Options, The Edge
Dato' Johan Raslan: Carrying on a legacy
Dato' Johan Raslan has acquired the reputation of being rather media-shy, which is why not much is known about him. However, following his recent appointment as the new executive chairman of PwC Malaysia, he granted Options his first ever interview with the press. Surinder Jessy and Sheila Singam discover that he's far removed from the stereotype of the typical accountant.
Stepping into the shoes of a living legend can be daunting for even the most capable of men, but Dato' Johan Raslan has accepted the role carved out for him with equanimity. He has, after all, had a year to prepare himself for the task of heading one of Malaysia's premier accounting firms.
Johan, 45, has for the past year been the executive chairman-in-waiting of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Malaysia, understudying Raja Datuk Arshad Raja Tun Uda, the helmsman who is generally acknowledged as being the man who steered the organisation to the greatest heights of excellence it has achieved during its presence in the country. A tough act to follow, but Johan is equal to the task, having been groomed by the legend himself and having absorbed the latter's values and leadership style, which he vows to carry on in his new capacity.
Ever since the impending transition of power was announced last year, Johan has aroused much curiosity among industry watchers and the media. Curiosity that's been piqued largely by the lack of information about the man who, despite being from a prominent Malaysian family, has remained rather publicity-shy and reticent about his life. Until now, that is.
We were quite elated when he finally agreed to the interview with Options. We had been pursuing him for the past several months. Of course, there was the punishing schedule of a chairman-in-waiting, but one suspects the main reason for our lack of headway was Johan's reluctance to engage with the media. This is apparent from the lack of background information about him in local publications and the Internet. Plenty about his brothers Karim Raslan and Kam Raslan, but other than comments, opinions and papers on some aspect of his profession or the other, there's nothing about Johan Raslan, the man. Whatever information we did manage to get in preparation for our interview was gleaned from his colleagues at PwC and industry watchers acquainted with him.
Given his reputation for being low-key, it's no surprise that by the time we finally headed to Carcosa for our late-morning interview with the elusive accountant, we had built up the picture of an enigma, a taciturn man of few words who'd give us a run for the money when it came to getting answers. Well, perish the thought. Johan Raslan turned out to be an extremely affable and un-reticent person who spoke to us rather candidly about his life, his famous late father and his work, no holds barred.
It was the disarming smile and the boyish Pan-Asian good looks that undid us, melted the formal facades we had put on for the staid accountant type we'd expected to be interviewing. You're not what we imagined at all, we blurt out. He laughs, accuses us of stereotyping.
"I'm an accountant and I think we're very exciting people. My father was an accountant and he had a very flamboyant lifestyle. I don't know where the boring stereotype came from. Maybe in the old days, accountants were just doing auditing and talking only to the chief accountant. Then, we started to advise on tax, risk management and the like and we had to talk to CEOs and Boards. We had to acquire people skills across the board, to be able to connect with people," he points out. Okay, we stand corrected. We'll never look at accountants in the same way ever again.
Now that he has consented to tell all, we ask about his reputation for being media. shy. After all, he's given no profile interviews with local publications except for one with a magazine more than 10 years ago.
"Well, I'm not exactly publicity-shy. But I'm in a profession that's not seen by many as being glamorous. We're the back-room boys, it's our clients who are mainly in the limelight," he explains. Well, not any more. The announcement that he would be taking over the executive chairmanship of PwC has provoked much interest in Johan, who has remained largely an unknown figure in corporate circles in contrast to his late father Mohammad Raslan Toh Muda Abdullah.
Despite his demise more than three decades ago, Raslan continues to be remembered as something of a legend in the Malaysian business arena for his string of accomplishments, achieved at a relatively young age. A highly respected and prominent financier, he founded one of the nation's largest accounting practices Hanafiah Raslan Mohamad, as well as Pernas International Holdings Bhd, Malaysia National Insurance Bhd (MNI) and Bank Bumiputra Bhd (now Bumiputra Commerce Bhd), of which he was the first chairman and chief executive officer. He was also the first local to be appointed the nation's Accountant-General. There is conjecture from many parties that if his brilliant career had not been cut short by his untimely demise at the age of 40, Raslan would have become the nation's first Malay Finance Minister, succeeding Tun Tan Siew Sin.
