Why I Became an Accountant
and a short snippet of my childhood
I still remember when the high school careers counsellor, presented to our class. It was Year 8.
She helped us to work through the range of career options we needed to consider as we embarked on our remaining years of prescribed education.
“To help you get started” she muttered “work through these questions with your parents”
- What are you really good at and love doing?
- What are you are good at but hate doing?
- What do you love doing but are not that great at?
- What are you not good at and hate doing?”
She asked us to think deeply about those questions. Reflect on our dreams, ambitions, desires, goals. “Picture your future and choose the career path that will help you get there”.
She was asking us to make the most important decision of our life.
I hadn’t even hit puberty yet.
On reflection, I realise my reason to choose the accounting profession was like most decisions by 13 year-old pubescent males.
‘Knowing your numbers’ was sexy in my eyes. 17 years later, I still hold that same belief.
I had an interest in money from an early age, as we never had much of it growing up.
For a typical Australian middle-class family, one could say our life was humble. Dad was a career man in the RAAF and worked your standard 9 to 5. Mum often worked 2–3 jobs at a time — ranging from waiting tables, cleaning, admin roles, even operations at the local ‘toy library’ (do you remember those!?). As a migrant from Singapore without tertiary education, finding employment was always challenging. It’s one of the reasons why she changed her legal name from ‘Leh Hua’ to Katherine.
Despite our family never having a great deal of money, that didn’t prevent me and my siblings from living a fulfilling childhood. My parents invested a lot of time and resources into our education and extracurricular activities. Music lessons (I played flute and drums), mandarin Chinese language classes on Saturdays, Dharma classes at the Buddhist temple on Sundays (the equivalent of Sunday mass). They raised us in an environment where we had the opportunity to explore a variety of interests. Mum didn’t have such luxuries growing up in ‘third-world’ Singapore in the 50’s — a time when the country was nothing but swamp in the backwaters of Malaysia. She wanted to change that.
Like every Asian mother, she encouraged us to be studious at school. “study hard, get good grades and work in a profession so you can live a good life!” She always preached.
When mum said ‘profession’, she was referring to a career as a doctor/lawyer/banker/dentist/engineer / [insert stereotypical Asian career choice here].
So, when I told her I wanted to become a chef on my 10th birthday, she fkn flipped.
Jamie Oliver, aka The Naked Chef exploded on the public TV networks in 1999. I idolised the guy. He was this 20 something year old living the bachelor life in downtown London — cooking good food and knocking back a few bevvies with his mates on his days off from chefing in top restaurants.
Work hard play hard.
Jamie Oliver ignited my passion for food. My younger brother and I spent our weekends experimenting with different recipes in the family kitchen. From triple cooked fried chicken, giant omelettes , stir-fries, casseroles. We cooked everything, except desserts. I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth - I also had no patience for strict measurements and recipes.
My parents, the guinea pigs of our wild concoctions saw my enthusiasm for food and understood my reasons for becoming a chef.
So, they were quick to make my career choice happen. Following a few calls to the network of the Chinese community in Darwin, they got me my first job at a family owned fish and chip shop on Stokes Hill Wharf.
Ok I was 11 years old at the time, ~3 years below the legal working age. But that didn’t matter to the Cantonese owners. At $5 an hour paid in cash, I was good, honest, cheap labour. Besides, if anyone asked, I was a cousin helping the family business.
My role at the fish and chip shop was customer service. I took orders using an old school docket book and did all the calculations using long equation. There wasn’t even a calculator, let alone cash register, Eftpos terminal or some fancy POS system.
Nope, it was just me, my docket book, a draw full of cash and good old long equation. On the rare occasion, customers would double-check my math to ensure their orders always added up and the correct change was given. Without fail, it did. (Hot tip — never challenge an Asian kid at math.)
After a few months, I was getting the hang of my job and built some rapport with the owners. I had found my feet, and I started to look for ways I could improve the business. It started with simple things like restocking the soft-drinks so that customers would always pick a cold bottle and pre-rolling plastic cutlery in napkins. I even suggested a loyalty program for repeat customers (before this was standard at cafes).
Despite my random suggestions, management always disregarded them. They were too busy dealing with the long lines of customers on Friday and Saturday nights. In peak times, customers waited up to 20-minutes to be served. This was a problem worth solving.
