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PHILIP YUEN has, by his own admission, big shoes to fill, but one cannot accuse him of not being prepared. The 52-year-old took over as the CEO of Deloitte Southeast Asia from his much-admired predecessor Chaly Mah in June this year. It's a role that puts Mr Yuen in charge of 25 offices across 11 countries in the region, along with 270 partners and over 7,300 professionals. He tells The Business Times: "Chaly is a great leader - a visionary leader and a great mentor - so I knew I would have big shoes to fill."
"So, when I took over, I ordered myself some insoles," he quips.
It's a droll comment that belies Mr Yuen's years of experience and steely drive; still, it's characteristic of this gentle, soft-spoken professional, who is modest about his accomplishments, impressive though they are.
Mr Yuen was CEO of Deloitte Singapore for six years before his most recent appointment, and also holds the position of Singapore divisional president for global accountancy body CPA Australia and that of audit committee chairman at the Singapore Land Authority. During his 31 years with Deloitte and as an accountant, Mr Yuen also served as the regional firm's Clients & Markets leader, and the Singapore firm's chief-of-operations and Talent partner.
He possesses extensive experience in the audits of multinational and local companies across various industries, has led teams in special investigation and system audits, as well as performed acquisition and due diligence reviews of companies in the Asia-Pacific - proving that it isn't just those "insoles" that ensure he is equipped for the job.
"It helped, being the Singapore CEO. The Singapore firm is a large portion of the South-east Asia firm (the Singapore firm makes up half the revenues of the regional firm). In some ways, that put me in good stead, to move up to the next level," he says.
And he's eager to take charge of the rest of the region, seeing much potential there.
"The South-east Asia region is a very interesting one. For me, personally, apart from it being a growth region, I find the South-east Asian countries - their history, culture - fascinating. Very rich. So, I'm very honoured to be able to work in this region, in this capacity.
"From a commercial angle, more importantly, this region is a growth region. If there is political stability all round, all the statistics suggest there are huge opportunities, moving ahead. We're talking about a population size in excess of 600 million people; a growing middle class, and a very young population - one of the statistics given was that 65 per cent of the region's population is below the age of 35.
"As an economic bloc on its own, we are currently about seventh largest in the world; we expect to be fourth largest in 2020. "All these things are good ingredients. We are very fortunate to be working in and to be living in this environment."
Deloitte intends to harness the region's potential. The Deloitte Southeast Asia firm was formed under Mr Mah's leadership in 2007, to better serve the firm's Asean clients operating within the then upcoming economic bloc - the Asean Economic Community (AEC).
"This (the regional firm) is one of the differentiating factors we have to our advantage, compared to our competitors; we can work across borders seamlessly within South-east Asia. We also have a very strong advisory and consulting base, which does not necessarily recognise borders.
"We have spent many years building the hardware. Now, we are moving forward and we need to unlock the synergies from these two key differentiators that we have."
He believes Deloitte will be able to benefit greatly from the development of the AEC, which was established last year - whether or not the integrated community succeeds in achieving all its lofty aims. The AEC Blueprint 2025 aims to bring about an integrated community by 2025 that will, in a nutshell: 1) create a single market and production base through the free flow of goods, services, investment, skilled labour and freer flow of capital; 2) create a business-friendly and innovation-conducive regional environment through the adoption of common frameworks, standards and mutual co-operation across many areas; 3) achieve equitable economic development for the newer Asean member states and their effective integration into the economic community; and 4) achieve Asean's full integration into the global economy.
Much has since been written, said and speculated about the new economic bloc's chances of success; Mr Yuen remains sanguine.
"I'm an optimistic person. I believe there are always opportunities. Whatever construct the AEC lands up taking ... if there are complications, you will need professionals to help you unlock the complications.
"So, if it all works out, well and good. But, if things turn out to be very complicated, then well and good too."
His optimism probably also stems from the fact that he has played a key role in developing the Deloitte Southeast Asia firm into what it is today.
"We have a strategy - a 2020 strategy - that was initiated during Chaly's time.
"Chaly and his leadership team (which Mr Yuen was part of) had a 10-year run at building a South-east Asia firm."
Under Mr Yuen's leadership, the direction of the firm is unlikely to veer off significantly from that strategy. "But, as we go on, we will refresh it. As time goes on, and as circumstances change, we will make corrections along the way."
His leadership style will differ from his predecessor's, he says. Mr Mah was CEO of Deloitte Asia Pacific for eight years.
"We are both different individuals - in terms of character, personality - and I think that difference will differentiate the leadership styles, in terms of the selection of our leadership team, the tone from the top, and so on. Our leadership styles exude from our own personalities."
But, while the command and control of the firm is set to change, many of the challenges the firm has to face stay the same.
"The perennial problem that we've faced so far will still be there - the challenge of maintaining gross margins. What's key is to work on productivity, be it through technology, offshoring (of certain services), etc. We need to create more value in our services, so that clients and customers will perceive the greater value and will pay," Mr Yuen says.