Johan was just 11 when Raslan died in a car crash, yet his father's influence appears to have pervaded every aspect of his life, from his love for his Malaysian heritage to his choice of profession. There's a great measure of respect and affection in the way he speaks about his father and his impact on his life.
"My father was from a Perak family, his father was State Secretary of Perak, and he was brought up in Kuala Kangsar. He was a Clifford (Secondary School) boy, and did his Form Six in MCKK (Malay College Kuala Kangsar). The (British) headmaster there was very interested in careers for his boys and suggested chartered accountancy to my father. He pushed him to do an articleship with Peat Marwick in the UK. That's where he met and married my mother," he narrates.
After a long sojourn in the UK, Raslan returned with his English wife and three young sons - Johan, Karim and Kam - to Malaysia where his career soared on an upward spiral until his death.
"After his death, mum took us all back to the UK. But I wasn't happy, I just couldn't settle down there. I came back to Malaysia two years later, stayed with a succession of relatives and went to the Victoria Institution from Forms Three to Five. Those were my formative years of education, and I had a happy time at the V.I. Some of my closet friends today are from my V.I. and A-levels days," Johan recounts.
Wasn't it hard coming back to Malaysia on his own at just 14, we ask.
"Well, it was all very familiar. I was used to living in Malaysia, my father was like the centre of the family when he was alive. He was the type of person who worked extremely hard, but made the best of family times and holidays. He really made a big effort to go back to his roots in K.K. (Kuala Kangsar). We'd often go back for Hari Raya and other occasions. So, I was close to my cousins. Thus, it was easy coming back and living with them. As a result, when I go to different parts of Perak, it's all so familiar. I regard myself as a Perak person and I'm so grateful to him for that," he replies, adding that coming back to Malaysia after his father's death allowed him to get closer to his extended family.
He's grateful to the friends who supported him through the time and to the teachers and headmaster of V.I., Victor Gopal, for their understanding. "I appreciate them now although at the time I broke every rule in the book! I would not have been able to make it without the support of my friends, teachers and relatives."
We eye him with new respect - obviously this is no goody two shoes accountant type but one who sowed quite a few wild oats. Our suspicions are confirmed when he mentions that many of his V.I. alumni "were party animals" and further strengthened when he throws in talk of a backpack and guitar into the conversation.
The guitar was a legacy from his father, "One of the few things I have left of him" and was part of his schoolboy days in the 1970s. "Main-main saja. It was something all schoolboys did in the seventies, so I also played lah," he says, slipping comfortably from impeccable English into Manglish, an indication of the ease with which he accepts his English and Malay heritage.
The backpack was part of the post-V.I. life he led in the UK where he did his A-levels and degree in accountancy.
"I went to the University of Hull, the same university as (PwC managing director, Chin) Kwai Fatt but we never met there. I married my uni-sweetheart, then did chartered accountancy. Eventually, I came back. I always intended to come back, but kept putting it off because I was enjoying life there with a young family," he relates. While in the UK, he worked with Robson Rhodes, Chartered Accountants, from 1981 to 1990 before moving to Price Waterhouse London where he served for two years.
He left the back pack behind but brought wife Deborah, kids and guitar home in 1992, when he joined PwC Malaysia (then Price Waterhouse). A year later, he was admitted as a partner to the firm.
