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Tell us about how you came around to become Dr Paul Cheng’s partner to start-up Cheng & Co? – Jess Liew, Cheng & Co Perth, Australia

My ambition as a youngster was to become an accountant and audit practitioner, and run my own firm. After finishing my secondary school education, I completed my A-Levels and went on to pursue the CIMA qualification, as it was highly recognised by the Malaysian Institute of Accountants. Upon completing stage one of the CIMA in Malaysia, I was off to the United Kingdom (UK) to complete stages 2, 3 and 4.

In time, as I completed my CIMA course whilst taking on a part time job in the UK, Standard Chartered, UK was on the lookout for talented CIMA graduates. I had an opportunity to get a job with a generous monthly salary of RM1,650 – three times more than what a junior auditor would have earned at an audit firm at that time, which was roughly RM500.

I turned it down to pursue my ambition. Interestingly, a few people that I know who took up the Standard Chartered opportunity were able to buy Proton cars in roughly six months while I rode back and forth from work on a motorbike. It didn’t matter because I was determined to follow my dream.

I came back to Malaysia, attended a few interviews and landed a job at Lee & Co in 1990, which coincidentally had Mr K.C. Liew – who is our partner today at Cheng & Co’s Perth branch in Australia – as the Audit Manager. After working with him for some time, I told him that I would like to be a practitioner and suggested that he could join me as well, to which he agreed.

So I proposed to Mr Lee, the boss of Lee & Co, that we bring in our own clients and park it under his firm while we work towards obtaining our practising license. But it didn’t really workout because of Mr Lee’s reluctance to expand his business further due to his age (60+). Hence I moved on to another firm, Chew Choo Soot & Co, in 1991 to assume the role of Audit Senior Executive.

Despite having applied for the Audit Senior Executive’s position, I was given a more senior role due to the departure of the person whose position I was asked to fill as Manager. Initially I had some reservations about the role because I felt I was not up to the task but the owner of the firm expressed confidence in me and gave me a free hand to carry out my responsibilities.

With confidence came expectations. The pressure that I faced, to live up to the standards set for me as a manager by Chew Choo Soot & Co was immense – my responsibilities increased ten folds from the role of an executive to the accountability of a manager. During my first year, the volume of audit and tax files assigned to me was extensive and deadlines were non-negotiable.

I endured long hours daily under tremendous work pressure and had to give unparalleled focus to ensure consistency and accuracy. To me, it wasn’t the size of the challenges that mattered. I focused more on overcoming each and every obstacle successfully. Thankfully I had Mr K.C. Liew and, my inspiration and mentor during my A-Levels days, Mr T.H. Tan, to help me out.

Mr K.C. Liew would come over to my office after 5pm every day and spend between four to five hours to help me check and review all the audit files before it is submitted to my boss for approval. Mr T.H. Tan, on the other hand, is 12 years my senior and was based in Temerloh, Pahang. At that time, I relied on facsimile as the means to get his advice on tax matters…there were no e-mails and instant messaging facilities back then.

It was during this time that I came to know Paul Cheng. Paul was in the process of buying into Chew Choo Soot & Co and I decided to tender my resignation a year after joining the firm to continue looking for opportunities to practise.

The owner of Chew Choo Soot & Co, Mr Chew – a very senior auditor who was 73 at that time – requested that I hold my resignation for two weeks, and he eventually reverted with an offer to sell 50% of the company’s shares to me and the remaining 50% to Paul.

This was a huge turning point in my career but the biggest challenge was the funds to buy the shares as I didn’t have that kind of money at that time.

**Swing by next week to read more about Professor Dato’ Dr Chua’s rise from an employee to a partner, in part 2 of Professional Entrepreneurs’ Dream.

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