Alex C. Eng: Thinking BigBy
Alex C. Eng, CMA, CFM, CPA, Esq., has big plans. In the prime stage of his career, he comes to the helm of IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants) with bold goals and ideas about the organization’s future.
Sporting an international background in accounting as well as law, he brings to the post unique insight into various cultures—a valuable asset given the association’s increasing global presence, especially in the Asia-Pacific region—and a legal perspective that’s the first-ever for an IMA Chair. “Some people consider becoming Chair as the apex of their volunteer work within IMA. Rather, I see this as one of many steps to give back to our profession, and now is the time to answer a call to provide leadership to our global organization at this critical juncture in its history,” he says.
EARLY ROOTS IN CANADA
The older of two brothers, Alex was born in Hong Kong and raised in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where his family moved following his grandfather’s relocation there many years before.
Alex’s interest in accounting developed gradually. His mother enjoyed a decades-long accounting career, and Alex was also exposed to the profession through various family friends and relatives. Despite those influences, he admits that accounting wasn’t at the top of his list when he dreamed about his future: “Most of my relatives are physicians, surgeons, and engineers. However, I was privileged to be introduced to many different professions and had the chance to really see and pursue what I was most interested in.”
Those “different” things included high-school football, music, languages, and even car repair. And math? “I wasn’t at the top of my class, but I enjoyed it,” he recalls. One of the turning points came when Alex was in high school and participated in Junior Achievement, a program in the United States and Canada that seeks to foster work readiness, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy skills and that uses experiential learning to inspire students to reach their potential. Alex was part of a team that developed a product (a corn-stuffed bean bag pillow), and they were invited to present their business plan and product in the boardroom of a major oil company in downtown Calgary.
“I was the team’s treasurer, and it was a great experience. I got to learn and see business skills in action, the team coming together to provide ideas of how to launch the business from the ground up. It definitely sparked my interest about the value of working on the financial side of business,” he says.
When the time came to attend college, Alex pursued his bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Calgary, with a second degree in accounting from Mount Royal University, also in Calgary.
With both undergraduate degrees in hand, Alex decided to seriously pursue his interest in accounting by qualifying for and sitting for the CPA (Certified Public Accountant) exam (he passed all four written parts in his first sitting) and obtaining his state licensure, first in Illinois and then in California. In 2003, he made another important career choice: to become a CMA® (Certified Management Accountant).
Alex knew that the CMA brand was highly recognized and respected, and a number of colleagues and mentors encouraged him to sit for it. “For me, getting the CMA was a no-brainer,” he notes. “With the academic quality of the program, vast global network of members, and international recognition of our designation, it was clear that the CMA was a short-term investment for long-term gain. The competencies you represent as a CMA make you not only an effective management accountant but, more importantly, turn you into a respected business partner, enabling you to add value 24/7 both in and out of the boardroom.”
Alex sat for and passed all parts of the CMA exam while working in Calgary, but by the next year he had made a major move—to a city consistently recognized as one of the top places to live in the U.S.: San Diego, Calif., commonly known as America’s Finest City. Not only are San Diego and Southern California close to a vast network of family, friends, and career opportunities, but, by Alex’s own admission, weather played a role in the Canadian’s decision to fly south (he’s an avid runner, cyclist, swimmer, golfer, and skier). He took a position as controller of a San Diego-based (and the largest) media publisher for the military community and Department of Defense contractor, where he served from 2004 to 2007.
During this period in his career, Alex not only worked full-time as a corporate controller, but he also pursued several key professional degrees and certifications that helped shape his professional journey. For example, in 2005 he became a CFM® (Certified Financial Manager), and that same year he also completed his Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree from Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School.
Two years later, Alex joined a Fortune 500-owned firm of audit, tax, and advisory services as a tax and audit manager. He was there just a year but during that time got a chance to serve several prominent clients on various engagements, including the San Diego Zoo and a major Southern California bank. During his controllership and on his audit engagements, Alex saw management accounting at work and the clear value that CMAs provide senior management with their strategy, business execution, risk management, and traditional financial planning and analysis (FP&A) and reporting competencies.
Also at this time, Alex qualified for and was admitted to the State Bar of California, with further federal admissions to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California and the U.S. Tax Court. As a CMA, CFM, CPA, and attorney, Alex next took a position in the telecommunications industry as the corporate controller of a worldwide provider of asset optimization and network shared services and where he worked in their San Diego and various European offices. He was there for four years before moving to his current post at EDF Renewable Energy, first as their accounting director and now as vice president, U.S. Corporate Finance, at the North American renewable headquarters for EDF Énergies Nouvelles at EDF Group (Électricité de France SA; Euronext: EDF), a public Fortune Global 100 company ranked among the world’s 100 most-valued companies and the world’s largest power utility.
