The big leap

As these four CPAs know, the quest for a better life in a new country rarely comes without a few hitches and hurdles.

What compels someone to leave everything he or she knows to pursue a life halfway across the world? If it’s the prospect of better job opportunities, security for their families or a more fulfilling existence overall, these accounting professionals prove it’s a pursuit that doesn’t come easy. Even with a profession and years of experience under their belts, these Canadian newcomers show us just how humbling it can be to start all over.

ADRIAN ONG, FINANCIAL ANALYST, PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENT OF MANITOBA (WINNIPEG)

Although he owns a car, Adrian Ong takes the bus whenever he can. It’s a little luxury this Winnipeg resident never had in his former life, where he always felt unsafe on public transit. “When I’m riding on the bus here I feel happy because I’m not afraid anymore,” he says. Home used to be the Philippines, and while Ong had a good lifestyle and a successful career managing the finances for his family’s food-industry chain, security was becoming a major concern. “We had maids and a driver, but we couldn’t take transit or go out on our own,” he says, noting that on two occasions, he’d been poked in the neck with a sharp object by potential muggers when walking on the sidewalk. Years later his sister and brother-in-law would be brutally killed by robbers outside the factory they owned. “You don’t want to live in a world of paranoia as it’s not healthy for the heart and soul.”

In 2006, the father of four started exploring options to live elsewhere, especially as his eldest, Paul, was soon to turn 18 and would be a legal adult. (His other children, Geraldine, Alwyn and Johann, were 15, six and five years old, respectively, at the time.) “I had done everything my parents wanted in the first 40 years of my life and now I was going to do something for my kids,” says Ong, whose parents immigrated to the Philippines from Hong Kong when he was a child.

Canada was his top choice because it was known as a peaceful country that was less driven by political concerns than other options. But although Ong hoped to move to Toronto, where he had friends whom he had already visited, his immigration consultant told him that given the city’s popularity, the wait time would be at least 48 months. So after the consultant suggested a six-month fast-track through Manitoba’s Provincial Nominee Program, Ong took the plunge in 2009 and relocated his family to Winnipeg, where he knew no one.

When he arrived in Canada, Ong had a bachelor’s degree in accounting and an MBA from the Philippines, along with years of experience running a business. At a workplace training session that he attended early on, he was encouraged to pursue a CGA — which he did. After about a year, he also landed a fulltime job with Great-West Life Assurance Co., first as a senior corporate actuarial analyst, then as a senior capital management analyst. Eventually, he learned about the CMA and went on to complete the designation through the strategic leadership program.

It was during an orientation session with a group of CMA candidates, where Ong was speaking about his experiences in securing his accreditation, that the manager of a network for visible minorities called Career Gateway Program noticed him. Unbeknownst to Ong, she forwarded his resumé to the province. “It was a complete surprise when they called me for an interview,” says Ong, who has now been with the province for four years as a financial analyst.

While he is enjoying the peace and tranquillity of living in Canada, Ong admits to difficulties in adjusting to a new, and considerably lower, standard of living. He takes home about 60% of what he used to earn in Manila City, and his family of six lives in a small old house in a less-than-desirable part of town. There are certainly no maids or drivers, either.

Ong is a Canadian citizen now, but he doesn’t quite have a sense of belonging yet. He turned 50 this year and he says he feels capable of achieving much more but lacks the support of a long-established network of colleagues and trusted friends like he had at home. “There is this glass ceiling I can’t get through,” he says. “Professional growth is difficult when you don’t have those contacts and mentors to pull you along.”

That said, Ong’s wife, Myrna, has adapted well, working as an assistant shipping manager at Benn Moss Jewellers’ head office in Winnipeg. His children are thriving too. In traditional Chinese culture, parents dictate the professional pursuits of their children, but Ong is giving his kids free rein. Paul, who is working on a master’s degree, is also indulging his passion for singing, and earned a spot on the TV show Canada’s Got Talent in 2012. “I’m very happy with all their achievements and the fact they’re doing exactly what they want,” says Ong.“I’m hopeful my time will come too.”

SATISH THAKKAR, PRESIDENT, EXCELSIOR FINANCIAL GROUP (BRAMPTON, ONT.)


Back in Delhi in 1995, Satish Thakkar owned a small accounting firm that was flourishing. But since he was only 27 years old and single, he had aspirations to see much more of the world. A friend’s uncle told him about the opportunities in Canada and Thakkar decided to check them out for himself. With a CA designation and three years’ experience in public practice, he figured he’d have no trouble finding a good accounting job elsewhere. But first his family insisted he get married.


