Counting Shellfish

April 19, 2019

History somehow knows very little about St. Monan.

The man was a monk, a missionary, and a casualty of marauding Danes in the 9th century, and that’s it. No long entry in any “Lives of Saints” collection, and no detailed backstory. Yet, at the mouth of a small Scottish river lies a fishing village named in his honor—St. Monans, Population: 1,000 or thereabouts. And somewhere in that small village is where First Pacific’s CFO and Executive Director—Christopher Huxley Young—was born.

The contrast is a little jarring: Mr. Young tells me about his hometown as we sit in a classy conference room in the First Pacific office, in Hong Kong. As I listen, I am trying—and failing—to imagine the pastoral origin story of one of the Group’s heavyweights.


“It’s quiet where I was born,” says Young. “ St. Monans is mainly a fishing and agricultural community. There was no cinema, five churches, and two pubs—but the pubs weren’t allowed to open on a Sunday. It was a relatively simple existence.”


Based on Mr. Young’s recollections, he wasn’t surrounded—as a child—by balance sheets or abacuses or Bloomberg terminals. There were friends, sports, and an abundance of space. When asked to talk about his childhood, Young describes a country scene that Manila dwellers could only imagine.


“We made our own entertainment. We played a lot of football. Golf, as you can imagine, is quite popular in Scotland. We used to get our golf clubs and go on the local bus, and  travel to the next village to play, often without even paying to play on the course.”


“It was such a small village that  it was a very safe environment as everybody knew each other My father was a teacher, and my mother ran a local general store, and then later became a social worker.In the summer school holidays, we’d go to the local swimming pool and play a lot of football and on the weekends, we’d do some family things—go to  the beach or visit relatives.”


Most activities in St. Monans involve the sea. The village keeps with the traditional practice of human civilization—caring for one’s surroundings and living off of them. Many of Chris Young’s contemporaries tried to get jobs on fishing boats once they left school at 16—a high-risk high-reward job, depending on if one  got on a good boat with the right skipper.


One begins wondering when Chris Young made his own jump—when, in particular, he discovered his talent for managing money. Young himself was no stranger to manual labor, which perhaps instilled in him the beginnings of what would be a  talent for keeping—and growing—money.


“I’ve always been quite careful with money,” says Young. “I always had summer jobs as I liked the idea of putting my pay into my bank passbook and seeing the balance grow.”


“When it was possible, I’d work. I worked in a bar; I worked for a short time in a farm; I worked for the local water district, but in the sewage department. I had a variety of other jobs, potato harvesting, picking raspberries and strawberries, and because we were on the coast, there were certain times of the year when you could pick shellfish and if you filled up a big enough bag , you could sell it.”

“It wasn’t anything directly related to accounting, but I always had that sense that finance was important.”

It was only a bit later in his life when this early inclination would evolve into a calling.

The London Years

While many of the other kids tried to land the coveted fishing jobs, Young chose to go on with his education. Maybe it was having a teacher as a father or maybe he just saw a different life for himself. Either way, he knew that further education would expand the opportunities available to him.


“At that time, there weren’t that many job opportunities within Scotland itself,” he says. “The education system there is pretty good, so I knew if I got through secondary school and university, opportunities would open up.”


“We’re a small country of about 5.4 million people but we have several well-recognized universities producing a large number of graduates. So it’s often the case that we look outside the country for work after finishing university, as a result there are a lot of Scots working overseas, including in Hong Kong.”


Young was right, doors did open. After he graduated from St. Andrew’s University, he left Scotland to join the renowned accounting firm PriceWaterhouse (before it became PWC).
London might inhabit the more leisurely portions of our minds, but for Chris Young—it was a very challenging time.. He began with an apprenticeship with PriceWaterhouse, or what they called “being in articles.” The Deal: Apprentices would be given training, but because of that, they wouldn’t be paid much money.


