When Siew-Quen Thong joined Texon Asia
Pacific in 2004, one of her first tasks was to take a hard look
at the Taiwan office. It was being used as a clearing house for
regional orders for the company’s cellulose and non-woven
thermoplastic products, but was absorbing all the cost of that
role. “If you looked at the accounting, Taiwan wasn’t doing very
well at all,” recalls Siew-Quen. “In fact, it looked so bad that
any businessman would have said ‘Let’s cut out Taiwan, we don’t
need it.’” She revamped the unit into an official shared-services
center with two main functions, accounting and customer service,
and allocated costs to the country offices on a usage basis, and
“suddenly, Taiwan was very profitable.”
The new CFO did not stop there. She also
wanted to shift the mindset of staff in Taiwan and around the
region, from viewing their job as simply a task, to viewing
themselves as an integral part of a business. Siew-Quen brought
in Profiles of Hong Kong, an HR consulting company specializing
in training, business development, and executive coaching, to
analyze each member of staff, in areas ranging from productivity
and initiative to teamwork and problem solving. The profiles
gave Siew-Quen a tool to develop a targeted training program.
“It took a lot of my time and energy, but the results are superb,”
Not all CFOs are as directly involved like
Siew-Quen in human resources issues. But whether or not HR is
under their watch, “CFOs have people in their team,” says Molly
Lim, national director of Profiles of Hong Kong. “As managers,
they should have a broader view for developing the people side.”
CFOs need to understand that recruiting, training, and retaining
staff is key to the long-term success of an organization, adds
Carolyn Chan, director of The Center for Creative Leadership
(CCL), an executive-training organization based in the US.
“CFOs should be more HR-focused,” she says. “HR should be more
The message is increasingly being heard.
Another believer in training for the soft skills is Peter
McNulty, CFO, Asia Pacific, of Barclays Capital, the investment
banking arm of Barclays Bank in the UK. A bank couldn’t operate
without people who are solid technically, but McNulty points
out that soft skills training helps establish future leaders.
Most of the training at Barclays “tends to be around how someone
can be a better manager, or how we, as a team, can work better
together,” he says. Managers work with their subordinates to
determine exactly what skills are required for the employee to
develop so that they will continue to progress within the organization.
And Caroline Stockman, vice president for
finance and IT at Unilever Thail Trading in Thailand, has embraced
a training method that calls on employees themselves to identify
their own strengths as well as the communication styles and
strengths of each team member. “You’ve got to deliver – meet
reporting deadlines and so on,” she says, “but my belief is that
[developing your employees] actually dramatically improves that
performance, it retains people, and it helps with succession
Siew-Quen, a 36-year-old Malaysian who speaks
five languages, is somewhat of a rarity among CFOs. She oversees
finance and accounting at Texon, but she also has broad leeway to
review and revamp policies and processes, to drive corporate and
staff initiatives, and to champion talent management. Siew-Quen
manages 20 staff in seven locations across Asia, including IT
and HR functions, reporting to the global CFO based in Leicester
in the UK for finance matters, and the global CEO, Stephen
Bracegirdle, on strategic issues. “The prerequisite was to hire
someone who can do a finance role,” says Bracegirdle. “But if
they were just good in finance, I wouldn’t have employed them.”
The need for an all-around CFO springs from Texon’s
history. The company went through a period in which Bracegirdle wielded
his axe on non-core businesses to correct an overspending spree which
had left the company dangerously overextended – hence the investment
of Matlin Patterson, a specialist in buying up distressed private
equity. When he was done chopping, Texon had lost half its previous
number of employees. “Our challenge was to double the output with
the same number of people,” says Bracegirdle. “We had to move with
the times or die.”
Siew-Quen is an information hound, and this has
helped her through many challenging situations. Citing some of her
early jobs after becoming an accountant, she says: “Going through
it, your heart is in your mouth half the time, and your eye is on
the [management] books while you are trying to handle the shareholders
and the staff.” A copy of The Leadership Pill sits on her desk.
She is reading yet another book, having studied the gamut, from
The Art of War, which she calls a bit too cold and pragmatic,
to How to Win Friends and Influence People, and 400 Million
Customers, a book about China written in 1937.
