The little girl who had a head for figures grew up into a woman who had a head for heights. Starting her career auditing a funeral home, in a room full of tombstones, Fang Ai Lian built up a professional reputation that took her to the top of a male-dominated profession. As the Singapore No 1 in one of the world’s Big Six accounting firms, she serves as an inspiration to women in every field
Her gal pals are so fiercely protective, they eye approaching reporters like lionesses watching hyenas. They are confident and stylish, their wit is rapier sharp. They never stop talking. Being with them is like sucking on oxygen. Exhilarating. The fact that Fang Ai Lian is one of their number tells a lot about her.
She’s smart, and she’s a woman’s woman in a man’s world. “I don’t know any woman who would be jealous of her,” says the woman boss of a family business. Another friend says, “What you see is what you get. She is open, genuine.”
Speaking slowly, without referring to a written speech when she received her crystal trophy as Her World’s 1996 Woman of the Year, Ai Lian paid a simple tribute to her husband, who died five years ago. “I know wherever he is, he is smiling down at me and is happy for me.”
I meet her in her immaculate home filled with crystal glasses and Chinese antiques. She is 47 and looks in her 30s. She is a quintessential Chinese beauty: Fair and pretty, she makes me immediately feel like a lump. The diamond jewellery is serious stuff: Rings, earrings, and a sparkling brooch. There is a white Jaguar and a bungalow in a neighbourhood of rolling lawns and great trees off Holland Road.
Her voice is surprisingly deep. Her reserve is regularly broken by little jokes. She is obviously sentimental: She proudly displays a gift of a carved wooden book inscribed with an ode to friendship. She is keeping her husband’s advertising firm because it is one of the strongest reminders of him. She speaks so warmly of chums and family that you get the feeling that this woman is a friend for keeps.
A woman who shuns publicity, Ai Lian was well known in the corporate world but hardly reported in the national press. Then in July last year, she made headlines in The Business Times, when she became the first woman ever to run any Ernst & Young office worldwide. The firm’s Internet web-page in America tells you Ernst is the world’s largest audit and tax firm, employing more than 72,000 staff in over 600 places around the world. Its annual global billings are over US$7.8billion (S$11.113 billion)—enough to pay off the national debt of a small Third World country.
According to a Business Times report, its Singapore office is the country’s largest auditing firm, and it audits 20 per cent of the publicly-listed companies here. Ai Lian’s achievement is even more remarkable in view of recent reports that the gender income gap had widened in Singapore, with women on average earning 59 cents to every dollar earned by men in 1995, compared with 73 cents in 1990. This growing disparity was especially pronounced for better-educated women in the 35-54 age group.
As managing partner, Ai Lian sits in an office, on the 21st floor of the Ocean Building in Raffles Place, with a wall-to-wall window view of the port. “I call it my economic barometer. During the recession in the 80s, there were half the number of containers and ships there are now.”
Among the 44 partners and directors in Ernst, she is only one of two women partners listed in The Business Times. In the level immediately below, almost half of the managers are women. Ernst is one of the Big Six accounting firms in the world. The other five are Arthur Andersen, Coopers and Lybrand, Deloitte and Touche, KPMG Peat Marwick and Price Waterhouse.
But she thinks it is only a matter of time before more women take their position at the top. She attributes the lack of top women accountants to the fact that during her time, few women went into the profession, unlike today when women accountants make up more than half of those fresh from university.
That there aren’t more further up the ranks is due to attrition, she says. “We lose some to other industries, and I think at some stage in her career a woman is going to have to choose between her family and her work. Companies have to be friendly towards the working woman, by offering such things as childcare services at work, flexible hours and, if possible, the option to work from home.” Ai Lian never had to choose between work and family. She has stuck with Ernst all her 24 working years. “Women give their all to their jobs. The work environment is very important to them. If they like their jobs, they are not going to switch just for the sake of a few dollars more.”
