Smaller firms team up to grow, bid for bigger projects

Since Singapore embarked on its 10-year restructuring drive five years ago, growth in labour productivity has inched up in some quarters, slid backwards in others, and pretty much hovered close to zero. But some small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have transformed themselves in ways that the dismal headline numbers may have missed, say SME bosses.

THE auditor's job can be boiled down to a simple act - telling a client whether the accounts are "true and fair" or not - but that apparent simplicity masks a world of complexity.

That complexity, the often painstaking work involved in assessing accounts, can make it difficult to measure the value of the audit process.

It might also help to explain the sector's poor showing in the latest productivity data, says Ms Lisa Liew, managing partner of accounting practice Philip Liew & Co.

Broadly, labour productivity in the business services sector fell 2.4 per cent in the third quarter last year, from the same period a year earlier.

"We are professionals and attributes like professional judgement and experience are important when accounting issues crop up in the audit process," notes Ms Liew.

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Since professional advice is not "homogenous", but rather varies according to the situation, it is hard to track.

In this way, smaller audit firms face the challenge of convincing clients - typically small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) - to pay more for value that is not immediately apparent.

"We have in recent years benchmarked ourselves with international standards, but value is how someone perceives it," says Ms Liew, adding that SMEs tend to shop for the lowest fees.

To get around that, she has spent time educating SMEs on how good auditors can help firms spot and resolve inefficiencies during the audit process.

But over the last 18 months, she has been more focused on driving the Singapore Accountancy Alliance, a team of eight small practices that is pooling resources to expand together.

The alliance, which includes firms such as SH Tang & Associates and Ng Liew Peng & Co, plans to expand its services over the next few years and eventually compete globally for projects as one consortium.

For a start, the firms are conducting joint monthly training for their combined staff of 250. More initiatives on the human resources front are under way.

"Once the common ground is laid, we'll be ready to move on to bigger projects," says Ms Liew.

Collaboration is helping the firms overcome resource constraints to scale up into a bigger market, and productivity will rise "naturally" with the greater economies of scale, she adds.