I first met Anson after he delivered an inspiring keynote speech at the CPABC UBC Connect event held on February 18, 2014. His speech (and offer to do mock interviews with students) won over the entire audience, myself included. So I asked him to meet me for an interview on that snowy Monday evening.
Vivian: What was the inspiration for you to pursue both a CMA and a CFA designation?
Anson: They were two separate decisions. I had pursued the CMA because I had no other career options at the time. After graduation, I started off with real estate. I graduated thinking if I didn’t want to do accounting, real estate was such an obvious choice, and I do like real estate, every single part of it. I ended up getting my first job at a mortgage lending company, and doing subprime mortgage work. But then a year later, the US had all these concerns [and] investors were pulling out their funds. After that, I was a residential appraiser for a few months [and] I realized it was the time for me to reconsider my accounting career.
I [started] doing a lot of temp work. Not that I like to compare myself to other people, I never do, but it just gave me a reference. Here I am doing temp assignments, doing journal entries, doing data entries, and my classmates are probably having an amazing career at this point, at least on the path to something big. I realized there is a lot of catching up for me to do. I pretty much started doing my CMA during the year when I started doing those temp assignments. In order to really progress in the accounting field, an accounting designation is a no brainer. At the time, [the CMA] just made sense. CFA was just a matter of catching up. I wanted to come back to accounting with a little bit more credentials under my belt to put me in the same playing field as others who are around my age. I just thought maybe there are some synergies with accounting and finance, so maybe I wouldn’t find it that difficult. I was wrong; I definitely did not make the right decision.
I should not have done it at the same time. I should have waited until I finished the CMA then started the CFA. Nevertheless, I think it was good training for me. Not ever being that challenged academically, I felt the kick in my butt doing the two programs simultaneously while working full time and volunteering, among the crazy things I normally do.
Vivian: It must have been pretty taxing on you to be pursuing both designations at the same time, how did you manage your time?
Anson: A lot of it is my stubbornness. I am a very stubborn person and I don’t like to fail. Even if I’m not 100% confident, I still want to go for it and do my best. It’s one thing to try it and then it doesn’t work out. [At least] you can say, “Well, I’ve tried.” It’s another thing to not try at all and always think about “what-if?” I just don’t want to live with that question mark, ever, so if I have an idea that I’m interested in doing, I go for it.
In terms of actual time management, I don’t know. I just tried my best. [At that time,] I felt like I was a full-time student and part-time employee. In terms of time management, I found it very doable with accounting. There were a lot of group projects and they were quite time consuming, but they are also not constant. You have some time in between assignments. As long as you are efficient, you can get through the assignments relatively quickly.
CFA is its own beast. You just don’t know. With exam oriented programs, you don’t know when enough is enough. Until the exam day, you are going to squeeze out as much time as possible to study for the exam. That’s the toughest part, because I always feel guilty when I’m not studying. But one person can only do so much studying.
Vivian: I guess you are now reaping the fruits of your labour?
Anson: I believe that sometimes you’ve got to pay your dues. At the time, I wasn’t doing it to prove anything to anyone, but to prove it to myself, to say that I can do it. In reality, you can pass all these exams but not be able to perform in the work environment. At least it showed my dedication, diligence, and eagerness to learn and succeed.
I find people generally do pay me a bit more respect having done both programs and I think that is the biggest reward. Having all these exams and letters behind your name don’t really mean anything. It doesn’t show your capabilities at work or anything, but it [shows] the attitude, dedication, and personality.
“What you are looking for is not out there… it’s in you.” – quoted by Anson Lo at CPA UBC Connect
Vivian: You have been through so much at such a young age, what or who inspires you to keep moving forward?
Anson: I am inspired by ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I am less interested in reading famous people’s profiles— everyone can quote Steve Jobs and follow his career path— but I don’t believe that any path will ever repeat. When it’s done it’s done.
You cannot follow the person’s footsteps and expect to achieve the same results. That’s just impractical. I am more interested in just ordinary people doing extraordinary things. People who are in our lives, people who we come across every day, but they have that special something about them.
The first person who comes to mind is my grandmother. Especially these days, I find that I’m more connected with my grandmother than ever. She passed away a long time ago, but spiritually I am more connected to her. She was a really good chef. She worked as a chef in Hong Kong for many years, but she was also a home cook. When I think back to all the family gatherings, she was always the chef. She would pull off all these amazing dishes in a small kitchen to feed 15-20 people. So much thought goes into one meal. There’s a lot of calculations and intelligence behind a seemingly simple home-cooked meal.
That’s why I keep doing interesting things, not so much for the sake of being interesting, more so because I want to do it.
Vivian: Such as getting your pilot’s licence?
Anson: I wanted to fly for a long time. Every kid probably wanted to fly at one point, or become an astronaut. Obviously, that would be a very difficult career to pursue, but flying is not. It’s one of those things that people talk about but they never pursue. I often just do things that people only think about. That’s part of my personality as well. You have such limited time, and if you always think about the what-ifs and what I could have done, you are always living in regret. I don’t want to look back 20 years down the road and think: how come I have never tried that?
I think with everything I do, as an example, it often opens up a window or door. The wine tasting, for example, I took a wine tasting course years ago without so much wanting to work in the industry. Obviously, it would be great to work in a vineyard, but I never put it into action. I didn’t even know what kind of career prospects I would get out of it. I took it strictly for fun. By doing that, I planted a seed. Who would have thought that many years later, I would come across a wine company owner who wanted me to teach and work for him. A lot of the time, I don’t plan it to be that way, but I do many different things and let things come to me.
Vivian: You have a distinct personality. Tell us a little about showing your personality in the business world.
Anson: A lot of people are afraid of showing their personalities. I am always tempted to put my wine and aviation experience on my resumé to see how people react when I apply for a job in finance. You never know how people will perceive you, but it’s better to be memorable in the world of accounting and business. Sometimes, it helps to be different; obviously not for the sake of being different, but be different because you enjoy showing that part of yourself.
Especially in networking, people are often intimated or run out of things to talk about. Not everyone is eager to talk about what they do for work. A lot of people shy away from certain subjects. But things like, “Oh, where did you get your glasses?”can be a very good conversation starter.
Vivian: What advice can you give to students in or contemplating the CPA program?
Anson: I say this in almost every speech that I’ve done, “Don’t waste your time living someone else’s life.” People are so afraid to fail, so afraid to not do well in something and have someone else say, “I told you so.” For a lot of reasons, [many] don’t stay true to who they are and end up living someone else’s dream. A lot of people just don’t want to break out of the mold and stick out from the crowd and say, “I’m doing something different.”
You have to make your own decisions. Do listen to other people’s advice and do learn from other people’s mistakes, but at the end of the day, you have to form your own opinion. If someone says this university isn’t very good, or that company or job has no prospects, it’s easy for them to make those comments because it takes them five seconds to form their opinion.
One of the first lessons I talked about in my speech, “What you are looking for is not out there, it is in you.” I think that is so true. A lot of people have inner abilities but they never cared to explore them because they’re not something common or proven. People often shy away from making their own opinion and just agree with someone else. It’s important to listen to yourself.