CFO Asia
June 2006


Thong Siew Qwen

Building castles

On top of strategic partnership and
financial compliance, CFOs should not
forget soft-skills training to improve
staff effectiveness and morale.

By Jennifer Lee.


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,” she says.

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 dollar-focused.”

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 planning.”

CFO-PLUS

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 do better.”

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.

TRAINING SMART

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 of presentations.

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 staff.




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 countries.

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 siewquenthong@hotmail.com