Kok-Chye Ong CPA on why you should never assume anything

Kok-Chye Ong CPA, managing director and head of internet data centres (Asia ex China) at Gaw Capital. Photo: Rebecca Tah.

The ability to understand and appreciate varying perspectives in different situations has always been of importance to Kok-Chye Ong FCPA - be it in everyday work, career-defining moments or personal life.

As a rookie finance manager with the Singapore subsidiary of Dutch paper trading conglomerate KNP-BT in the late 1990s, Kok-Chye Ong FCPA was feeling the heat.

Only in his mid-20s at the time, Ong had solid technical knowledge, but he would be the first to admit that his “soft” skills were a work in progress.

“Being the CFO at such a young age, I was obviously out of my depth and very frightened with all the responsibility,” recalls Ong.

“This was back in the day when you couldn’t Google the answer.”

When a minor miscommunication left a junior staff member in tears, Ong says he learned an important lesson that still serves him well to this day.

“It was wrong for me to assume that what I think will be what the other person thinks as well,” Ong says.

“It was almost 30 years ago, but it is still a lesson I remember – don’t jump to assumptions.

“Don’t assume your way is the right way, even if there’s evidence to back you up. There’s always an emotional and human side to how people see things.”

Right deal, wrong time

Ong learned another career-defining lesson in 2001, when he secured a US$700 million (A$900 million) syndicated loan to fund what was then the world’s first and longest eight-fibre pair submarine fibre network.

At the time in his fourth year with Singtel, Singapore’s largest mobile network operator, Ong had recently been promoted to financial controller for the C2C cable joint venture entity.

The loan, which he negotiated with a consortium of banks, was awarded the “2001 Deal of the Year” by the Project Finance International journal.

Then, in 2002, with the bursting of the tech bubble and after a year or so of declines, investors started moving away from technology stocks in great numbers. As a result, the C2C project ran into financial difficulties and had to restructure the loan facility.

Ong focused his energies on working with the lenders to continue providing liquidity to the business during this difficult time.

He says the extreme highs and lows of the C2C project helped him develop his sense of perspective and resilience – something that would come in handy for his first long-term overseas move to Australia.

A difficult transition

Amid the tech downturn, Singtel made a successful takeover bid for a company that, at the time, was known as Cable and Wireless Optus. In 2003, in his early 30s, Ong was named group finance manager of Optus, based in Sydney.

“It was a hostile environment, because it was perceived to be an unequal ‘marriage’, with Optus being a bigger company,” Ong recalls. Ong also had the added challenge of managing people from a range of different cultural backgrounds while making deep cuts to the business.

“I explained to people that it wasn’t my job to be popular – it was my job to be transparent and fair,” Ong says. After nearly three years in Australia and, given he is still in contact with many people there, Ong considers his tenure at Optus a success.

The move to Australia meant that Ong had to shelve his plans for further studies, but when his tenure with Optus was complete, Ong took a year off to attend the Sloan Fellows Program at Stanford University in the US, graduating with a master’s degree in science in management and a certificate in global management from the Graduate School of Business.

Being in the heart of Silicon Valley afforded Ong extraordinary networking opportunities. “The connections to me were even more important than what you learned in the classroom,” he says.

CPA Library resource: Lifeboat: navigating unexpected career change and disruption. Read now.

Data centres in demand

In July this year, Ong was appointed managing director and head of internet data centres (Asia ex China) at capital management company Gaw Capital, following a 10-year stint as senior vice-president and head of global strategy and investments for Keppel Data Centres, which supports mission-critical computer systems focusing on energy and environment, urban development, connectivity and asset management markets.

In his 10 years with the Keppel Group, Ong has contributed to raising US$1 billion (A$1.3 billion) to launch its first pure-play data centre fund, Alpha DC Fund.

He has also helped grow the portfolio of data centres across the Asia-Pacific and Europe from eight to 26 hubs, and has contributed to the success of the IPO of the first data centre REIT listed in Asia, whose share price has tripled since its listing.

In 2018, Ong was ranked by Data Economy magazine as one of the world’s top 25 finance deal makers in the data centre industry.

Joining Keppel as senior finance manager in control of one of the smaller listed companies, Ong moved into corporate development and the European business, before taking on a broad-based role, where he got to “scout the world” looking for data centres and raise capital to fund their acquisition.

A major new asset class that has taken off during the past five years, demand for data centres has “gone through the roof” during the pandemic, says Ong. This is a sign of the changing nature of technology use in the industry – something accountants need to get comfortable with.

“Accountants by nature tend to be a little bit conservative, but I do see the adoption of technology into accounting practices becoming mandatory, or we will get left behind,” Ong says.

“I took part in a recent SAP senior executive panel, where it was reported that close to 40 per cent of all accounting processes are still manual.”

Ong sees more accounting going to the cloud, increased automation of processes, greater use of analytics in fraud detection and artificial intelligence being used to track inventory levels and drive superior customer analytics.

The long runway

Ong understood the importance of living within your means early in life. The family relied on his father Yong-Poh’s modest wage as an accountant. There was no car or television and money was tight.

However, when Yong-Poh landed a job with British Petroleum later in his career, things changed and Ong’s eyes were opened to the possibilities in a global economy.

Ong’s father taught him the core values of hard work, thrift and always putting in your best effort, but he never pressured his son to follow in his footsteps.

After some initial stumbles on his journey towards a career in finance, Ong took some accounting units in junior college, which led to a bachelor of accounting degree at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, where he went on to become a top student in financial accounting.

An internship with PwC followed, then his first job with Arthur Andersen as a tax consultant, where he learnt another life lesson – when you’re young, work out what you don’t want to do.

At the start of your career, there is a long runway ahead of you. Use this time to experiment and figure out what you like and don’t like. Don’t be afraid to try new things.

On his long and varied career path, Ong’s success has hinged on putting integrity before capability, being truly honest with yourself at all times, and being willing to invest in a business relationship without expecting anything back.

“Success is a function of preparation and opportunity,” Ong says. “Eventually people will sit up and notice your abilities and achievements, if you put in the effort.”

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