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1 +20 Outsourcing feature STEPHEN MALLON/GETTY IMAGES [ 20 ] A Plus + September 2007

2 Outsourcing to Asia Business outsourcing to Asia is a fast growing trend what does this mean for Hong Kong accountants? By Tavis Lam and Christina Ko U.S. economist Alan Blinder created quite a stir earlier this year when he predicted that between 30 million to 40 million American jobs, or a quarter of the nation s workforce, could be replaced by cheaper but increasingly skilled labour in India and China within the next 20 years. The former White House economic advisor who now teaches at Princeton University says technological advances and improved global communications virtually guarantee that the future will bring much more offshoring of impersonal services that is, services that can be delivered electronically over long distances with little or no degradation of quality. In face of such changes, Blinder sees a painful transition for even professionals such as accountants and lawyers in developed countries who may be out of jobs. The wave of outsourcing of white collar jobs from the U.S. began with software companies, which transferred a significant amount of business processes and services to India in the late 1990s, according to Ashok Deo Bardhan and Cynthia A. Kroll, authors of a research report on outsourcing at the University of California, Berkeley. But other telecommunications, trading and financial companies soon followed suit, outsourcing call centres, back-office work such as bookkeeping and accounts receivable, applications development and software systems design to other countries as well, including China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Russia and Ireland. September A Plus [ 21 ]

3 Outsourcing feature Since the turn of the century, the outsourcing trend has continued to gather momentum. The authors estimate that software and business processes outsourcing have created at least a million jobs in the 1990s and hundreds of thousands more since 2000 for the countries providing such services. Latest industry figures indicate that the trend of outsourcing to Asia is continuing. According to TPI, a U.S. outsourcing advisory firm, the value of new outsourcing deals in the region rose to US$5.4 billion in the first half of 2007, doubling the amount in the same period last year. Riding Asia s growth Capgemini Group, a global outsourcing and consulting firm, provides mostly IT and accounting services to multinationals that want to outsource part of their business processes. Aurore Saglio-Thébault, chief executive of the company s Asian finance operation, says U.S. companies will typically outsource to a nearer destination such as Canada to handle higher-level duties and an offshore destination such as India or China for bookkeeping and other lower-level work. European companies do the same but usually opt for the combination of an Eastern European country and an Asian country. The company sees Asia as its primary growth market in the near term, she says, predicting that the size of the outsourcing market in Asia will grow 10 to 15 times in the next five years. Capgemini now derives almost 40 percent of its revenues (which amounted to 3 billion last year) from helping multinationals handle their outsourced operations. The company helps its clients set up offshore IT operations and has a team of qualified accountants to provide finance and accounting services, such as internal audits, accounts payable and receivable, and treasury back office work, for the clients. In the beginning we were only in Poland, Australia and the U.S. Then we decided to open in India and China, says Saglio-Thébault. She says outsourcing agreements are becoming more complex and about 10 percent of Capgemini s clients require the company to provide advanced accounting and finance services, from transactions to management reporting, budget planning and Sarbanes-Oxley audit compliance. We don t sell an outsourcing service to our clients. We go in and understand their needs and concerns, and then come up with a solution that taps into their needs. It s also a step-by-step process. We might start with handling their transactions and reporting, then add on a service to analyze the reports, then continue to [ 22 ] A Plus + September 2007

4 do forward budget-planning for them, Saglio-Thébault says. For example, Swiss agribusiness company Syngenta International AG has outsourced its finance operations to Capgemini in China. The office now handles all of the company s global sales, except that of the European markets, which are done in Poland. Similarly, Unilever PLC, a U.K. consumer products manufacturer of brands such as Knorr and Dove, signed a seven-year agreement with Capgemini to do finance and administration for Unilever s various associate companies. Saglio-Thébault says the multinationals use their services because they would rather spend time on human resources and business strategies than setting up and managing a team of accountants in an offshore location. By outsourcing their accounting functions to Capgemini, companies typically save costs of up to 30 percent. They can choose to eventually phase out all accounting jobs not central to the company s core business, leaving CFOs with their hands free to concentrate more on strategic planning, she says. Martin Fahy, director of development of Asia Pacific of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, agrees that more companies can outsource advanced accounting roles as the quality of performance from people in countries like India and China continues to improve. It is wrong to assume that you can only outsource low-level knowledge activities, he says. China as a hot outsourcing hub Although India is still the leading outsourcing destination in Asia, outsourcing activities are growing rapidly in the mainland too. China s market share of the global outsourcing industry jumped 5.5 times from 3.6 percent between 2002 and 2006 to more than 20 percent this year, according to TPI s data (see figure 1). The most popular type of outsourcing in the first half of the year was in the telecom sector (such as call centres, software solutions and network sharing), which accounts for 46 percent of the overall outsourcing deals in Asia- Pacific. Manufacturing outsourcing came second with 26 percent and financial services only accounted for 9 percent of the market. China s popularity is growing fast primarily because the cost of services on the mainland are up to 30 percent lower than those in India, according to Saglio-Thébault of Capgemini. Mainlanders foreign language skills are also vastly improving to match those of Indians. For example, she says the company thought it would have no hope of finding a Japanese-speaking accountant in Guangzhou three years ago, but was proven wrong. The company therefore plans to increase its workforce in China from 500 to 800 this year, after boosting its staff numbers in India to 2,400 last year. Benefiting from China s growth For Hong Kong, the outsourcing trend to China presents a growing business opportunity for local accountants. Many of the multinational companies, which have set up businesses in China, have outsourced their accounting functions to CPA firms like us, says Thomas Wong, a partner at CWCC, a mid-tier accounting firm. Figure 1: Total outsourcing contract value >US$25 million in Asia Pacific countries Country (US$ billion) % market share First half of 2007 (US$ billion) Australia % % China % % Hong Kong % % India % % Indonesia % % Japan % % Malaysia % % New Zealand % % Philippines % % Singapore % % South Korea % % Taiwan % % Thailand % % Other % % Total % % Source: TPI % market share (Rounding may produce +/ 1%) September A Plus [ 23 ]