“It was tough,”he recalls. “We stayed in very modest accommodations. Initially, the only car we had was a very old and not very reliable third -hand one—which I needed, because some of the auditing jobs I did were outside London, and I had to drive there. There was absolutely no spare money around.”


“My wife came down to London in 1980, and we married in the same year. She worked for a company called Royal Insurance as a graduate trainee, and her salary and benefits were much, much better than mine. She had a company car. We were a bit more comfortable after that.”


London had its appeal, but that appeal—at least for the Youngs—was weighed down by particular big city difficulties.


“London is a fantastic city—if you could afford to live near the center,” Young says. “It’s a tough city if you’re commuting in from the suburbs every day. We enjoyed London, but we weren’t used to commuting for an hour-plus a day.” That was one of the reasons we moved to Hong Kong: the daily commuting grind. It was very time consuming, tiring, and uncertain as the trains broke down on a very regular basis.”


In January 1985, Young joined an international exchange program initiated by PriceWaterhouse, which was then expanding its business in China. It was after three years of working there that Young joined First Pacific, where his grit, hard work, and leadership style eventually set him on the path to becoming one of the company’s top bosses.

Leadership Based on Strong Teams

Every leader is different. Some leverage their charisma to inspire and empower their team. Others simply work hard and set a quiet but compelling example. Chris Young’s style, however, is quite unique.


“I think, to some degree, my leadership style was formed in PriceWaterhouse,” says Young. “It’s interesting because it’s not a fixed working environment. Each audit [project] involves a distinct, separate team and you’d work with each team very intensely for a month or two until that audit finished. You would then move on to the next audit with another new team.”


“In any one year, you could work with four or five teams, whereas in a general business environment, it could take you several years to gain experience of working with different teams. That’s where I really began to appreciate that successful outcomes are driven by how well a team works together. And for the team to work well, you need to create trust within the group.”


Trust is a difficult thing to foster, it’s a challenge for everyone and every organization, whether it is Boards of Directors, management committees, basketball or football teams, families or relationships. Christopher Young, however, has a secret—and the less enterprising among us may not want to hear it. Two words: hard work.


“Developing trust is challenging,” says Young. “To develop trust you yourself have to put in the hours to learn your trade effectively. There’s no substitute for that. You have to have started at the bottom of the pyramid and hopefully worked your way up. You need to have experienced both things going well and—as importantly—things not going well, and also how people react to problems and challenges and bring that experience to the group. I think that experience helps build confidence in the other members of the team that you can move the team in the right direction. And, critically, you need to recognize that trust is a two way street, to be able to gain the trust of your team you must trust the individual team members.”


“Trust in my mind is closely aligned with loyalty to the Company and the team and this is something I’ve found particularly within the broader First Pacific group. Taken together these are two very powerful factors in managing and developing yourself. However, these factors only work in practice if you have the right team members, and that is where I have been very lucky from when I began working at First Pacific in HK in 1988, through to my time at PLDT and now back with First Pacific in Hong Kong—I’ve worked with some great people who have, in the main, been great team players.”


Young also has an effective tactic for fostering a culture of open communication and knowledge sharing: Be visible.


“The more successful teams were those where the Audit Partner was willing to get out of his office and spend time with the team in the field. You don’t necessarily have to look over people’s shoulders all the time, but you need to be there so that—if an issue or problem arises, which they always will—the team members feel they can discuss things with you. It’s not always easy for people to ask for help, but if you’re around, generally, members of the team are more open to discuss problems and explore possible solutions.”

However, Young is quick to advise that leaders shouldn’t hold themselves out to know everything or be an expert in all areas. What is important is to continue to learn, particularly given he fast pace of change in the current business environment, and also to acknowledge what you don’t know. This may seem like simple advice, but it’s easy to forget—especially when the leader is so earnest about instilling in the team a sense of comfort and confidence.


