Fi­nan­cial trail­blazer cel­e­brates her life­time of firsts

China Daily (Canada) - - PEOPLE - SHARMILA DEVI

For China Daily

Mei Sim Lai has scored a lot of firsts in her life.

She was the first fe­male — and first Chi­nese — part­ner at the char­tered ac­coun­tancy firm Pri­die Brew­ster in 1979. She has been hon­orary sec­re­tary of the City of Lon­don branch of the In­sti­tute of Di­rec­tors, one of the most pres­ti­gious be­cause it groups to­gether im­por­tant Lon­don com­pa­nies.

Then in 2004, she was given an OBE for ser­vices to equal op­por­tu­ni­ties.

The Malaysian- Chi­nese busi­ness­woman has also had a priv­i­leged po­si­tion from which to view the evo­lu­tion of Chi­nese- UK re­la­tions, which reached a “golden era” with the visit of Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping in Oc­to­ber 2015.

“But as with all re­la­tion­ships, it needs care­ful han­dling,” says Lai. “There is a need for on­go­ing re­spect for each other be­cause things can hap­pen very quickly to af­fect good re­la­tions.”

She pointed to the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment’s de­lay over the $21.7 bil­lion Hink­ley Point nu­clear plant, in which China has a one-third share and which was only given the goa­head in Septem­ber. Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May is re­ported to be much more cau­tious about closer ties with Bei­jing in terms of crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture.

Mei Sim Lai has led sev­eral del­e­ga­tions of Bri­tish com­pa­nies to China as part of her mis­sion to break down bar­ri­ers, not just with China but also for women and mi­nor­ity eth­nic groups work­ing in the City.

She talked to China Daily at the Ori­en­tal Club, an exclusive in­sti­tu­tion founded nearly 200 years ago by re­turn­ing Bri­tish of­fi­cers and of­fi­cials from In­dia and the East. It only ad­mit­ted women in 2010. Miss Lai now sits on its fi­nance com­mit­tee.

She re­mem­bers that, when she first ar­rived in Lon­don in 1970, it was ex­tremely chal­leng­ing to work and study at the same time as an ar­ti­cled clerk at Pri­die Brew­ster. She is one of 10 chil­dren and luck­ily two of her sis­ters were al­ready in the UK so she was able to live with them.

“There were very few eth­nic mi­nori­ties or women work­ing here when I started out. Peo­ple weren’t sure if clients would re­ally like some­one from a dif­fer­ent back­ground,” she says. “I stood out, but I wasn’t threat­en­ing to peo­ple. Once clients un­der­stood I knew what I was do­ing, I had no prob­lems but ini­tially I had to prove my­self. I worked very hard be­cause I wanted to be the best trainee.”

She stayed for 36 years at Pri­die Brew­ster, where her client-fee in­come was more than £500,000 a year for her work, which in­cluded au­dit­ing and busi­ness ad­vice to clients. When the firm was taken over by a big­ger com­pany in 2005, she set up her own firm, LaiPeters & Co Char­tered Ac­coun­tants, a bou­tique busi­ness on which she now spends about one-third of her time.

The rest of her time she de­votes to a long list of pub­lic and char­i­ta­ble or­ga­ni­za­tions. As well as help­ing to set up the China In­ter­ests Group of the In­sti­tute of Di­rec­tors in 2006 for mem­bers want­ing to do busi­ness in China and for Chi­nese want­ing to in­vest in the UK, she is also one of four ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tors of The 48 Group Club.

This in­flu­en­tial club was founded in 1949 by some of the first “ice­break­ers” or Western­ers to es­tab­lish trade re­la­tions with China. It brings to­gether well-known fig­ures in busi­ness, gov­ern­ment and academia with an in­ter­est in Sino-Bri­tish re­la­tions.

The pro­mo­tion of di­ver­sity in the work­place re­mains one of her big­gest pas­sions. There has been a de­bate in the UK in the past few years about how to pro­mote women and eth­nic mi­nori­ties onto the boards of top com­pa­nies and Lai has been at the fore­front of this de­bate.

“There have been some im­prove­ments in this area but it’s not been good enough,” she says. “Quo­tas for a lim­ited time might be needed be­cause there are even fewer eth­nic mi­nori­ties than women on boards, even though I know of a lot of very good peo­ple who would do well if ap­pointed.”

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Mei Sim Lai, the first fe­male and first Chi­nese part­ner at the firm Pri­die Brew­ster.

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