5 Outsourcing feature The fact that Wong s firm has offices in Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen also helps it canvass China-related outsourcing businesses. He says his firm provides services such as bookkeeping, payroll, preparations of financial statements and cash flow statements to overseas clients, and helps them with accounts receivables and payables. Such business now constitutes less than 10 percent of CWCC s revenue, but Wong says the demand has been steadily growing over the past few years. He says multinationals benefit from outsourcing the accounting activities of their China operations to Hong Kong CPA firms. If they set up their own accounting department in China, it would be very hard to supervise because management might not have time to travel back and forth. It is also hard to employ just one accountant or two to do the job. If the accountant in China suddenly quits, the whole business operation would be adversely affected, he explains. They are willing to pay a Figure 2: Outsourcing strategy in Asia 100 Would not outsource under any circumstances No plans to outsource at present % 54% 17% 16% Payroll 15% 62% 15% 7% Credit & collections Accounts payable 16% 58% 15% 11% 19% 13% 8% Accounts receivable 63% 13% Tax planning 16% 68% 11% 5% Billing Possibility of outsourcing in Currently outsourced Travel & expense reimbursement 17% 67% 11% 6% Tax compliance 9% 18% 21% 65% 9% 5% Intercompany accounting 26% 7% 6% General ledger/ Financial closing 20% 7% Source: CIMA (Rounding may produce +/ 1%) Internal audit premium to Hong Kong CPA firms to take care of their accounts. Ada Lam, an audit partner with Deloitte China, says Hong Kong has an edge over many Asian accounting job destinations because local accountants are well versed in international standards and have strong expertise in compliance. Many multinationals rely on the Big Four accounting firms in Hong Kong to help them iron out standards inconsistencies from different outsourcing service providers in other parts of Asia. The accounting standards and the rules are different from place to place. Some of the information provided by the outsourcers and the outsourcing providers is inconsistent so we have to work on the data after we have collected it, Lam says. It is also a problem that some companies don t work out their quality controls before they outsource to a vendor, so the auditor is tasked with checking the client s internal controls. Lam says her team spends a lot of time gathering information and documents from different countries. We have clients who have outsourcing vendors in India who are sometimes slow in responding. Very often when we ask them for personnel information, which is somewhat confidential, there would be delays. What it all means for Hong Kong accountants So far, accountants in Hong Kong seem to have benefitted from the outsourcing trend from the U.S. and Europe into Asia. They are also unlikely to lose out to their counterparts in other Asian countries because finance and accounting outsourcing within Asia has not yet [ 24 ] A Plus + September 2007

6 taken off. A recent Chartered Institute of Management Accountants survey of 188 chief financial officers in the region shows that about two-thirds of the respondents say they either have no current plan to outsource or would not outsource their accounting work under any circumstances (see figure 2). Only slightly more than 10 percent of the CFOs surveyed say they are outsourcing some accounting jobs, including payroll, accounts payable, tax planning and compliance. Moving jobs within Asia Pacific to another Asia Pacific location, the savings are not as great as taking a job from mainstream U.S. or European locations and moving it offshore, explains Martin Fahy of CIMA. Susanna Chiu, senior vice president of Li & Fung (Trading) Ltd., the export trading arm of Li & Fung Group, points out another concern. She says her company doesn t see much Moving jobs within Asia Pacific to another Asia Pacific location, the savings are not as great as taking a job from mainstream U.S. or European locations and moving it offshore. of a need to outsource its accounting operations because the information involved is highly confidential. Chiu says large companies in Hong Kong prefer to set up their own offshore offices despite a huge investment because they want to ensure information confidentiality and maintain a high level of control. But with continuous improvement in the mainland s accounting standards and skill quality, will mainland accountants become the biggest threat to local accountants? Chiu says China still has a long way to go and she thinks Hong Kong accountants will continue to act as middlemen, helping the mainland catch up with international standards. With the rapid growth in China where people are more aware of the need to comply with international accounting standards, it should be a win-win situation for both accountants in China and Hong Kong. A + September A Plus [ 25 ]

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