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KPMG Singapore 75th anniversary story : Leaving the firm a better place

Leaving the firm a better place

Source: (Veritat, 16 May 2016) by Tan Ter Cheah

Source: (Veritat, 16 May 2016) by Tan Ter Cheah


Mr Danny Teoh, originally from Malaysia, qualified as a Chartered Accountant in the United Kingdom in 1981. Following his heart (that is, his Singaporean then-girlfriend, now wife), he sought to transfer to Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co, Singapore. He became a partner in 1989, and became managing partner of KPMG Singapore in 2005. He retired in 2010.

The team met Danny at a hip Tiong Bahru cafe that he had chosen. He strolled in cheerfully in a Star Wars T-shirt, swinging his car keys.

The NKF saga
Danny said one of the defining moments of his time as managing partner was in 2005, when he had just taken on the mantle as leader of the partnership. That year, the new board of the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) commissioned KPMG to conduct an investigation into the charity’s past practices. A very intensive, and short, five months was all the time it took from the commissioning of KPMG to undertake the mammoth task to the time the report was submitted.

The work was demanding, and although there were often multiple and complex sensitivities to consider, KPMG more than rose to the task, with the team led by Tham Sai Choy, who was the former managing partner between 2010-2016 producing an easily-comprehensible , yet comprehensive report, which was widely quoted and reported in the local media.

The ensuing brand recognition and project support even resulted in KPMG employees getting their taxi fares waived by cabbies who, having recognised them by the KPMG paper bags they carried, wanted to show their support for the work done by the firm.

Danny also believes that KPMG working so hard, and well, on this project enabled the firm to cement a reputation of being trustworthy. It also helped build long-term relationships with board members of other charities, several of whom later became clients of the firm, and gave KPMG work "without the firm having to send in a proposal".

Pay cuts of 2009
When asked about the firm’s decision in the wake of the 2009 recession to cut the salaries of mid to top management by 5 to 7.5 percent, Danny shared: "It had to be done as the economic outlook was very bad. We also had to show the clients that we shared their pain."

I expressed that it was a pleasant surprise (yes, I was affected by the pay cut then too) when the lost pay was paid back to the staff by year-end, when the economic outlook turned out less grave than had been expected. To that, Danny said: "We wanted to show that the leadership could be trusted...It was the right thing to do as the Government was giving work creditsto help Singapore businesses tide over difficult times. We couldn’t be taking money from both sides."

He also added simply: "From our actions, people will know whether they can trust us. NATO (No action, talk only) is not a good thing."

Building the winning culture
Danny also spoke about his belief in developing a 'winning culture'. He said that at the time when he took over the reins of leadership, this 'winning culture' "was not as strong as [he] would have liked".

So Danny, drawing from his background as a sportsman, felt that getting the staff to participate in sports would help cultivate a ‘How to win’ mindset, one that focused on the values of confidence, strength and strategy. He reminisced that funding for sports was made available, so that coaches and trainers could be hired.

And there was a KPMG kit too for the sportspeople. He said indulgently "I used to join the kids for softball, cricket, etc... I would go and support our teams." But he added that it was also important to celebrate the winning, so parties were organised just to revel the victories people won.

Learning from failure
Danny, in his avuncular manner, shared many pearls of wisdom. One that stood out for me was that "one can learn from failure". He cited the time when the firm was building up a certain part of the practice. In certain audits, it was clear that the incumbent would win, due to special reasons. So, not getting appointed, but coming in second actually meant that in a fairer fight, the team would have won.

So, to Danny, the failure to get the job was acceptable, as through the hard work put in, and the integrity of doing its best, the firm made an impression on the potential client, who then inevitably gave KPMG work in subsequent matters.

Don’t stop believing
Danny’s parting shot to us about work, KPMG, and aiming to do big things was: "Don’t stop believing. Building momentum is the hard part, but once that has been built, it has a life of its own."

Truly the words of a man who did not stop believing in what the firm could be, and who built on a legacy begun in 1941, and left it stronger for the future to build on.

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