During the course of his 12-year career with PwC in Malaysia, he has conducted himself with a combination of expertise and quiet aplomb that has earned him a tremendous amount of respect in the industry and won him accolades and positions on various governing bodies. He sat on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange Rules and Development Sub-Committee from 1999 to 2003 and was appointed to the Board of Directors of Labuan lnternational Financial Exchange Inc in 2001, a position he still holds. He is also currently chairman of the Malaysian Financial Reporting Foundation and president of the Eisenhower Fellows Association of Malaysia, as well as a council member of the Malaysian Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
Despite such a strong list of credentials to his name, when Johan was named the crown prince in the PwC line of succession, industry watchers questioned the move, given that there were other more senior partners in the organisation. In an interview with the New Straits Times last month, however, Raja Arshad put paid to the speculation when he said: "In the old days, everything was based on seniority. But as the business gets more complex and given the changing market environment, you don't just go on seniority; you go on ability and many other criteria. You need somebody who can relate to the business community, to government, and with the staff."
He explained that in a "sounding" conducted by two persons appointed by the company, all the partners were consulted about whom they thought would be the most suitable for the job and why. "At the end of the sounding for both the positions, there was a clear lead for executive chairman and managing director, which were Johan and Chin Kwai Fatt. It was quite an elaborate process but we think it needed to be done. In corporate governance, it is also one of the responsibilities of the directors to ensure proper succession planning," Raja Arshad explained.
Johan himself doesn't see his "youth" as an issue. "Many of the senior partners admitted me to senior partner. I am very humbled by that. But I don't feel that young. Raja Arshad was younger when he was admitted to senior partner." He is appreciative of the confidence placed on him by his mentor and partners and for their cooperation during the past year, a time of transition for the firm.
"The partners have worked with me during the succession planning period and I'm very grateful for their openness. It helps that I'm younger as they can feel free to tell me anything. During the past year, Raja Arshad has been taking the opportunity to guide me and mentor me in the position. It's very important to have a succession plan, so there's a certain continuity and people are not upset by sudden change," he says.
He says Raja Arshad's values of integrity, leadership and teamwork have been very important to the company and to him personally. "I will, of course, continue these values, but I'm a different person. I don't have the same grey hair, for example, but that will come later..." he says straight-faced, before breaking into a smile when we scrutinise his hair.
That Johan has the utmost respect for Raja Arshad is evident from the way he speaks of his mentor.
"Raja Arshad is quite well known outside the firm as founding committee member of the Malaysian Securities Commission, chairman of the Malaysian Accounting Standards Board and of Danamodal. I'm honoured to have him as a mentor. Those who know him think of him as a man who's never afraid to set us right, but always in the politest terms.
"He personifies the trust, professionalism, integrity and good values that guide the firm. I have a great deal of respect for him. One thing about him is that he's a very humble person - he is as happy talking to the tea lady as he is to the partners or directors. He's very comfortable with himself. These are the qualities we'd like to aspire to. They sum up the right attitude for today," he says, adding that "the day of the arrogant CEO is definitely over".
Johan himself has been described by his colleagues as being a "people-orientated" leader who makes time for people and listens to their grievances. "He gives time of day to lots of people, thus, it's a lot easier for staff to voice their grouses. He may not have immediate answers or solutions but what's important is he makes the time to listen. And in today's corporate world, Johan's brand of people's skill is a rarity," says a colleague at PwC.
We ask him if this is an innate trait or a management style he has deliberately adopted. He shoots us a look, a comical mixture of respect and trepidation on his face, then smiles and asks: "Who have you been talking to? What else have they told you?"
We reply that since there's such a dearth of information about him, we'd been forced to resort to these covert tactics of investigating his background. He's amused, nods at our resourcefulness:
"The firm cannot be run as a firm where the CEO is given the mandate to do whatever he wants. He can't be internally arrogant. Kwai Fatt and I have a mandate for decisions we make ourselves and major decisions we take to the partners," he replies. ''It's not a management style I've intentionally adopted. I think it's the only way to operate."
He explains that these days "new people switch jobs like crazy" so management has to operate like this. He points out that "It's important to walk about, talk to people, connect with them. Even partners can feel disjointed, bogged down by work."