Thakkar’s arranged bride, Rimple, had already moved to Toronto a year earlier with her siblings and parents, so his accommodations were set. With a working wife in the country already, getting a visa took only six months. He remembers landing in Toronto in June 1996 and as his first order of business, leasing himself a NAC computer for $3,800 a year. “I had that computer for a very long time and other immigrants in our rental building would come and use it over the years to make resumés and send faxes,” he recalls.

He put the computer to good use himself, sending out some 200 resumés to accounting firms across the Greater Toronto Area. “I got nothing because they thought I was overqualified and lacked Canadian experience,” he says. He went to the Ontario CA institute to inquire about accreditation and learned he’d have to do his articling again. “It was a big shock for me as we were training students at my CA firm back home,” he says. “I was frustrated and felt like giving up and going back.”

Instead, he gave himself a pep talk and pursued his CGA, where he was exempted from the first three of six levels of the program based on his previous experience. He also continued to look for employment, taking odd jobs, such as cleaning a bakery once a week and helping an accountant for a few days during tax season. “In those early days I had to put my pride aside because I had a cushy life back home and this was such a struggle,” he says. “My wife was working as a quality assurance person so she supported me through all of this. I owe my success to her.”

Thakkar finally got a break in 1997 with a home furnishing startup where he happened to be buying furniture. He offered to work for free for six months and after the first day, the company hired him as an accountant at minimum wage. He was eventually promoted to controller and in 2000 he became CFO. Throughout it all he continued his CGA studies and earned his designation. “That was a big moment for me as I was now a qualified professional here,” he says. “I realized you have to take challenges and be adaptable so your weaknesses become your strengths.”

Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, Thakkar went on to start his own business again. In 2003, he opened a boutique consulting firm with five full-time employees and a number of outside partners called Excelsior Financial Group, specializing in South Asian markets. In addition, he recently started a land development business. “I love seeing the fire of entrepreneurs and I help advise them on starting their businesses,” says the 48-year-old, who has a 19-year-old daughter, Nikita, and a 15-year-old son, Mayank. He is also an active volunteer in community business groups and mentors others in entrepreneurship. “Ultimate success is when you help others and give back to the community,” he says.

With a reciprocal membership agreement now in place between the accounting bodies in India and Canada, Thakkar says it’s easier for accountants from his home country to earn their Canadian designation than it was for him 20 years ago. In fact, he meets many accountants from India who have done just that. “The beauty of today’s technology is that you can connect with your professional bodies even before you arrive and find ways to fast-track,” he says.

HSIU JUNG (AMY) WU, FOUNDER, HJ WU & CO., INC. (VANCOUVER)

 

Amy Wu has never been conventional. Growing up on her parents’ rice and vegetable farm near Pingtung, Taiwan, she was the only one of five siblings to pursue an education overseas — and live outside of Taiwan permanently. “I always wanted to be a businesswoman and I didn’t see my future on the farm,” she says. “I remember watching [these women] in the American western movies on TV and finding them so glamorous.”

While her siblings commuted to school, Wu insisted on boarding. After majoring in commerce in high school, she went to Taipei in 1980 at age 19 to study accounting in junior college, learning English along the way. After graduating, she held a series of accounting jobs but yearned for more. “I saw education as very important and my way out,” she says, noting that the US was a draw because of all the TV she’d watched. With financial help from her father, Wu (then 25) went on to get an undergraduate degree in finance at Southern Illinois University and then her MBA from Temple University in Philadelphia. She earned her US CPA (South Dakota) through an online program.

“I remember a friend of my father’s asking him why he was wasting so much money on me when I would eventually get married anyway,” she says. “I credit my dad, because he couldn’t afford it but allowed me to study what I wanted.”

Wu went back to Taiwan, where she eventually worked for a US company as a finance and administration manager. But when she went to Vancouver on a vacation trip, she fell in love with the city instantly. “Taiwan has a lot of pollution and I just loved the weather here,” she says. “My father was supportive of my leaving again and told his friends that as long as I was determined I would make it work.”

Wu applied to come to Canada as a skilled worker, a process that took a year. When she arrived in Vancouver, she was 43, single and friendless, but she summoned her strength and set about the task of finding her way. “I don’t even remember how many resumés I sent out to firms — I became a professional interviewee,” she says. “I thought it would be easy with my background, but I lacked Canadian experience and was competing with people with entry-level skills.”