Regarding his current position, Alex explains that it brings together many of the professional skills he has acquired so far in his career. “It really allows me to use the core of my qualifications—my CMA, CPA, and J.D.—and to be part of a global team that’s very active in the M&A and transactional markets and for an efficient, responsible electricity company that champions low-carbon growth.” He very much appreciates the underlying values behind EDF: “It’s a cool story because we are a leader in building and operating large, low-carbon electricity facilities that are safe and competitive as EDF continues to deploy a robust plan for doubling its global capacity in renewable energy by 2030.”
That love of transactional work has driven Alex in his career and should serve him well as he becomes head of the volunteer leadership of IMA.
NOT YOUR USUAL IMA STORY
Alex is the first to admit that his isn’t your typical story for an IMA Chair. “Of Chairs from recent memory, I’m probably most like Ben Mulling in that I’m a young professional and have a young family. For me, though, I’ve never considered my sole destination to be a CFO or leader of a finance group, but rather my journey should take me to the most rewarding work that makes a positive societal impact whether in industry, volunteer work, or possibly in public service in the future. In my career, I’ve always thought of an accounting background as something that gives you a solid foundation for life, enriching your family and friendships in ways that permeate daily life, because so much of life is outside of work. Accounting gives you a set of principles and a discipline that helps you address needs beyond the traditional calculator and outside of the boardroom. Most importantly, it allows someone to identify, enjoy, and maximize the use of their greatest assets.”
Alex’s approach to accounting is fairly philosophical, which isn’t surprising given his legal background: “Good accounting, risk management, and financial literacy are essential life skills, just like a law degree. And a certification like the CMA is like a driver’s license—your abilities aren’t limited by your job, and, in fact, the certification now drives job demand by the value proposition employers and organizations are seeking from those with this management accounting driver’s license.”
Alex’s introduction to IMA began when he registered to take the CMA exam in 2003. For the next several years, he had relatively limited local involvement in the association except for being a member of the Controller’s Council, an IMA organization in San Diego, in 2006.
About four years ago, however, Alex saw an opportunity to contribute to IMA at a global level. “As someone who is highly interested in the ongoing evolution of the accounting profession, especially the influence and importance of global credentials like the CMA, I decided it would be a good time to put my name forward as an at-large member of the Global Board of Directors. I saw some of the things that were going on around the world, as well as the opportunity to serve our members and add additional value.”
That value includes leadership in corporate governance, a core passion for Alex and for which he has considerable experience, having served on and advised several for-profit boards. He was elected to the Global Board in 2013 and vividly recalls his first meeting: “It was in June 2014, and I remember being unable to go to Minneapolis in person for our Board training because my son was due that same weekend. Needless to say, I had to attend by WebEx, which ended up working out just fine—and much better.” A few days later, Alex became a first-time father to a healthy nine-pound baby boy named Elliot.
The first year of his Board tenure, Alex served on the Performance Oversight and Audit Committee, which was chaired by Paul Juras, then head of the IMA Research Foundation. Alex learned a great deal from his initial IMA Board experience, noting that Paul showed leadership at addressing the complicated matters addressed by the PO&A Committee, as well as providing Alex with a positive first-time experience on an IMA global committee.
The next year Alex was named chair of the Audit Subcommittee, a position that carried considerable responsibility because it was during this time that IMA switched auditors. Alex worked closely with Doreen Remmen, IMA’s CFO, and her team on this important transition.
The decision to make the leap from committee member to Board Chair wasn’t something Alex took lightly. He admits that during the nomination process he was very reflective of the timing and reasons for such an important decision: “My initial response was I wasn’t sure if it was my time to serve, yet I knew that there were many challenges facing our organization and members. Because of our unprecedented growth in members, new markets, and everything being contemplated and done in this era of transformation and consolidation, I then knew our members could definitely receive my time and contribution to the association at this critical point in the evolution of our profession.”
Among the assets that Alex brings to the role is his experience with Chinese culture. Given the extensive global expansion of IMA and, more markedly, the breadth of acceptance and excellent response to the CMA program across Asia, Alex knows that he takes the helm of IMA at an opportune moment. “Although predominantly rooted in North American values, I believe my knowledge and experience with Chinese customs and language will be important assets as IMA continues to develop relationships with members, partners, and government organizations in that region.”
In addition, Alex trusts that his legal background and experience will serve IMA well, particularly in the current statutory environment and with lateral competition coming from various organizations both inside and outside the U.S. This excitement motivates Alex: knowing that the markets are vast and with an emerging global middle class that’s driving increased demand for IMA’s value proposition and CMA core competencies.