Having just succeeded Raja Arshad, Johan says the next few months will see him "transitioning" from his previous position to the present one. "For a while, I'll be attempting to do both my old job and the chairman's duties. I'm transitioning out of active leadership of most of the audits I do."
He predicts that his schedule will become more hectic, "because there are more challenges coming on thick and fast in Malaysia."
"Well, lots of things. We're living in a very global world right now. People in the business have found that what impacts their colleagues in London or New York impacts us very quickly now there are new regulations coming up and impacting us, some may be a bit cumbersome, but we have to keep on top of them," he explains.
Another challenge is the changes at the top of corporations, many of which are seeing young new CEOs presiding over businesses. "Kwai Fatt and I have to try to connect the firm quickly with these new players and to add value," Johan points out.
He counts the evolving workforce as another issue to cope with. "People are being educated with different attitudes. They're questioning, not just listening to their bosses' words as the gospel truth. They think of themselves as citizens of the world with choices. Dealing with these issues is the challenge. Our tagline for this is 'Connected Thinking', both with the people out there and with our staff."
He reveals that his action plan for dealing with the challenges ahead focuses on "people quality" and "connecting with the outside world".
"People are critical. We only have one stock in trade, we only have our people. If they decide to walk or not to join us, we're down and out. We have to really guard our quality, one slip up is all it takes, it can mean the destruction of any corporation's reputation," he comments.
Like Enron? What was PwC's response to the scandal that rocked the accounting profession worldwide, we ask.
"It was shocking not just to others but to people in the profession as well. We took stock of the way we do things, did a lot of soul-searching about the quality of our work, re-looked at our clientele to see if there was something we missed, if there was an Enron lurking around somewhere. Happily, we couldn't see one. But we did implement a number of programmes to improve our quality of work," he replies.
The trials related to the Enron scandal coincided with his Eisenhower Fellowship stint in the US. "I brought back to the firm the latest news and we worked with the Securities Commission, Bank Negara and Bursa Malaysia on strengthening the rules on corporate governance. As America got into stricter regulations, they began to judge everyone else - it was important for our own rules and regulations to be seen as being of a high standard by the rest of the world," he explains. His position as chairman of the Malaysian Financial Reporting Foundation provides him the leverage for his continuous efforts to align Malaysian accounting standards with international standards.
At the corporate level, the PwC solution to raising standards has been to invest in developing its human resource through training. Johan reveals that currently, 320 of its staff are seconded to overseas firms for professional exposure. Another activity, dubbed Project Ulysses, is aimed at developing young PwC partners or directors.
"It takes them to a completely unconnected activity, for example, to Belize to work with NCOs (non-governmental organisations) on agro-tourism. Just to show them the other side of life," Johan explains.
How do his people respond to Project Ulysses? "There's fear and trepidation initially, but nobody ever turns it down." He cites his own stint in the US as an Eisenhower Fellow in 2002 as valuable exposure to that country's business practices.
A sense of corporate responsibility appears to be the thrust for PwC's efforts to "connect with the outside world".
"With a firm like ours, it's easy to be self-centred and operate just as a business. But we believe in the sustainability of the firm, and we can only be sustainable within the context of a sustainable nation. We need to have a sense of corporate social responsibility in our efforts. Charitable donations was how it used to be but we feel more needs to be done," Johan points out.
Two activities that PwC has instilled to this end are the Young Humanitarian Award co-organised with the NST and its Community Outreach Programme.
"The Young Humanitarian Award gives recognition to young people who are doing good. I'm amazed at the number of unsung heroes in the country. The more senior people are involved in this project," Johan explains.
For the Community Outreach Programme, PwC selects a number of children's homes and sends its staff there to do volunteer work, usually in the form of teaching or administrative assistance. Each senior partner takes a home under his or her wing, and the PwC staff who volunteer are assigned to the various homes.
"Malaysians are a very generous people, but they're very busy and not able to give a lot of their time. Our younger staff volunteer to go to these homes with orphans and kids from dysfunctional families to spend time with them and teach them English and Math. They also help out with administrative training for the staff of the homes," says Johan, adding that the staff is given time off on a working day for this.
