PwC Malaysia to continue investing in talent to ride economic recovery

Malaysia's newest managing partner, Soo Hoo Khoon Yean, is taking the helm at a tough time, with businesses struggling to navigate a pandemic that has hit global economies hard.

But instead of cutting costs and jobs, Soo Hoo is taking a contrarian position; it involves more to ensure that the company's recalibration strategies can be achieved.

“Just like in any crisis, the immediate reaction for a typical business leader is to manage costs, but I think we need to strike a balance. The first thing that comes to mind for most businesses is cost management, reducing headcount and cutting costs. I honestly believe that to make the organisation sustainable, even during times of crisis, is to continue to invest,” he tells The Edge in his first interview as managing partner.

On July 1, he succeeded Sridharan Nair, who had held the role for eight years.

The graduate of Nanyang Technological University Singapore believes it is vital to continue to invest in the firm's recalibration so that post-crisis, one is “always in the right position to maximise the benefits arising from the recovery”.

“We are committed to investing in various sources in the form of infrastructure, people needs such as reskilling, and hiring new people to achieve the digital strategy that we want,” Soo Hoo shares, but declines to put a monetary value on the investment.

“It is not only about managing costs but also balancing the strategy, to put in place investment so that we are able to emerge from this crisis stronger to achieve a competitive edge.”

Touching on the wider business landscape, he feels that there is potential for more public-private partnerships, especially when addressing issues that could have longer-term implications on the economy, such as the digital divide.

“The crisis has presented a unique opportunity for businesses to work closely with various players across the ecosystem to stimulate the economy. To do this effectively, businesses first need to get their house in order to avoid a knee-jerk reaction to the crisis,” Soo Hoo notes.

He says developing new technological skills is crucial, but the ability to strengthen soft skills — critical thinking and agility — is equally important. Moreover, helping adapt to expectations in the new normal is crucial.

“You can have technological tools to achieve efficiency but as we see, today, in the next one to five years, AI (artificial intelligence) will not be able to replace human judgement in its entirety. The future of professionals must not only rest on using tools to achieve efficiency but also to use them wisely. Professionals must have humanistic decision-making skills too,” he stresses.

‘Basics of auditing still remain'

In view of the fast-paced technological changes over the years, Soo Hoo says, the audit profession needs to evolve with the sophistication of the market. “With technological advancement, board expectations have changed too and, therefore, so has the audit profession. We don't have a choice. We are forced to evolve,” he states matter-of-factly.

Technological advancements notwithstanding, Soo Hoo stresses that “the basics of auditing — humanistic judgement calls — still remain”.

“You cannot use technology to replace those items. Our main challenge sometimes is to focus on the changing of the audit process to be efficient, and with heavier use of technological advancement, but we forget to make sure the audit team continues to have skills that are very important in an audit process in getting the right call. It is the ability to read the results and make a judgement call.

“We must have the ability to exercise judgement and interpret outputs. There is no shortcut to this. The ability to judge is important. During good times, this is a quality that is often taken for granted … and gaps are evident now during this challenging period.”

Financial scandals — particularly the recent string of high-profile cases — have put the auditing/accounting industry under the spotlight.

In Europe, Wirecard filed for insolvency last month and saw the resignation and arrest of its CEO Markus Braun on suspicion of market manipulation and false accounting practices.

Closer to home, Singapore oil trading firm Hin Leong was discovered to owe more than 20 banks about US$3.85 billion (RM16.4 billion) and court filings show that it hid about US$800 million (S$1.14 billion) in losses. The company was put under the judicial management of PricewaterhouseCoopers at the end of April in an attempt to restructure its debt.

Avoiding comment on a specific case, Soo Hoo says technology is beneficial, but it also allows opportunity for new forms of fraud to be perpetrated.

“Even for auditors, it will take some time to catch up. More often than not, auditors find themselves in situations where they're not fast enough in understanding the new way of doing business. This is why you can invest in best-in-class technology but it is also vital to invest in upskilling people,” he observes.

In terms of recruitment, he says: “We should not hire people from the same background … Not everyone needs to have an accounting background to be an auditor. This is something we have observed in PwC as well. We are hiring people who have a background in cybersecurity or technology to supplement the audit team that we have. That is the starting point.”

His mid- to long-term aspirations for the firm include continuing to collaborate with PwC Vietnam as part of PwC's efforts to expand its footprint outside Malaysia.

After integrating in 2015, PwC in Malaysia and PwC Vietnam have been working together to expand the business, address joint go-to-market strategies and strengthen their infrastructure.

“We also want to continue our move into digitalisation — how we can increasingly bring tech into play internally and externally,” says Soo Hoo, adding that the position of chief digital officer position was introduced this year.

PwC will continue growing other parts of the business to serve the needs of the market, he shares. “While our audit practice remains the largest and we are strong in the regulated business, we will continue to invest in our advisory business and strengthen our tax business.

“Look at our brand. PwC stands for building trust — it's part of our purpose and at the core of what drives us as a firm. We need to make sure we can maintain that brand and trust in a sustainable manner.”

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