She doesn’t recommend job-hopping: “Rolling stones gather no moss. You need time to acquire the required experience. In our industry, the training is structured in such a way to develop you over a period of years. If you leave before the minimum number of years, you are short-changing yourself.” Her reputation in the industry is “tough”, an adjective greeted with some surprise by her. She laughs: “I suppose if I were a man in my position, he would be called assertive or decisive. But because I’m a woman, I’m tough.”
She describes her management style as interactive. “Our field is a professional one: The majority of my staff are degree holders. They are bright people with their own minds. I listen to their suggestions, then set a direction.”
She also sits on nine boards and committees. These include POSBank, Nanyang Technological University’s accountancy and business school, and NTUC Childcare. She is also the president of the Home Nursing Foundation, a charity which provides home nursing for the elderly sick. It runs seven day-care centres for the old, and operates a fleet of ambulances for those who cannot reach the centres themselves.
All this while overseeing the running of Ernst & Young. A managing partner in a rival firm compares the job to that of a company chief executive officer. “It’s not easy managing a professional practice. A CEO’s role in a corporation is very clear cut. There is a hierarchy and the shareholders are not in your management team. In a professional practice, the partners are shareholders as well as managers, and sometimes they might not agree with the policies that are set, but you have to guide the firm in the right direction.” A giant international firm like Ernst provides not just accounting services, but also auditing and tax advice.
She is used to being the first woman anything in the accounting world. Ai Lian tells of her time in London: “There were so few women studying chartered accountancy during the early 70s that, before one exam started, the invigilator came up and gave me a hug. I suppose she felt sorry for me.” Studying accountancy was not on the cards when Ai Lian was at Methodist Girls’ School. Then, her dream was to be a doctor.
She admits to being the spoilt youngest child among four children, doted on by her father and grandfather alike. She and her parents lived in a bungalow in Telok Kurau in Katong. “I could get away with practically anything. My sister Mian Lian was the studious one. She’s the one with all the degrees.”
SHONE AT SCHOOL
Dr Ho Mian Lian, the eldest in the family, is a linguist and a senior lecturer in communications at Nanyang Technological University, and one of her biggest fans. One brother is an accountant, the other is a regional managing director.
Her classmates knew Ai Lian would succeed. She always took one of the top three positions in class. “She was good at anything she turned her mind to. It was very irritating,” jokes a former schoolmate. Others remember her always being immaculately turned out, without a hair out of place.
At MGS, Ai Lian shone at maths while representing the school in the 100m dash and netball. “I had a lot of fun at school. I was always involved in some activity, whether it was a play or hockey.” In 1987, she repaid her alma mater by taking over as president of the Alumni Association to help raise funds for going independent. She’s now treasurer of the school’s management board.
In pre-university at Anglo-Chinese School, she met Eugene Fang. He was her first serious boyfriend, and the man she would marry. Schoolmates remember him as a fun, easygoing guy who loved to sing. “If you wanted your party to be a success, Eugene would be among the people you would invite.”
When it was time for university she didn’t choose medicine. “In line with Singapore’s economic growth, business and accountancy were the popular subjects. I didn’t opt for that immediately. I picked science instead at the University of Singapore. After one term I decided it wasn’t for me, and I chose to do chartered accountancy in London simply because I wanted to go abroad.” As it turned out, Eugene went to London too.
Doing her internship there, one of her first assignments was to audit a Jewish funeral home. “I was terrified! It was winter, and they put me in a room full of headstones. I could not stop thinking of ghosts. I was there for about a month, but it felt like years.”
Returning home, she joined Ernst in 1974 and thrived doing what most accountants starting out do: Auditing. Auditors are hired by client companies to check the accounts and ensure that the company performance has been truly and fairly represented.
Ai Lian’s personal life was progressing too. At 26, she married Eugene and had their first child, daughter Eu-Lin, three years later. Son Alexander came along eight years after that. In 1981 came another first for her: At the age of 31, she was made partner—the one position all accountants aim for in an accounting firm.
An industry insider explains: “To be offered partnership, you have to be professionally competent and be able to develop new businesses for the firm. That means you have to put in some very long hours. At the same time you have to be able to get on with your other partners. Partners rely on each other, and you have to know you can trust the other person.” Being made partner is an elective process which involves the firm’ partners and directors. Once in, a partner gets a share of the firm’s profits.
