to Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom ahead of the 1997 Handover. It was a social phenomenon that would enable him to quickly rise up the ranks.
“People who graduated at that time, we enjoyed a certain advantage. The downside is that some people are now coming back, so there’s even more competition for young people,” says Wong.
He spotted a newspaper advertisement for an assistant regional controller at Club Med, a holiday company he’d never even heard of. It was a big jump from an auditor with three years’ experience to assistant regional controller, but he got the job in 1991 and quickly settled into the French company. He enjoyed the family-like atmosphere and the after-work socializing, but it was a rather mundane aspect of this new corporate culture that was to have a big impact.
“I was asked to do some inputting. You’d never think you’d want to do this as an assistant regional controller, but my boss explained that if you’re running a team and they’re all doing this work and you don’t know how to do it, how can you manage them?” recalls Wong.
He punched in the data and also learned the then new reporting software, MicroControl (now Hyperion). Club Med had many resorts across Southeast Asia and there were plenty of tax disputes, so he was also called in to support with tax isses. Talking to European tax lawyers and seeing how they analysed a case and which arguments they put forward was a whole new world. In his second year with Club Med, he travelled to Tokyo with the finance director to talk about a second listing on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.
“We met with the bankers and talked about the initial public offering. Eventually it didn’t come off, but it was good experience interacting with all these people,” says Wong. “It was a good exposure to listen to the investment bankers, CPAs and lawyers to discuss share valuation.”
It was largely because of his experience with the reporting software that in 1994 he was approached by Bausch & Lomb, one of the world’s largest suppliers of contact lenses, to be its Asia Pacific manager – accounting and reporting. Again, it was an opportunity to make a big leap and Wong buckled down into the role. He’d been chosen for his skill with the reporting software and for a year he focused on that, condensing what had previously been the work of three people into one. But he didn’t want to be pigeonholed in that role – he still had his sights set on commercial operation and said so.
“You have to speak up, you can’t expect your boss to know what you’re thinking. If they see you doing well, from a selfish perspective they want you to keep doing it. I always tell young people: Don’t count on anyone to plan your career, if you do that’s a big mistake. You’ve got to tell your boss what you want to do,” says Wong.
It was almost two years before a position came up in Taipei, as director of finance and IT, and he took it. From there he moved to Tokyo as the company’s executive director – finance and IT. The roles involved frequent travel and the conditions weren’t always ideal, but he says it’s important to be flexible. “I enjoy the adventure. After Taipei, I went to Tokyo, then KL. To me, every opportunity is a new story to explore.”
“Don’t count on anyone to plan your career, if you do that’s a big mistake. You’ve got to tell your boss what you want to do.”
When Wong was CFO at AECOM, he understood that you can be a solid, technical professional, but if you don’t know how to communicate clearly and efficiently to your boss then you might not be heard or understood.
“I see many accountants – and engineers, indeed any profession – if they are so confident in their professional skill, they may not fully appreciate the importance of the soft skills, like storytelling, communication. Internally it’s a problem and externally, with clients, it’s an even bigger problem,” says Wong.
In 2017, Wong realized a long-held ambition to be in operations and took on his current position as AECOM’s Malaysia Country Director. “While I was the Asia CFO, I was involved in quarterly business review meetings of all business units and specific operational matters within the region. I have known the management team for the last 10-plus years or through the acquisition exercise. Such a background and knowledge helped me tremendously in transitioning into the role as country director for Malaysia,” he explains. “I did need to pick up the general business details, for example, key clients, their key persons and the regions or sectors that they are in. It started with learning the go/no-go and risk assessment process, then about partners teaming for mega-projects, and the bidding strategy discussion. These are all new operational experiences to me.”
Before becoming AECOM’s Malaysia Country Director and APAC Leader for Global Key Accounts, Wong was the engineering company’s chief financial officer for Asia Pacific.
Not being an engineer in this role has its advantages – he can think more strategically and leverage his accounting knowledge. The drawback is that in an industry that is based heavily on relationships, he doesn’t have those networks and connections, particularly not in Malaysia. Wong has to rely on tendering for business.
“That’s not very effective, but maybe that’s the best way to build our business in Malaysia. Relationships can be a double-edged sword – in the good times it helps you to get a job, but when the political situation changes those people who helped you get a job could be the ones to make you suffer,” he says.
Having a good relationship with his boss, and sharing his professional ambitions, likely goes some way to explaining the thoughtful position his boss carved out for him in his new role. In addition to being Malaysia Country Director, he has his APAC Leader role.
As the former CFO for Asia Pacific, he has the necessary perceived professional clout for the job. “I appreciate my boss – he thought about this and put me in this role. I can run Malaysia to enjoy my aspirations, but at the same time stay in the network and not waste the network I built up in the last 10 years,” says Wong.
“I knew at the beginning I didn’t want to be in a professional firm, that wasn’t my interest, so I needed to go commercial.”
Wong’s top piece of advice for young accountants is to be curious – without curiosity, you’ll just be doing a job without any heart in it.
This leads on to his second suggestion – not to ask for or set specifications for your job. To do so is to draw a boundary around yourself and limit your opportunities to grow. In the early days of his career, if Wong saw something that wasn’t working well in another department, he’d speak to that department. And if he saw no change, he’d talk to his boss.
“That’s quite aggressive, but for the sake of the company I don’t care too much about boundaries. Don’t care too much about stepping on someone’s toes, step on it until someone pushes you back and then push back a little, but don’t stop. Otherwise you won’t have the exposure to really understand working with the other functions,” says Wong.
And thirdly, he underlines the need for young people to be prepared to put in the hours to do something that might not be relevant now but could help them reach the next stage in their career. “You need to make up your mind whether you see accounting as your life’s job, or you see it as only a tool to allow you to do something else. I knew at the beginning I didn’t want to be in a professional firm, that wasn’t my interest, so I needed to go commercial.”
One thing Wong stays curious about is food, and his adopted home lets him explore that curiosity. “KL is a city of diversity and inclusion, with multiple racial and religious groups living harmoniously. Cantonese is a popular language and there is so much great Chinese food from Penang, Ipoh and Johor. Together with local Malay cuisine and other countries food, one of my hobbies is to explore food over the weekend, from Bak Kut Teh, Nasi Lemak, to durian. KL also has a lot of good hiking spots to burn the calories.”
This month, Malaysia and China agreed to resume two projects – construction of the East Coast Rail Link, and a property development linked to China – both part of the Belt and Road Initiative.