Across Texon’s Asian offices, individuals
identified as likely to be natural leaders have been receiving
management skills training. Others get task-based training such
as time management, communication, and how to improve their work.
She has also started to measure key performance indicators (KPIs).
“What I need to do is to tie clearly the performance to the bonuses,”
Siew-Quen says. “[KPIs] are the channel through which you can do that.
All of a sudden this leads to a lot of ideas (from employees) of how
to improve their performance.”
BUILDERS, NOT BRICKLAYERS
Siew-Quen’s aim is for all of the employees under
her watch to buy into the idea of building the business. She explains
her goal with a favorite anecdote about three bricklayers. When the
first is asked what he is doing, he says: “laying bricks”. The second
one responds: “building a wall”, while the third says: “I am building
a castle.” That third bricklayer is the ideal employee for Texon, a
company that makes some of the things that are a part of daily life
that we cannot see – the peak in our baseball cap, the label on our
jeans, filters for air conditioners, and, Siew-Quen proudly demonstrates,
business cards that won’t tear or be laundered into oblivion.
But how do you motivate and retain these
castle-builders? This has been one of Siew-Quen’s greatest
challenges, especially in China. Texon is based in Foshan, an
industrial city in Guangdong province about 15 kms from Guangzhou.
“We are a medium-sized multinational,” she says. “Staff in China
always want to go to Shanghai or work for a bigger name. How do
we, as a medium-sized multinational, keep the best people for a
longer time? I constantly have to think and rethink what we can
Job satisfaction, of course, is essential to
retaining top talent, and training is an important part of that.
“Training is one of the key things,” says Barclay Capital’s McNulty.
“If we don’t get it right people will move on.” Barclays Capital
spends about half of its training budget on developing technical
skills and the other half on soft skills, using mainly external
trainers such as Black Isle Consultants in Hong Kong to cover
topics like leadership, managing change, influencing people, and
how to run a meeting.
At Unilever, Stockman brought in a Cross
Cultural Leadership course from Executive Performance Training
(EPT), which she had earlier attended in Holland. Using feedback,
the course helps employees assess each others’ communication
styles, and learn how to adapt their own style to suit. This
can be particularly important in a global company like Unilever,
where managing diversity well can be a key element to the success
of projects. In Thailand, cultural traits such as modesty and
politeness, and avoiding asking direct questions were interfering
with her staff’s ability to communicate effectively with their
more forthright Western counterparts.
Being involved in “strategic development means
it is more important than ever for CFOs to be able to talk to
different people from different backgrounds,” she says. “You
can be technically sound financially, but if you can’t get your
message across it’s no good.” She adds that, of the six women who
attended her EPT course, all were promoted within six months.
Stockman’s other tool is simple, yet effective.
She buys all the members of her team a book titled Now, Discover
Your Strengths and sends them to its related website, www.strengthsfinder.com.
There they learn what their top five strengths out of 34 possibilities
are. It is only by knowing your strengths, and using them, she argues,
that people can be happy at work. “All jobs have elements that we don’t
like or aren’t good at,” she says. Those should be counterbalanced with
tasks that utilize a person’s strengths. “Each day you should use your
strengths,” she says, “because it makes you feel good.” Knowing each
other’s strengths also makes her team more effective when approaching
a project. “A diverse group will probably outperform a homogenous group
if you understand the differences between the people,” says Stockman.
Barclays Capital also profiles its employees’
personalities. McNulty uses Personal Insights, which delivers a
comprehensive employee analysis based on concepts similar to Myers-Briggs.
The test places a personality into one of four quadrants, helping define
whether they are extroverted or introverted, and whether they are
perceiving or judging. At its essence Myers-Briggs and its spin-offs
provide an insight as to the way an individual looks at the world,
which in turn influences the way they make decisions. McNulty uses the
results to help identify future leaders, and he says, “it helps the
people to work together.”
But formal training can get expensive, leading
many small companies to “hire and fire” to improve the quality of
their workforce, rather than train the employees they already have.
Says Profiles of Hong Kong’s Lim: “Some objections [to soft-skills
training] would be the resources, especially for SMEs, which may not
have a strong HR department and so there is no one to drive it. They
find it difficult to [invest in] something they do not fully understand
or cannot grasp the outcome of.” The fruits of soft-skills training
need time to ripen, often well beyond the completion of the actual
training program. For example, an employee who trains in presentation
skills will need time to practice and hone those skills before
improvement becomes apparent to colleagues.