A CLOSE COUPLE
Eugene was now making a name in advertising. He worked for Ogilvy & Mather, McCann-Erickson, Ball Partnership and Bozell Advertising, before eventually setting up Zender-Fang Associates, named after his son. People who knew the Fangs say they were extremely close. They kept in touch through the day by telephone, had lunch together, and then drove home together in the evenings. If one had a business dinner to attend, the other would come along.
He even shopped with her for her clothes. Eugene’s ex-colleague remembers him as a fastidious dresser: “You never saw him crumpled or untidy. He wore the best clothes, from Givenchy, Valentino and Gucci.”
Tragedy struck in the early 90s when he was diagnosed with a fatal liver illness. He died in March 1992, the day after an operation. It was the lowest point in Ai Lian’s life: “What I miss most is someone to talk to when I come home. He was my sounding board, my best friend.”
She speaks of a solid wall of emotional support from friends and family at that time. And she plunged herself into work. “You mop up a lot of idle time that way, and you don’t have to focus on your grief. You have to carry on because the children are watching you.” Her children were 13 and five at the time. “It’s not easy playing father and mother. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”
In her household, she has a domestic help. Her mother screened, trained and supervised whatever maids Ai Lian hired. Even now, her mother pops by during the day to check that everything is running smoothly. “My mother has this intuition which tells her something is wrong. Sometimes she’ll turn up and say, ‘I’ve come to look after Alex. He’s sick.’ And he is. I don’t know how she does it.”
Ai Lian loves gourmet coffee, does the supermarketing, but hates to cook: “I can’t bake anything except the rock cakes and almond blancmange I made at school.” What she does is plan her son’s after-school activities for him, like Mandarin tuition and piano lessons, and try to make it home by 7pm. Weekends are sacred family times: Saturday is spent chauffeuring Alex around in an old Honda Civic to swimming and drama classes.
Sundays are for services at the Barker Road Methodist Church where she meets her mother-in-law. Ai Lian gives her a lift home, and then has breakfast at a Delifrance café, poring over newspapers and magazines. More often than not, there will be a family meal at her brother’s home. Alex, an active 10-year-old, is missing his big sister, Eu-Lin, 18, who left in February to study accountancy in Sydney.
She isn’t too worried about Eu-Lin in Australia. One of the first things Ai Lian did when she accompanied Eu-Lin to Australia was to make sure she joined a church group. More importantly, “she’s grown up with the right values”.
To relax, Ai Lian reads biographies on famous and successful women like the Soong sisters who married Dr Sun Yat Sen and General Chiang Kai-shek, ex-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Katherine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post.
There are also get-togethers with friends from school, church or work. One regular informal is a mini meeting of the clan—prominent fellow Hainanese like Raffles Hotel’s Jennie Chua, MP and 1995 Woman of the Year Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, and businesswoman Claire Chiang, who is president of the Society Against Family Violence. When she can, Ai Lian attends a weekly social dance class at the Singapore Island Country Club with other partners from Ernst.
“It is very important for women to have women friends. They are good listeners, and provide very strong emotional support. Men can be quite detached and give you strictly rational advice.”
The night she won the Woman of the Year award, her chums hauled along the champagne and toasted a woman who had climbed up the corporate ladder, cracked the glass ceiling, while raising two kids singlehandedly, and combined an acute mind with a remarkable sense of purpose.
Their laughter and camaraderie continued long after the guests slipped away from the ballroom of the Raffles Hotel. HW
1954 to 1962: Kindergarten and primary schooling at St Hilda’s School
1963 to 1966: Methodist Girls’ Secondary School
1967 to 1968: Pre-university at Anglo Chinese School
1969 to 1973: Studied at Institute of Chartered Accountants, London
1974: Joined Ernst & Young as auditor
1976: Married Eugene Fang
1981: Partner at Ernst & Young
1996: Elected managing partner for three years
March 1997: Wins Woman of the Year award