31 Aug 2011

People - OS Hotshot

Tham Sai Choy, KPMG Singapore

When Mr Tham Sai Choy became the Managing Partner of KPMG Singapore in October 2010, this is the one thing he wanted his staff to agree on...

Yee Wei Zhen

It starts with the people.

When Mr Tham Sai Choy became the Managing Partner of KPMG Singapore in October 2010, this is the one thing he wanted his staff to agree on. In the accounting industry where the staff turnover is about 30% and employees generally stay an average of three to four years, retaining talent is a Herculean task.

“That’s a serious problem. If you have the right people, these people will attract all the best clients to work with. You have the right clients, you do not necessarily attract people to work with you. There is global mobility of top-level talent. Nobody has a hold on anybody even by being the best in Singapore. That leads us to think that it all starts with the people and everything is built on it.”

Walking the talk that people are an organisation’s most precious asset, KPMG recently opened a 5,000 square foot clubhouse at City House along Robinson Road for its staff. It boasts a self-serve café and a bar, a games area with foosball (table football) and a pool table, a dartboard and a Wii console and a band area for performances. But the staff are not the sole benefactors; their family and friends are given the ticket to the fun too. “Our staff can bring in their friends. Because in real life, that’s what a lot of us do when we meet outside work. A large portion is work friends. The rest of them are friends of work friends and that’s what we are trying to do at the clubhouse. There’s an extended community of people who are important to us because they secondarily support the work that we do. They keep our people happy. They keep our people amused, engaged, entertained and motivated in life, whether they’re family, friends, party mates, etc.”

Having work-life balance in a profession that is notorious for its long working hours seems inconceivable to some. Mr Tham, however, is a picture of calm when talking about it. Perhaps, things are a little easier for a man who has 30 years of audit and financial advisory experience. Or perhaps, it is his rather unconventional approach to things that allows him to achieve that elusive balance. “I don’t get stressed out that I have a visitor from Germany coming in whom I have to entertain over the weekend. A lot of people would. They’ll say, ‘Don’t bother me. That’s my private time. That’s my family time’. What do I do? I just invite him to come and join me for dinner. I’m not spending any less time with my family. I’m not running away from my work obligation to spend some time with him.” As a result of that, his three children know many of his friends from work and he enthuses that “they are good role models”. He also lets on that “people find it hard to believe” that he has “a lot of fun at work”.

Born and schooled in Malaysia, the Singapore citizen remembers how he had to earn his pocket money doing account-related things for his father who was a businessman. By the time he was a teenager, he was already exposed to accounting books, generation of bills, collection of money from clients, etc. “The truth is a lot of us in our career choices, whether we realise it or not, are conditioned by our parents,” says Mr Tham. And so, accounting was a “natural choice” for him when he had to choose a career path. 

The U.K was where he got his Bachelor of Arts (Hons) degree and where he trained and qualified as a Chartered Accountant.  He also lived in Melbourne for a few years.  Explaining his decision to reside in Singapore, he says that Singapore is a place that offers a future to build a home and “stands out by its lack of negatives”. “Singapore is a place with stability and the great thing about it is people are happy to talk about 10 or 20 years from now.
“I like to know what happens 10 years from now. We have Master Plans that talk about 10 years down the road like it’s going to happen tomorrow.

He further explains what he appreciates about Singapore by recounting an incident.  “I was sitting with a colleague of mine from the U.K and the front page headline was about one train that had graffiti painted over it. That’s the same week of the riots in the U.K. It’s a real luxury to be living in a place where graffiti on one train makes it to the headlines.”

With the current economic downturn in the U.S and Europe, Mr Tham offers his prediction about how Singapore will fare. “The good thing about Singapore is we have very good people who look very, very far ahead on behalf of all of us and a lot of these issues have been thought through and we know what to expect. We keep our options open when we need to keep them open and we are well placed to move through the uncertainty, a far better place than lots of other places. That’s the benefit of maybe the size that we have. It gives us the agility. We are in an interesting part of the world; we have the connections to understand how the world works, notwithstanding the small number of our population…And because of the way we are well educated, well connected to the rest of the world, we are very much forewarned about things before they happen and very well-armed to deal with it.”

The interview with Mr Tham offers insight to many things in life. But what really stands out is how earnest he is – despite being Managing Partner of a firm with 2,200 employers—as he listens to the interview questions and answers them. When the session is over, he asks about my job scope. I reply and he listens in earnest again. At that moment, an epiphany of some sort hits me: It all starts with the people. 

Join us for our Distinguished Business Leaders Series with Mr Tham Sai Choy in Melbourne, Australia on 30 September 2011. Register for the event now!

By Yee Wei Zhen