It is also hard to let employees go on training
for any length of time. CCL’s Chan cites the case of a Japanese company
that entered into discussions with her organization to provide a
leadership training course for its female managers. The project was
aborted when the company realized that it couldn’t do without those
employees for an entire week. She is currently working with a group
of Japanese companies to run several programs, whereby some of each
company’s employees will be gone at a time, but not all.
Texon is subject to similar constraints, but
Siew-Quen is finding ways to work around them. “I don’t just train
at my whim,” says the CFO. “We don’t have so much money in the
organization, so we need to be very targeted in what we do and
immediately bring results.” To keep spending to 5% of staff costs,
she is constantly on the lookout for opportunities to stretch the
training budget. Siew-Quen has invited a number of different people
from the community to speak; she found a free investment seminar
on-line, which her employees attended; and every office sports an
English corner, where magazines give employees a chance to continue
to improve their English.
Professional organizations are another source
of free and low-cost seminars, among them accounting bodies ACCA
and HKICPA, which offer technical training as well as basic work
skills and business writing. The Texon headquarters in the UK also
plays a role. The company uses the Baan ERP and accounting system,
and the Baan team in the UK has the ability to teach the Asia
Pacific team remotely by taking over their keyboards. Texon’s
intranet also has a learning section, with tutorials on all types
of files staff might need to use, such as Word, Excel, and production
Siew-Quen has utilized her contacts at the
Hong Kong Association of Business and Professional Women (HKABPW),
which has provided her with a mentor, Kate Mead, previously a
professor of English at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Mead
took leave to fly to Foshan to give an English course to Texon staff
there, while another HKABPW member, Cecilia Lui, flew to Taiwan at
her own expense to teach a class on communications. Siew-Quen meets
with Mead once or twice a quarter, and they are in regular contact
by phone and email.
The CFO’s focus on HR issues has brought other
rewards. On March 8, International Women’s Day, the HKABPW announced
that Siew-Quen was the recipient of a leadership training scholarship
at CCL’s first all-women training program in Asia. Founded in 1970,
the non-profit CCL works more with HR practitioners than financial
executives, having pioneered the 360-degree analysis and feedback
system used in many companies for performance appraisal. The center
also coined the phrase “breaking the glass ceiling”. Siew-Quen is
doing just that with the help of her soft skills and those of her
Siew-Quen studied at the V.I. in 1987 to 1988.
She was Captain of the school Chess Team and led the team to victory
in the Under-15 and under-18 tournaments.
She is presently Texon International’s Chief
Financial Officer (Asia Pacific) based in Hong Kong, a multinational
group of companies with operations and distribution channels in 40
A chartered accountant, she has over 15 years
of experience in finance and management. Her expertise is in
financial strategies, management development and China investments.
Garnered from her years in Pricewaterhouse Coopers and global
establishments, Siew-Quen’s strength lies in setting up new businesses
in Asia with a Western management philosophy.
She has ensured financial success for her
employers with her winning combination of financial astuteness
and strategic HR management, a management practice which she
refers to as “Building PROFITS through people”. Her unique blend
of management receives wide acclaim, being featured recently in
CFO Asia Magazine, Hong Kong Economic Times, Job Market Hong Kong
(Sing Tao Daily), University of New South Wales (AGSM MBA program),
ACCA Malaysia Magazine etc. Siew-Quen has been invited to share
her expertise in international forums, most recently in Beijing
for the Economist Group’s event "CFO China".
In recognition of her contributions to people
development and quest for continuous learning, in March 2006,
Siew-Quen won a Leadership Award (Scholarship) from USA’s Center
of Creative Leadership.
Siew-Quen is a fellow of ACCA, a member of
Hong Kong Institute of CPA, chartered accountant with Malaysian
Institute of CPA, member of the Hong Kong Business & Professional
Women and associate of the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resources
Management. She is also an official mentor for Hong Kong University
and Shanghai University.
Siew-Quen looks forward to hearing from her ex-V.I.
schoolmates and may be contacted at