Whilst I was good at it, I knew the process of manually adding each order was inefficient. We should have been using a cash register. One slow Sunday afternoon, I was tasked with cleaning a set of shelves in the store room where I noticed an unused cash register. I hooked it up to the closest power-point and the dial lit up like a Christmas tree. It worked!
I wiped off the dust and hauled it to the front counter, eager to set it up.
The auntie observed what I was doing and stormed over.
“What are you doing?” She said.
“I found this cash register the back room. We can use it to take orders faster” I replied.
“Ayyyaaa!! You think I don’t know about that cash register? Put it back where you found it!”
At the time I didn’t have the nerve to ask why we never used that cash register. Years later I realised it was my first lesson in tax evasion. Entering sales in a machine left the business exposed if the tax man ever audited why the register sales were different to reported sales in the return. The less audit trail, the better.
Working in hospitality over the years, I’ve learned it is widespread practice for restaurants to maintain two sets of books. One for the tax man, the other to know your actual profit!
After several months working weekends at the fish and chip shop, I was beginning to build a war chest of savings. I kept my cash hidden in a Hong Pao, a red packet you get at Chinese new year. I was proud of my growing stash, and I wanted more.
My first legit side hustle was a lawn mowing business. I was already mowing our own lawn — a 3 hour job. Working in the 35 degree heat, 100% humidity of tropical Darwin was taxing work. But I didn’t mind it. The $5 allowance dad paid me was worth it.
Armed with a flyer designed on Microsoft Word, I knocked on every door in the neighbourhood to introduce myself and my new lawn mowing venture.
In an era before mobile phones, I instructed mum and dad to answer the home phone with ‘Jason’s lawn mowing service’. They kept it up for the first day, but their enthusiasm quickly faded. Lucky for me, living in a tight-knit community of the RAAF base married quarters — people knew how to find me.
I charged $20 a pop for my lawn mowing service — which equated to about $7 an hour. A much better return than working at the fish and chip shop. It was a proud moment for me, earning my own money off the back of my own efforts. The work was rewarding.
I eventually had the hard conversation with Dad to renegotiate the $5 he was paying me to mow the family lawn. After-all, it was below market value.
He said he was happy to do so, on the proviso that they would also start charging me for boarding.
The greatest thing about growing up in Darwin was it’s proximity to SE Asia. It was cheaper to travel to Singapore than it was to Sydney. No brainer. We often did annual family holidays to Singapore, to visit my mum’s side of the family and all our cousins. Singapore is still regarded a second home for us.
Of my 6 uncles and aunties (mum has a big family), my godfather uncle Ricky was, and still is the most influential. Once a sales executive at a large vitamin and supplement company, he had recently started his own business. He was (and still is) a mentor to me, educating us about business and investing. On one of our trips he gifted us a stack of Anthony Robbins CDs — UPW. This was my first exposure to the realm of ‘self-help’. Amongst the CDs, there was also a book that completely changed the way I thought about money.
That book was Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki.
The Cashflow Quadrant in particular kick-started my interest in investing and wealth creation.
My first attempt at ‘investing’ was buying shares on the ASX. As a new subscriber to the AFR, I read that Virgin Blue Australia was listing via an IPO. I had no idea if it was a company worth investing in, but I liked Richard Branson and we travelled frequently — so those two things were going for me. I ordered a copy of the prospectus, using my mum’s details of course.
I still remember the day the giant envelope arrived in the mail. I tore it open and gazed at the size of this unwieldy document of a prospectus. I had no idea what the hell I was looking at. It was this flashy package, the size of a small novel complete with catch phrases, corporate jargon and Richard Branson’s face plastered throughout.
I skipped to the ‘financials’ section and tried to make sense of them. I was clueless. I spent nights researching what investors look for in financials. Net Profits, Gross Margins, Earnings Per Share, Return on Assets.
In one ear and out the other. Corporate jargon.
I tried to learn what Warren Buffett looks for in potential investments. But to be honest, none of his advice made sense to me, as he too spoke in tongues.
But there was one quote that resonated with me:
“Accounting is the language of business”
I learned that all great investors and business owners know their numbers. If I wanted to be one of them, I had to master them myself.
That was the day I decided to become an accountant. A career path that would help me make sense of the numbers.
20 years later, I think I’m pretty good at working my way around a set of financials; understanding and teasing out all the clues that are often hidden in the numbers.
Not only do I get to hone my craft everyday, I get to help other people understand their financials via my very own wealth creation vehicle — my business.
To me, it’s a Win-Win-Win. There’s nothing more fulfilling.