“Leaders aren’t sages who always have the answer,” says Young. “The more experienced you become the more often you’ll find there’s no right answer to complex or difficult problems. There are good answers and not-so-good answers—and often there isn’t a wrong answer.


This means eventually you’ll have to make a decision, often with incomplete information and sometimes it won’t go well, but hopefully, with the benefit of your experience and working closely with your team, you’ll get it right more often than not.”


That’s one thing that jumps out when you talk to Chris Young—he speaks matter-of-factly about making mistakes. His past failures have failed to make him insecure. In fact, one ends up suspecting that those mistakes fuel the quiet confidence he exudes.


“I’ve been wrong many times but you can’t always look back and second guess the decision. You put all the information in front of your team, and the team makes the best decision
it can, based on the information available to them at the time. What’s important is that, whether it turns out to be a good or not a good decision, you should learn from it
and use it to help you in future. The other important aspect is to be prepared to take responsibility when things don’t go well. I think John F. Kennedy was quoted as saying,
’Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan’—I’ve had to deal with a lot of that over the years.,” says Young.


“If you’re not making mistakes, you’re too conservative. If your view is: I’ll go to the office today and not make a mistake, that’s not the optimal result. If you go to the office with a goal of: I’ll have 60-70% of my decisions work out, but I know a few of them are not going to—that’s the best you can hope for. Analyzing a situation or problem can only take you so far—the analysis, paralysis problem—eventually you’ve got to make a judgement and move ahead.
And, interestingly, sometimes deciding not to proceed can be as difficult as approving a transaction, but it can turn out to be for the best. Some of the best deals we’ve done at First Pacific are those we decided not to do! ”


As Young talks about this, I begin thinking that this sounds a lot like golf wisdom. If you think about every moving part of your body—your hips, your shoulders, your grip, your
follow through, the angle of your hat and the dimness of your sunglasses—your swing is guaranteed to stiffen. You need the confidence that comes from thorough practice.
You need to trust in your team and in yourself. That way, when the time comes to whack the ball, you just walk up to it, take a deep breath, and swing.

The Meaning of Work

Famed motivational speaker Simon Sinek popularized the question: “What’s your Why?”—a
sensible question to which we must go back whenever life confuses us. Young proposes a
more flexible perspective: The “why” isn’t a stationary target; it can move—and fairly often
at that.


“I think motivation changes as you get older. My father was a teacher, I have four siblings,
we’re a relatively big family who lived relatively modestly. So I was initially focused on
financial security,” says Young.

“Then just as you’re getting to the stage where you’re getting more financially secure,
children come along. Then you’re back to seeking financial security and then it becomes
a more complicated situation, where you want to maintain your financial security for your
family, but you also want to consider the next generation too.”

Young, however, is a quintessential CFO—keenly aware of how money can both empower
and spoil, depending on how we use it.


“I don’t think we’ve got this sorted out yet,” says Young. “You want to give your kids a degree
of financial security, but on the other hand, you don’t want them to feel things are too

This is the sort of wisdom that could only come from someone well acquainted with the
hard work of farming, tending a bar, picking potatoes or selling shellfish.

“When my wife and I first went to London, things were very challenging and our parents
weren’t able to provide much support... However we didn’t feel negative about that, because
we didn’t expect it, that just the way things were.” says Young.

“I think, coming from Scotland, we’re relatively simple people who believe hard work and
education will move you forward. It’s very basic, not sophisticated. Looking back, things
were much simpler and straightforward than what young people face now when they start

One thing about Christopher Young—he always goes back to his secret: hard work. It’s how
you learn anything. It’s how you progress. Success, after all, is simple and difficult. It may be
hard to imagine him growing up in St. Monans—but if you’re ever wondering how this man
ended up where he is, it’s probably because he can still imagine himself in the St. Monans
coastline, picking up shellfish, looking at the horizon, and thinking that each tiny shellfish
will get him a little farther in life. And who are we to question that? It’s already gotten him
quite far.

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