Amy Reeve 5 Jun 2018 04:24pm

The people’s chairman

After three decades at PwC in Singapore, Gautam Banerjee is using the skills honed in a plethora of roles across the firm to guide the governance of a different type of company. He tells Amy Reeve why it was a serendipitous opportunity

Caption: Photography: Stefan Chow
Gautam Banerjee enjoyed a diverse and distinguished career at PwC Singapore before a combination of things – a mandatory retirement age of 58, the feeling that it was time to hand over the executive chairmanship after nine years, and a serendipitous board vacancy at Blackstone Singapore – mobilised him to move into private equity in 2013 rather than become a “gentleman farmer”. Asked to cast his mind back to the late 1970s, when he joined what was then Touche Ross to do his articles after completing a BSc in accounting and financial analysis at the University of Warwick, we’re both struck by how different the cultural texture of life was then, and how much the profession has changed.

Banerjee, who spent his early years in Mumbai, moved to Singapore aged 16 when his father, a civil engineer, was transferred from civil engineering firm Gammon India to the South East Asian office. But it was in Mumbai where his thoughts turned to chartered accounting – an “up and coming profession” in India back then – and he started exploring the qualification. “We lived in a company apartment and the one next door was rented out to Grindlays Bank where there were three young management trainees, all chartered accountants. I met these chaps and they were really quite cool and that’s when I took some interest in the profession,” explains Banerjee with a laugh. Already star-struck, he then discovered, flicking through the annual reports of companies his father had invested in, that chartered accountants seemed to hold jobs in all sorts of sectors, not just professional services, and concluded, “getting a job wouldn’t be a problem”.

His instinct was mostly right. He thrived at PwC Singapore as an ACA, which he joined in 1982: he became partner in 1989; head of various practices including assurance and advisory; chief operating officer for its eastern cluster; interim chairman of PwC India; and held a position on the global firm’s strategy council. He was also a nominated member of parliament in Singapore.

It was getting his foot in the door that was the hard part, reflects Banerjee, and the realisation that London at that time was probably not going to be conducive to his advancement in the profession. “I applied to a lot of firms – as a foreign student it was always going to be tough to get into the Big Eight,” he recalls. “I finally managed to get a job with Touche Ross. The chap who interviewed me was ex-British Indian Army, I guess he saw a spark in me. And I had a great time. I did audits for Tate & Lyle, Cinzano and GEC. It was quite an amazing experience for a young chap to go out to these businesses and learn different things. I remember being in Newcastle auditing the General Electric factory and staying up all night in the common room of the hotel to follow Maggie Thatcher’s campaign on TV. You didn’t have televisions in the room back then, you had to go down to the common room.”

But he only stayed in London for one year after that: “I said to myself ‘It’s really uphill in London. If I want to stay in the profession, where will I have the best chance of becoming a partner?’ People don’t realise that Singapore is a multi-cultural, multi-racial meritocracy. We have four national languages – English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil – so citizens can do business with government in any of these. And that’s what drew me back. I thought I would have a more level playing field in Singapore.”

Of course multinational corporations and globalisation have transformed societies and greatly influenced demographics within the workforce since then, and London “has changed tremendously” since his time there in the late 1970s, says Banerjee. Within his own firm, emerging markets such as China influenced the size and scope of a practice (it rapidly overtook the Hong Kong practice and the two were combined) and demographics shifted dramatically: “When I joined we were about 210 people, about 11 partners, and they were either European or Chinese. When I left the firm it was about 2,500 people and 110 partners, about 40% women and people from 25 different nationalities.”

“The way we were taught, the audit partner would engage with the CFO and the CEO and try to understand the business. If you just look at the numbers you do not understand how someone comes to a decision”

In fact he says his role as COO for the eastern cluster – which includes China, Australia, Japan, Korea and south-east Asia – opened his eyes to cultural behaviour and transformed his people management skills. “The role of the regional leader was to ensure every country followed the key directives of the global firm, making sure you had the right quality control, the right people becoming partners, proper risk management standards, looking after the brand… You had exposure to the region and it forced you to understand the big cultural differences, the way people looked at things differently from one country to another. I developed a keen interest in international politics and history – unless you know that, you can’t really understand people,” he says.