Wu finally landed a job in accounts payable at a community college earning 50% of her previous wage in Taiwan. During this time, she started her CGA designation and also met her now husband, Lawrence Ng, who was an IT project leader at the same college.

But the yearning for more that she’d felt back in Taiwan was still present. “I kept thinking the work I was doing was limited and didn’t put to use what I had learned in school,” she says. “My husband supported me to open up my own practice in 2010 and to use my knowledge and experience to help my clients.”

Wu spent the first six months without a single customer. “I twiddled my thumbs a lot but also used the time to study more about accounting and taxation,” she says. Her first client was a referral and it snowballed from there through word of mouth. Now Wu has more than 100 firms and individuals who use her services. She says she’s working very hard but loving it.

Wu finally feels settled and happy. But even though she visits her parents every year, she misses them more and more as she gets older. She also realizes how difficult it must have been for her father to let her go her own way. “I’m so grateful for what my father did for me,” she says. “I do finally feel like a businesswoman.”

ASIA YUFIT, ASSOCIATE MANAGER, FINANCIAL AND REPORTING PROCESSES, CAPITAL MANAGEMENT, GREAT-WEST LIFE ASSURANCE CO. (WINNIPEG)

 

Born in Siberia, Asia Yufit wasn’t concerned about the Winnipeg winters. But she and her husband, Mark, did worry about how they would provide for the two children they had uprooted from Israel to be here.

Yufit was pregnant with her first daughter and living in Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, when she and Mark started talking about relocating. “It was 2006 and the situation in our country wasn’t pleasant,” she says, still remembering the sound of rockets coming in from Lebanon. “It is one thing when you’re concerned only about yourself, but it is very different when there are children involved.”

The pair wanted a place that was stable and safe, and they opted for Winnipeg because friends of friends in their close-knit Jewish community had already decided to make the move. “When we first came for a visit, we liked the nature and the people were friendly because there are a lot of newcomers here. And it wasn’t as fast-paced as Israel,” says Yufit. The first visit was also a chance for her to start investigating potential accounting designations because she wanted to stay in the profession.

With a bachelor’s degree in economics and management from Israel, and several years of experience as a cost accountant and budget analyst, Yufit’s goal was to secure an accounting position quickly and carry most of the family’s expenses while she worked toward her CMA. In the meantime, Mark, whose English was much more limited, would give up his position as a sales manager and hopefully find similar work in his field.

After the couple took the initial steps in 2008, the immigration process took two long years, which Yufit says is pretty standard for their type of situation. But when they finally landed in Winnipeg, the job search wasn’t as straightforward as she had anticipated. Yufit found a job right away as an office administrator, but she went through 18 interviews before landing a position in her field. “It was painful to hear ‘no’ so many times, especially because of the education I had and the positions I had held back home,” says the 35-year-old. “But I knew I couldn’t give up and if I worked hard I could get where I wanted to [be].”

Staying positive paid off. In December of 2011, Yufit landed a job with Great-West Life Assurance Company as a senior analyst. She started her CMA designation the following month, a process that would take three-and-a-half years. She spent the first 18 months in the Accelerated Program followed by two years in a strategic leadership program, completing her designation in August 2015. “It was a lot of late hours working full-time and studying at night with two young daughters,” says Yufit, who is now an associate manager at the same company. “I’m lucky that I can multitask and am very goal-oriented, but it wasn’t easy.”

While the analytical skills she’d honed in Israel proved useful, it was the language that was the biggest barrier for the whole family. “The [business] terminology was a little different in Hebrew and I wasn’t working in English back home,” she says. At first, she didn’t know about 20% of the business lingo, but she learned quickly. When her eldest daughter started daycare, she didn’t speak more than a few words of English, either. “We are so fortunate her daycare provider was able to speak Russian,” says Yufit.

Six years later, Yufit’s daughters, Shelly and Romy, now nine and seven, still speak Russian at home, but have fully adapted to their new school and English environment. Mark, who works at a distribution centre, is learning the language slowly but surely.

As the primary breadwinner in the family, Yufit aspires to further develop her career. “I moved my family here and I need to take care of them,” she says. “I also want my daughters to know you can do anything if you believe in yourself, and not to give up.”

About the Author

Rosalind Stefanac


Rosalind Stefanac is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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