Do your market research thoroughly beforehand, learn the language and, above all, have patience, if you are thinking of setting up your business in Myanmar, says chartered accountant Kim Chawsu, founder and managing partner in Katalysts Investment Group (KIG) in Yangon.
She should know. She moved back to the country of her birth in January 2014, after nearly 30 years in Africa, New Zealand and the UK, headhunted by KBZ Group, one of Myanmar’s largest family-owned conglomerates with interests ranging from banking to airlines to mining. She spent two years as head of transformations and head of international banking for KBZ Bank before being promoted to group CFO.
But really what Chawsu wanted to do was set up her own business to take advantage of the increasing interest in Myanmar’s fledgling markets. She wanted to use her business experience to help domestic companies change their culture and improve their profitability, and to guide foreign companies through the complexities of doing business in the country. So in October last year, she to set up Katalysts, which provides strategic and management consulting services. “We provide tailored financial solutions to meet the funding needs of individual clients across all the sectors,” she says.
Chawsu was born and brought up in Myanmar until 1987 when her parents decided to leave “to give my sister and me a better education – they were both educated in the UK and they valued what a good education can do for one’s life”.
In fact, it turned out to be a far wider education than just schooling offered. “I had a wonderful childhood in Africa. I finished my primary school education in Zimbabwe which was then an amazing country for a child to grow up in, surrounded by nature. Then we moved to Botswana where I finished high school. University was in New Zealand where I qualified as a chartered accountant with the Institute of Chartered Accountants New Zealand [now part of CA ANZ since the merger with its sister body in Australia in December 2014].”
As a graduate, chartered accountancy was not on her radar – indeed she describes herself as an “accidental accountant”. “I never planned to become an accountant but the summer after finishing my BCom, majoring in finance and economics, it was difficult to find a job in Auckland. There did seem to be more roles for accountants, though, so at the urging of my wise mother, I decided to return to university to take a graduate diploma in commerce, majoring in accounting.” The rest, of course, is history.
Her first job after qualifying was as a graduate accountant with Cadbury and her second at Audit New Zealand, part of the Office of the Auditor General. “I enjoyed interacting with clients and learning about new businesses which spanned across sectors was extremely interesting for me.
“When I was in charge of audits, the essentials of time management, managing teams, relationship building with clients and multitasking became transferrable skills which in my opinion are useful for life. I am grateful to ICANZ for instilling professionalism and ethics in me which I still use today.”
Her next move took her to London “to learn from the best financial institutions in the banking world”. “I planned to be away for three years but ended up staying nearly 10,” she says. During that time she worked in some of the world’s leading retail and investment banks, including Goldman Sachs, HSBC, Deutsche and Citi. She also joined ICAEW as a reciprocal member and is proud of her links to the UK body.
“My expertise had been back office operations, which really fitted in well with my past work experience, from performance management regulatory reporting transformations, process migrations, setting up management reporting systems.”
Coming back to Myanmar must have been a culture shock. The country was just beginning to open up after 60 years of military rule and global isolation. But, she says, the pace of change has accelerated and the problems that she faced both on the living and working fronts are being overcome.
“Myanmar is becoming more cosmopolitan with new bars and restaurants opening every month. When I arrived, I remember making a shopping list of things I needed to buy when I was away on trips outside Myanmar. I don’t need to do that anymore.”
However, she warns, for expats the cost of living is quite high, especially property rentals and private school fees. “Good healthcare is still a work in progress and a lot of locals and foreigners go to neighbouring Thailand and Singapore for medical check-ups and operations.”
For businesses, life is getting easier too. The government is beginning to tackle outdated legislation which is holding both local and foreign companies back. Last year the Myanmar Investment Law received a major overhaul and the Company Law, which dates back to 1904, is currently being revised to make it fit for 21st century purpose.
“Capacity building remains an issue,” Chawsu says, “as the local workforce still needs to be shown best practice in processes and procedures. Companies must be mindful that their staff will need not only to be trained in the right skills but will expect a lot of coaching on the job.
“From my experience, it’s essential to help develop self-confidence so that staff can take responsibility and own their own jobs.
“Without a doubt though,” she adds, “if one would like to be part of the transformation of what is the last frontier market, then Myanmar is the place to be.”