Alex is also very committed to best practices in corporate governance and takes seriously his role to challenge senior leadership of both staff and volunteers. “The way I see it, my first and foremost job is to nominate and build a qualified Board, keep it on track, and enable every person at their highest efficacy to ask the right questions of staff and volunteers. As directors, some of our core duties are to ensure that robust workflows are in place to address the compilation, analysis, and execution of strategy; operational/tactical oversight; and maintenance of policies that are in place. I see my responsibility as leading the Board to be the most effective representation of our member constituencies.”
Because of his relatively shorter time within IMA volunteer leadership, Alex also notes that he brings another asset to his time as Chair: “I’m pretty much a blank slate.” He hopes he can bring a fresh perspective to some challenges that the Board is facing and subsequent problem solving that would be effective in addressing important topics, some of which go beyond his service tenure.
A TIME TO THINK BIG
And what are some of those challenges that he expects will command his attention in the next 12 months? Among his top goals is to work diligently on ensuring that SOP—strategy, oversight, and policy—is in place, especially as it relates to the role of each regarding the Global Board. While he commends IMA for assembling a solid, well-run group of committed Board members, he recognizes there are ways to enhance the Board’s effectiveness. “I want to make sure that every Board member drives home IMA’s core values and strategic goals on a personal level while reinforcing the role of staff as both the day-to-day operational team as well as the primary strategic team led by IMA’s CEO. The Board is here to provide proper governance, give strategic feedback, enforce boundaries, and be the voice of the member as IMA’s senior leadership team continues to pilot the organization now and in the important years ahead,” he says.
Alex also is committed to an aggressive, pipeline-building effort to expand the CMA around the world. A key component of the program is IMA’s emphasis on global expansion, including in China, the Middle East, and India. “All of these markets are incredibly vast and full of opportunity to serve local populations and businesses, and we’re just scratching the surface of the potential there,” he remarks. Alex notes that these are some of the world’s largest markets in terms of education (China), population (India), and spending power (Middle East)—and, all told, these markets are home to potentially millions of management accountants. He would like to enhance what he terms IMA’s “ground game” in these regions since the opportunities that are available are far too extensive to be handled only by the resources currently in place. “We have a great team, although I feel there’s much more that we could be doing to mobilize with staff, volunteers, and members alike. We need to think big and act big.”
Part of that “thinking big” approach includes continuing to work closely with students and young professionals—clearly the future of the profession. “It’s about maintaining our position as the market leader and the industry standard for management accounting, now taken globally,” he explains. “We need to be as pervasive as major social media is in our daily life and have the CMA be the first thing someone thinks of when they want to pursue a career in accounting. Right now, and historically, public practice still gets a lot of the spotlight (but not necessarily all the glory)—and we need to find a way to evolve public perception in the same way that our profession has evolved with importance in management accounting.”
For young professionals and students, Alex’s advice is to see the value of the CMA certification beyond their undergraduate degree and “that first job.” He understands firsthand what a challenge that can be. “When you’re 25 and you’re asked to spend two or three years of your life studying for an exam, that seems like an incredibly long time. And it is—it’s 10% of your entire life and about half of your work life. But you’ve got to remember that having that certification will yield decades of benefits down the line— throughout your career, to your family, and even past retirement.”
Alex reiterates that his legal background also will help lend support as IMA pursues global growth of the CMA program. His transactional approach to problem solving and his experience with mergers and acquisitions (M&A) should help the organization develop protocols to deeper evaluate what’s truly possible in different geographic regions and to think outside the box when it comes to expansion. It also will allow him to lead the Board to spot issues; continue to build a stronger bridge between IMA staff, volunteers, and members; and provide more effective oversight as IMA explores new opportunities.
One new opportunity that he’s especially enthusiastic about is the recently introduced CSCA™ (Certified in Strategy and Competitive Analysis) certification, which will be available to CMAs in good standing. The first testing window is in September, and registration is still open. “I’m 100% for IMA certifying additional competencies, not only because in doing so we are reinforcing the true growing scope and nature of a management accountant, but it’s also a great way to build membership by providing additional value to members throughout their career and, in turn, members to their business and organizations. There’s a clear demand for the subject matter represented in our new credential offering—and, frankly, IMA is in the best position to offer it,” he asserts.
That boldness is at the heart of Alex’s goals for the next year. He observes, “We’re the world leader in management accounting, and we need to be great ambassadors for our profession. Our certification—and our association—are not about boundaries but are about helping people become the most successful they can be in every facet of not only business, but life as well.”