A life of luxury: Nat Chan

Nat-ChanCFO, Richemont Commercial

Many business leaders can cite a specific event or decision that critically shaped the direction of their career. For Nat Chan, that event happened over two decades ago, while in his first year at Macquarie University, Sydney, when he decided one afternoon to go with some friends to a one-hour lecture on accountancy.

An art and a science

“Up until then I didn’t really know what I wanted to study – and given my performance in maths in high school in Hong Kong, accounting really wasn’t on the list. At that time my passion was literature and music.” But it was while listening to Professor Carrick Martin – author of many of Australia’s definitive accounting publications – that a light switch suddenly flicked on. “For the first time I could see that accounting isn’t just about static numbers. It’s about how companies use those numbers to present their business, to guide how it’s working and scope what it could achieve in the future. Just in that one hour I got excited because I could see that accountancy is as much an art as a science.”

It was enough to inspire Nat to major in accountancy, and then target the most prestigious graduate position he could find – a traineeship at Deloitte Australia.

A level of credibility

It’s a conscious decision that’s proved more important than perhaps Nat could ever have imagined at the time. After working at Deloitte for three years in Sydney, he accepted an offer to work at Arthur Andersen’s new office in Shanghai. Having mastered the challenges of life in China, he made the transition to the luxury goods retail sector when a friend told him that the LVMH group was looking for a Finance Manager for their Parfums Christian Dior operations in China. He then continued his involvement in the luxury sector with a move to Ermenegildo Zegna and then on to Burberry in early 2011, where he stayed until May 2014 before moving to Richemont Commercial.

After 20 years working in the white heat of China’s booming economy, he is discovering that Chartered Accountancy’s reputation for discipline, ethics and exemplary corporate governance practice is more valued than ever.

“I cannot overstress the importance of corporate governance in a country as vast as China right now. In the mid-1990s, major companies entering China sought out Chartered Accountants because of our business expertise. Now they also want us for our business ethics – investors are scrutinising financial governance of companies in China like never before. Our training in ethics, our code of conduct and ongoing professional development give Chartered Accountants a level of credibility that companies in China really need. ”

Passion for process

For more than two years, he was financial controller for the China operations at Burberry – a FTSE 50 company – before becoming director of finance for a further year. As financial controller, he oversaw financial operations for a business involving 68 stores in 35 cities, stretching from Beijing to Inner Mongolia – a challenge he clearly relished.

“I’m always mindful of how to implement and monitor process and procedures,” he admits. “In China it’s not hard to deliver big sales numbers – everyone expects that. What is hard is capturing what the business is doing and staying in control of that at every step.”

He’s particularly keen on applying robust, IT driven standard processes to track the business. “So on any day we mine data to see how inventory is moving, and that helps us run the business better, smarter and also respond to what customers want.”

Brand magic

And while it’s the art and science of accounting that still excites, the excitement of working in the luxury goods sector also exerts its pull. “What I love about this sector is that we are selling the magic of a brand. It’s the challenge of delivering the same exceptional client experience – whether a customer steps into a store in London, Sydney or Hangzhou.”

Overseeing a business of this prestige and scale in China is, he adds, a little like driving a Formula 1 car. “You need to be precise, fast and be prepared to react at any time. I love it.”

ACHIEVING SUCCESS

Family first

Without this, one is nothing.

Integrity at all times

When working in emerging markets, do not break the laws or rules for the sake of short-term convenience even if many other industry peers seem to do so. Instead, deliver breakthrough solutions without breaking the most basic of business ethics

Keep the human touch

Telecommunication technology is great, but only use it when you have to. In other words, challenge yourself to think whether you can see or talk to anyone within 8 yards of you before resorting to the use of emails or texts.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

Training to be a Chartered Accountant at Deloitte

Seeing how a leading global accountancy firm works taught me a huge amount at the start of my career – a great privilege

Coming to China

Even though I come from a Hong Kong family, moving to China in the mid-1990s was a huge cultural change for me. It was tough but I’m glad I stuck it out

Working for Burberry

I enjoyed the experience at the French and Italian luxury goods brands I worked for but there’s something really unique about working for this iconic British fashion power house – which is a FTSE 50 company with significant operations in China as well