In that regard, taking full advantage of technological advancement - while staying on top of the unique challenges posed by the new digital age - will be important.
"We are very mindful of the challenges posed by technological innovation, of any possible disruptors within our service lines.
Upscale and upskill
"(We recognise that) the amount of compliance-based work we do can be replaced by technology; we need to upscale, upskill, to address all that.
"It also allows you to take away the mundaneness of jobs, allows your professionals to go to the more challenging aspects of their job.
"In some ways, that dovetails with the mindset of the millennials - if you ask them to do mundane jobs, it ain't gonna happen. They're interested in mobility, in having opportunities to be heard, in exercising their creativity, showing leadership.
"So, I'm looking forward to the tech play - you can unlock resources and time that would match the interest level of my future colleagues," he says.
This brings him to another critical issue faced by all employers, and a matter near and dear to Mr Yuen's heart: knowing how to best attract and retain talent. Mr Yuen was the Talent partner in Deloitte Singapore for three years, dealing with such concerns.
He believes that, to begin with, there has to be a good fit between employee and employer. "The key to success is to ensure that you pick the right people to do the right task, and we will reward them accordingly."
He adds that Deloitte's mobility programme, which gives employees the opportunity to be posted to Deloitte offices in other countries, is also a great attraction - particularly for the younger generation - as this allows Deloitte staff to help craft their own careers.
"Being a South-east Asia firm, as well as being a global organisation, the opportunities (for travel and overseas postings) are there." He's also not just paying lip service to the assertion that Deloitte has developed a good cohort of people and work culture through its efforts; when asked why he's stayed with the firm for over three decades, he attributes it to "the people and the culture".
"All along my career, I have had good mentors, people who have reached out, kept me on the straight and narrow, encouraged me along the way."
He adds: "You interact with a lot of people (in this job), see a lot of industries by virtue of the fact that you audit them, and the number of people you meet - be it colleagues or clients - keeps the job interesting."
So interesting that this has been a notably long stint in the industry for someone not educated as an accountant to begin with - Mr Yuen graduated from the University of Liverpool in 1985 with a degree in computer science. He explains his "accidental" foray into accounting: "For us (comp science graduates) then, we could go either into teaching, or accounting or actuarial science.
"Accounting was the first bunch of interviews to come up, so my friends and I thought: 'Why not try this?'
"But, as I found out more and more, as I went through the interview process, I found (the accounting profession) interesting ... And it opens your mind up to doing different things - business-related, commercial-related."
He has enjoyed his 31 years as an accountant greatly. But the job, particularly at Mr Yuen's level, does place great demands on his time, leaving precious little for family or self.
"What's important here is having a very supportive better half, particularly now in my new role, where there's more travel. I am very grateful for the support that my wife has given. And she's been with me since our marriage, seen me through it all."
And his three children - two boys aged 20 and 16, and a daughter turning 14 - keep him young, he says.
He jokes: "Before they were around, I was listening to (radio stations) 90.5 or 95. Now, thanks to them, I'm listening to 98.7. When I turn back to 90.5 or 95, I find them too slow."
His children also keep him active. While Mr Yuen keeps fit by cycling often, he gets extra exercise by playing rugby with his sons, and squash with his daughter.
Two pooches - a boxer and a Cavalier King Charles spaniel - also help to liven things up at home. "I've always had all sorts of animals in my house, particularly because my younger son has always been into critters."
A busy household and a demanding job, however, pose a challenge to Mr Yuen's efforts to ensure that he has enough time for everyone, and everything, in his life - especially with it being just three months into his new role.
"I'm waiting for it to stabilise. I hope there'll be some decent amount of downtime (in future)."
Having said that, Mr Yuen knows he needs to make a conscious effort. "You need to make time, spend quality time with your family.
"Personally, I'm a firm believer in trying to keep a balance - work, personal, spiritual. It's an objective that I would like to keep holding onto."
CEO, Deloitte Southeast Asia and Singapore
1963: Born in Malaysia
1985: Graduated from the University of Liverpool, UK with a Bachelor of Science (Honours); started work as an auditor with Deloitte Haskins & Sells in the UK
1991: Joined Deloitte Singapore
1996: Made Audit Partner with Deloitte Singapore
2004 to 2006: Talent Partner, Deloitte Singapore
2007 to 2010: Chief of Operations, Deloitte Singapore
2010: Appointed CEO of Deloitte Singapore
2013 to 2016: Clients & Markets Leader, Deloitte Southeast Asia
2016 Appointed CEO of Deloitte Southeast Asia
Chartered Accountant of Singapore; Member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales; Fellow Member of CPA Australia
KEY APPOINTMENTS OUTSIDE OF DELOITTE
President, CPA Australia (Singapore Division); board member and audit committee chairman, Singapore Land Authority; board member and audit committee chairman, Institute of Technical Education