Sreerema Banoo, journalist

The question of whether CAS Malaysia is a small or medium accounting practice does not really concern its founder and managing partner Chen Voon Hann. ‘What I tell my team, and what we’re focused on, is providing quality services and growing as a professional services provider,’ he says.

‘People talk about the Big Four or the Top Ten, but we can’t get caught up with the ranking because we’re not there yet. So we’ve got to focus on what we do best, which is quality service at a reasonable fee,’ Chen says.

Focused service

For Chen, who had more than a decade’s experience at an audit firm, merchant bank, regulator and in the corporate sector before starting the practice back in 2002, quality has been the driving force of his approach. ‘I believed from the beginning that the most important aspect of running a private practice is developing a competent team, and understanding and serving the client well,’ he says.

‘We believe if we focus on our service and perform a good job for the clients, they will appreciate it. Success will come.’

Chen gave much thought to the firm’s ethos over the years, identifying three values (whose initial letters make up the firm’s name) to encapsulate everything that he holds dear. ‘Competency, achievement and success; that’s what CAS stands for and that’s how we want people to view the firm,’ he explains.

‘Competency, achievement and success; that’s what CAS stands for and that’s how we want people to view the firm’

Not just buzzwords

More than just catchy words, these principles guide the firm’s actions and approach as well as its path ahead. ‘Competency is about lifelong learning and the training of people,’ he says, adding that the emphasis placed on this has borne fruit. CAS has been a platinum-level ACCA approved employer for trainee development and professional development since 2017. ‘We have a very structured training programme for the people we recruit, providing continuous training in the classroom or, since the onset of the pandemic, online,’ Chen explains.

‘We also have a mentoring programme so that new joiners can be guided on how to apply the theoretical and practical knowledge, and become competent auditors and tax professionals.’

Building on this, in May 2020, the firm established a full-fledged training academy, an offshoot of its in-house training division, which offers structured training for its staff as well as clients and employees of other accounting firms.

Win-win solutions

When he reflects on the firm’s achievements, Chen says it boils down to understanding the clients’ requirements and needs. ‘We look at what the clients want and share with them what they can and cannot do in the case of auditing services and taxation. From this process, we find win-win solutions so they get what they want professionally, safely and in compliance with the law.’ He adds that often this means managing client expectations and steering them in the right direction.

‘The most important aspect of running a private practice is developing a competent team, and understanding and serving the client well’

Chen Voon Hann is pictured with Jeremy Kong (left) and Ng Kean Kok (right)

The approach, he says, has paid off over the years, translating into success and growth for the firm. ‘In the beginning, we had one public listed company as a client; today, we have 12. Did we knock on doors asking clients to appoint us? No.

‘We secured these clients through referrals. It was very challenging in the beginning, but that is the beauty of starting your own firm.’

Being small, Chen says, did not deter the firm or its ambitions. ‘Even if you are a small firm, you serve your clients well, slowly building your delivery and track record. When you do a good job, word gets around not just to prospective clients but also talent.

‘Back when we first started, I remember an overseas graduate who, during the interview, looked at our small office and asked me if we were considered a small firm. I said yes, and she walked away.

‘Undeterred, I continued working hard and believing in our ethos. Today we’re able to select the best of the ACCA graduates that come to us.’

Chen has maintained close ties throughout his career, serving as chairman of the ACCA Malaysia technical committee. He also sits on the Malaysian Institute of Accountants’ financial statement review committee and has been a member of the panel of advisers for Comtrac, a training academy under the Companies Commission of Malaysia.

Managed growth

From the humble start of just one partner and a single employee, today CAS has four partners and 33 employees. ‘We’re getting better every day and working hard to grow the firm and take it to the next level,’ says Chen, who holds a diploma in financial accounting from Tunku Abdul Rahman College and an MBA from the University of Strathclyde in the UK.

In 2020, revenue grew by 35% and is projected to increase by 20% in 2021. To have maintained such solid growth in the current climate is impressive. ‘Yes, the pandemic is challenging to us so we looked at what we have, the training and knowledge, used e-conferencing and virtual meeting tools, and installed a virtual private network so we could access the audit software to work uninterrupted,’ he says.

‘There are movement restrictions, so we had online meetings and at the same time also ensured that team members had enough facemasks and shields, testing them when needed so they feel safe. It’s thanks to the team that we’re still growing.’

To ensure that success is managed, the key is to have a clear plan. ‘My partners – Grace Chu, Jeremy Kong and Ng Kean Kok – and I come up with an annual business plan, and put all targets in writing,’ Chen explains. ‘Then we ensure that for the next 12 months we focus on implementing the plan, with periodic reviews to ensure that we are on track and everyone is working towards the same goal. During the pandemic, what’s been critical is staying focused.’

Going global

Chen has not allowed the pandemic to derail the firm’s plans to offer its services across the region. In July, it established CAS Global, a network of accounting firms from Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, China and the Philippines.

‘As a network we can all grow together by helping each other, discussing technical matters and learning from each other’

‘It is a network of likeminded firms, and we see tremendous opportunities, especially in serving clients with overseas operations,’ he says. He adds that the network – of which he is CEO – doesn’t just create opportunities for CAS Malaysia to accept bigger clients, it also mitigates challenges brought on by the pandemic.

‘Recently, for example, we were supposed to undertake an audit for a major client with operations in China, but with the travel restrictions we were unable to do so. Thanks to technology and virtual meetings, we were able to get the job done with one of the member firms.’

The setting up of the professional network is also timely, given the impending implementation of the ISQM quality management standard in December 2022. Requiring firms that perform audits, reviews of financial statements or other assurance to have structured governance and leadership, relevant ethical requirements, acceptance and continuance, resources, risk assessment process, information and communication, engagement performance and monitoring and remediation process, the standards will be challenging for firms like CAS, Chen says.

‘But as a network we can all grow together by helping each other, discussing technical matters and learning from each other.’ The hope, he adds, is for CAS Malaysia to continue on its growth path – building its portfolio of clients and, more importantly, its talent.