From a small town boy who spoke little English to Managing Partner of BDO Malaysia, Yang Berbahagia Dato’ Gan Ah Tee exemplifies the get-up-and-go spirit that has shaped his rise in the professional accounting services arena.
“Anyone can find sweetness in honey but to find it in salt, you have to put in a lot of hard work.” This favourite phrase of Yang Berbahagia Dato’ Gan Ah Tee captures his ethics and journey in life as well as sets the stage for his climb up the corporate ladder. Dato’ Gan is the Managing Partner of BDO Malaysia and Regional Senior Partner for BDO ASEAN. Today, BDO Malaysia and its regional operations have more than 1,000 partners and staff. They are led by over 90 partners and directors from their offices in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Johor Bahru. ”We have also been given the opportunity to play a key role in the regional operations of BDO Malaysia, namely in Brunei, Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), Myanmar and Vietnam,” says Dato’ Gan. Established in 1964, BDO Malaysia is part of BDO International, one of the five largest accounting firms in the world providing audit, advisory and tax services.
Prior to that, Dato’ Gan was with KPMG for over two decades where he considers one of his most memorable engagements to be his involvement in the rehabilitation of abandoned housing projects for a government initiative under the Tabung Projek Perumahan Terbengkalai or Abandoned Housing Projects Fund scheme. As the Partner in Charge, he personally looked into the various projects, travelled the country and successfully delivered completed houses to affected buyers. Another noteworthy project Dato’ Gan reminiscent of was that he and his colleagues played a key role in getting more than 100 financial institution lenders of a large local conglomerate with more than RM10 billion debts to agree on the group wide restructuring schemes.
Leaving the security of that high-flying job behind to start anew at BDO in 2007 was, he admits, risky but he has never been one to shy away from challenges. He and his nine siblings grew up in the small Johor town of Sungai Mati where his family were small rubber and oil palm estate holders. He attended a national school up until Form Five but spoke little English yet he had big dreams. He had his heart set on studying accountancy in the UK. ‘Accountancy’ because it was known as a resilient career that weathers all economic conditions. ‘UK’ because back in those days, it was where most people went if given the opportunity.
" However small the job may be, aim to and you will receive the rewards – perhaps not instantly, but they will be long lasting."
“I couldn’t speak English well but I chose to go to the UK because I knew that if I worked hard, nothing was impossible,” he reasons, adding in jest that he ended up at Newcastle upon Tyne, where Geordie dialect rather than English was the order of the day. Dato’ Gan did his diploma in accountancy at the now-Northumbria University followed by his reading of the ICAEW ACA qualification while on a training contract, whereby he worked and studied at the same time. With this work-and-study learning approach, he was able to be financially independent and self-sufficient upfront.
After spending four years in Newscastle, Dato’ Gan proceeded to work in London for two years before he was offered a position by KPMG at their Kuala Lumpur office. He returned to Malaysia in 1984 and was instrumental in building up the firm’s financial advisory services to more than 100 members strong. When people asked what made him leave, Dato’ Gan says with a smile “I saw the potential and opportunities at BDO, and I’m very happy with our progress to date. We are a member firm of one of the top five accounting networks in the world and in Malaysia, we are ranked fourth based on the number and market capitalisation of the public listed audit clients.”
This is just the tip of the iceberg; BDO Malaysia has chalked up numerous accolades and milestones over the years, with one of the most recent being appointed as a Strategic Partner of the ASEAN Business Awards (ABA) at the ASEAN Business & Investment Summit 2015. BDO Malaysia is also part of the Yayasan Peneraju Pendidikan Bumiputera Professional Accountant programme that was conceptualised to encourage the training of more Bumiputera professional accountants, and was the only accounting firm selected during the launch of the MY ASEAN Internship Programme which was created to help boost awareness of ASEAN among regional youths.
" Anyone can find sweetness in honey but to find it in salt, you have to put in a lot of hard work to taste it."
Indeed, the professional education of accountants is one area that BDO Malaysia has long supported, with Dato’ Gan himself taking on key positions at various professional bodies including the Council and EXCO for the Malaysian Institute of Accountants (MIA) and the Malaysian Institute of Certified Public Accountants (MICPA). He is also on the Council of the ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales) and is the ICAEW’s alumni group’s current Chairperson, namely the ICAEW Malaysia City Group. Among the initiatives he has helped steer is to change the perception in Malaysia that only accounting degree graduates should take up professional accountancy qualifications.“Accountancy is a good foundation for you to branch out into many things; your prospects are not limited to just accounting firms,” Dato’ Gan advises.
BDO Malaysia is an authorised training employer for the ICAEW and MICPA-CAANZ as well as a recognised employer partner for CPA Australia and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA). “When I came to BDO, we took in our first law graduate to train on the ICAEW ACA programme. The student went on to obtain the top prize in the world for the Audit & Assurance paper in her first sitting in December 2007. We have also trained students to qualify as chartered accountants by the age of 21,” says Dato’ Gan.While there are those who lament the differing work ethos of the Gen Y, Dato’ Gan adopts a pragmatic approach. “We must recognise that they are born in a different era and exposed to different things. It is just as important for us to learn from them as they can offer invaluable perspectives.”
Whichever generation you belong to, Dato’ Gan’s advice on making it is the same: There are no shortcuts, things will likely not be smooth sailing, and you must never stop learning. There will be ups and downs, so be prepared to rebound and never give up. The three key words he emphasized are passion, perseverance and commitment. “However small the job may be, aim to perform above average and you will receive the rewards – perhaps not instantly, but they will be long lasting,” he says.
You’ve heard of work-life balance; Dato’ Gan advocates work-life integration. “Aim to meet deadlines, but you don’t need to be working 12 hours a day, every single day. Make time for your loved ones, adjust your schedule to accommodate them. If you’re not happy at home, you won’t be productive at work. And if you don’t feel happy at work, your colleagues will feel it.”
Dato’ Gan certainly leads by example. Minutes into a conversation with him and one thing is apparent: Above the passion, dedication and professionalism that drive him is his easy sense of humour, which puts everyone around him at ease and reflects the positive attitude he encourages in others. His secret? With a twinkle in his eye, he reveals, “My heart is ten years younger than my biological age.”
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