Even audit – another area that has changed since he was a trainee – is affected by culture, believes Banerjee. He says the audit process can be stymied no matter how robust, independent and sceptical the auditor if the business culture is top-down, proud, or elitist and questions are not asked of senior figures. None of that is very helpful to transparency and a good audit process, he says. “In that sort of environment it’s no wonder that the audit process is a weak process. I’ve been at businesses where the auditor was often not sitting at the top table. The way we were taught, the audit partner would engage with the CFO and the CEO and try to understand the business. If you just look at the numbers you do not understand how someone comes to a decision,” he reasons.

But auditors must take some responsibility for deficiencies in their work, he adds, and believes that public trust and confidence in the profession have been shaken in the UK by recent events. On the collapse of the outsourcing company Carillion (which is not such big news in Singapore), he wonders whether there was enough scepticism, rigour and robustness in the process but says it’s not always the auditor’s fault. He has experience of something similar, where standards and procedures were perhaps not as searching as they should have been and a business collapsed.

He was seconded to PwC India in 2009 after a “carefully orchestrated fraud” at Satyam Computer Services. PwC was its auditor and Banerjee was asked to strengthen processes and bring in new people to “get everything back in place”. Banerjee says he spent a year and a half trying to stabilise PwC India, improving the quality of audits by adopting the global firm’s standards and restoring public confidence in it. Yet nearly nine years later the Satyam case is still not closed, with the Securities and Exchange Board of India trying to restrict PwC from auditing listed companies in India for two years.

Despite the circumstances, Banerjee enjoyed being back in the country and in fact lists the experience among the highlights of his career. The others include his work for Singapore Telecom, which he remembers as his “most professionally rewarding client”. He says: “When I first got involved it was the Telecommunication Authority of Singapore. I was involved in its corporatisation when it morphed into Singapore Telecom, the largest IPO in Singapore at the time. I made partner on the back of that. Its first AGM was also the largest in Singapore because every Singaporean was given the opportunity to buy shares. We had a huge auditorium, we expected lots of people to turn up – I think it was over a thousand.”

And needless to say, he was thrilled to serve in Parliament as a nominated member and work on various government initiatives to attract talented nationals back to the country. “I was someone who had become Singaporean so I suppose I was a little bit different. It was a great experience and something I never, ever thought would be possible. It gave me a great opportunity to understand how the country is governed, to make new friends, to get outside my comfort zone. I always tell young people you should find ways of getting outside of your comfort zone; figure it out and solve problems, there’s no point doing the same thing over and over. Even though I spent 30 years at PwC I had the good fortune to do different things.”

He had an open door policy during his years as chairman and says he spent 50% of his time on “people” because “we are a people organisation”. He would set aside time most Friday afternoons and gather a group of 20 or so managers around to talk to them about their challenges and opportunities. “A lot of the time when you become more senior in large professional services firms it’s to do with people,” he says. “How do you attract them, retain them, develop them, how do you look for the stars who will become the partners of the future, who will be good at dealing with clients, being out in the marketplace?” The CEO of a business must get to know you, he says, whether they’re a client or not – that’s how you’ll win and retain work.

It was actually a client who told him about the opportunity at Blackstone, which had been looking for a chairman for its new Singapore office for six months. It wasn’t just the timing that was perfect, it was also the fit: “It was a small outfit then, about 15 people, and they were looking for someone with experience, good governance skills, controls... The financial skills and discipline you’ve grown up with, someone who knows people in the marketplace, government, all of that comes in handy. We now have nearly 60 people in the office and significant operations out of Singapore. I was never that familiar with private equity and real estate but that’s the good thing about being a chartered accountant, you understand these things fairly quickly.”

Far from joining the dark side, he’s enjoying being part of Blackstone: “I’ve found similar values and culture and standards. I’ve never had to compromise any of the ethical frameworks I’ve grown up with. And most of the people who work here are young, bright people so that keeps me young as well.” He certainly wasn’t ready to retire at 58 – a remnant from the colonial era, he thinks, when traditionally the senior partners would potter back to rural Hampshire to enjoy their newly found spare time. He laughs: “I had to do something with my life, my wife was very keen I continue working. I don’t think she relished me being round the house all the time.”

Banerjee says he still visits his old firm from time to time and has discovered he’s known as “the people’s chairman”. It’s easy to see why.