"It's not huge, okay, but we think it's a different way of doing community service and it's good for people to emulate," he comments. The project is into its third year.
What with a new position, corporate governance issues, the challenges of globalisation, raising standards, community service and a host of other matters to deal with, there's no question that Johan's going to have his plate full. What's his mechanism for coping with the stress of his job?
"It always comes back to time with my family," he says firmly, adding tongue-in-cheek "I'm so sorry, I don't drive fast cars."
"My father did his best to balance his work and his life. I try to apply the same values to my work and my family, with the support of my wife. I have three children - an 18-year-old boy, a 16-year-old girl and another six-year-old girl. My happiest times are when we're all together," he admits. He reveals that he constantly waits for the older two, studying architecture and A-levels in the UK, respectively, to come back for the holidays.
"We try to take family holidays as often as possible. I love it when the kids come back or I go. My son and I share the same sense of humour and my daughter's sense of humour... I love it, it's usually at my expense!"
Watching his face light up as he speaks about his family, there's no doubt that he dotes on his wife and children. "My wife is my No 1 supporter. Without her, I wouldn't be the basically happy person I am. We pretty much grew up together. She's coped very well with being in Malaysia because she's flexible," he says with obvious pride.
It appears that Deborah is not just his stalwart life partner, but also the selector of his ties, "my one extravagance". "I love buying ties, I buy most of them, my wife buys the rest! But I'm inevitably happier wearing her buys, the rest lie festering..." he admits sheepishly. "Oh, this one's her choice," he reassures us as we inspect his tie closely.
We ask about his relationship with his famous brothers, lawyer, author and international speaker Karim Raslan and Kam Raslan, also a writer and a columnist for Options.
"We're just like any other brothers. They are in very different fields, far more creative than mine. But don't forget, we grew up under very different circumstances. My dad dying was the catalyst, turning point for me - I had to become more self-sufficient. But it showed me the importance of family and a father who is around and spends a lot of time with them. We missed that and it affected us in a lot of ways," he replies.
We chat about his brothers for a while, point out the resemblance between the three of them, and comment that while he and Karim appear to conform to the corporate type in the way they present themselves, Kam is very different. "Yes, but you know why he's looking more spruced up these days? Shirt ironed and all that? Got wife lah now," he grins.
Considering that both his brothers wandered onto the path of journalism and activism, we ask why he was drawn to accountancy. "Because I'm the most boring person in the world," he grins wickedly but we refuse to be drawn into the argument about stereotypes again.
"Well, my father was an accountant, as were most of his friends like Tan Sri Hanafiah. I made a decision during my A-levels to move into a business-finance environment. Accountancy attracted me because of its flexibility - my father left the profession to go into banking, for example. I knew it would provide me with active training on the job and that I could learn how it worked while studying," he continues more seriously.
Did he ever want to do anything else?
"Before my dad died, I wanted to be a race car driver. Then, an air force pilot after that!. In university, my girlfriend, now my wife, said we could open a sandwich bar if we failed our exams," he laughs, then sobers down when he reveals that he has never been drawn to fast cars after his father's accident.
Having reached what many would consider to be a pinnacle of the profession, we ask Johan if he would consider doing public service if requested by the government. "My father did almost all his life. My grandfather did. I'm sure, if I am asked to in future, I will as well. I'm already spending a certain amount of time in public service with the Financial Reporting Foundation and as director of a public body," he replies.
Has he already been asked? "No, I don't think I've achieved the reputation. One has to achieve a reputation first," he replies with typical humility.
When asked if he has any political ambitions, he says: "Not at all. I wouldn't know how to conduct myself in that sphere. Better stick to something I know". Like heading one of the largest accounting firms in the country and taking it to greater heights, elevating accounting standards in the country, developing people and being a great father. Yup, he's got his job cut out for him but right now, Johan Raslan is thriving on the challenge.