Accountancy is a mobile profession and, increasingly, globally mobile. The CA talked to ICAS member James Hitchings CA, Associate Partner at EY, now relocated to Tokyo, about embracing new areas of expertise and a very different culture.
At the beginning of 2018, James Hitchings was asked if he’d be interested in relocating to Tokyo for two years. He’d been with EY in London for four years, helping to build its audit practice, and winning strategically important audits. He was no stranger to working overseas: having started his career at PwC in 2001, he met his wife Mary while on secondment in 2010 to PwC New York. They had both relocated back to the UK in 2014 – with a new child in tow.
Since then they have become a family of five, with another new environment to adjust to. The move wasn’t made hastily. Both working parents, James and Mary spent a long time discussing it. “One of my beliefs is that when you get to experience something different, both professionally and personally, if it’s at the right time for you, grab the opportunity,” he says.
It was an “into the frying pan”-style entry: “We landed in August, a very hot month in Japan, in a country with an eight-hour time difference. I had no car, no driving licence, no idea where to shop. Nothing can completely prepare you for that. You have to roll with it. Three months in, we’ve managed to normalise.” Thankfully, everyone was very supportive: “When we arrived, they helped with the immigration paperwork, bank accounts, credit cards and changing my driving licence. It has been hugely valuable.”
The secondment came about in the first place because EY likes to invest in mobility. Hitchings is part of EY’s Next Gen global leadership programme, a scheme for potential partners to take time out of the office to reflect upon the strategic objectives of the firm, their personal development journey and working with people from different countries. “We see it as critical in terms of developing our talent,” he says. “We have to appreciate our clients are very global in nature, especially in times of political uncertainty. For me, it’s about building relationships with our clients across these locations.”
He started his new post in summer 2019 after scouting out the territory first (important, he says) and was fortunate enough to find a nice apartment with enough space – not easy in densely populated Tokyo. “The city is very clean and safe, which makes it quite appealing to someone with a young family,” he says. “It’s also a city that’s very open to international people. They are very polite, very supportive and always want to make sure you have the best experience in Japan. That makes it very warm.”
With the Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympics, his secondment to Japan is well timed: “The rugby (EY was an official sponsor) was three months of absolute excitement,” says Hitchings, a Wales fan. “A global sporting event brings people to Japan and brings them together, which is important given some of the uncertainties we face globally.”
Hitchings’ role in Tokyo is focusing on international coordination for a large Japanese financial services (FS) client while being an engagement leader for a number of European FS houses with a presence in Japan. The job “pulls together” the best pieces of the EY network, he says: “Whether it be on thought leadership or current or emerging topics, talent or digital, we provide our Japanese clients with value, while maintaining independence when we execute our audits.”
He is “very much out in the market” – for example, giving local talks on international financial reporting standards (IFRS) updates and changes in standards. “One of the most significant accounting changes we’ve seen for a long time was the implementation of IFRS 9. Also the CECL (current expected credit losses) standard, which a number of clients are working through now. Both are changing the way organisations fundamentally look at credit – from an incurred to an expected loss model.”
Working in Japan is very different, he says: “But so was New York after London. The Japanese respect the working week. Nobody really works at the weekends. They take an hour lunch break, with friends or a working lunch at a restaurant, or sit in the park.”
There are other differences too: “Introducing yourself is done differently. In the UK, you shake hands and introduce yourself. Here, the first thing you do is present a business card with both hands.” Some things stay the same though: “The new EY building looks and feels like an EY building, irrespective of location.” Ultimately, “you have to remember you are a guest in someone’s country – I am still nervous of offending anyone. But everyone is so polite.”
“We have to appreciate our clients are very global in nature, especially in times of political uncertainty.”