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Eric van Deursen is a senior audit manager at KPMG Amstelveen. He writes about his amazing time as an audit manager at KPMG in São Paulo, Brazil. Van Deursen was the main contact of the Dutch Desk of KMPG in São Paulo. In this article he describes the differences and (unexpected) similarities of accountancy between Brazil and the Netherlands. São Paulo has been a challenge and adventure to him as well as instructive and frustrating.
November 2011 to November 2013, KPMG gave me the fantastic opportunity to work in São Paulo, Brazil. Two years long working as audit manager at KPMG in São Paulo is challenging, adventurous, very instructive and sometimes extremely frustrating. It is totally different than in the Netherlands, in every possible way. In this article I will try to outline what the largest differences are in terms of accountancy in Brazil and what is (unexpectedly) is the same.
Before I dive into the depth, I’ll first provide a brief introduction. My name is Eric van Deursen, senior audit manager at KPMG Amstelveen. Before I went to Brazil, I was part of the Holding & Finance team, a department in which the holdings- and finance international structures are checked. In Brazil, my clients were mostly parts of Dutch (listed) companies and I was the first contact for the Dutch Desk KPMG in São Paulo. Now I’m back for a few months in the Netherlands and again working in the Holding & Finance department. Obviously, since my return, my focus has mainly been on Brazilian companies in the Netherlands. I am also part of our Brazil Desk.
Furthermore, I would want to add that the differences and similarities I will depict in this article are mainly differences and similarities I have experienced in my second year in São Paulo. Someone who has worked in Rio or any other city in Brazil will have a totally different experience. The differences between the cities and regions in Brazil are as a matter of fact enormous. Yet many people who were allowed to work in Brazil for a while will undoubtedly recognize themselves in many points.
The Language Barrier
In the Netherlands, I was used to doing my job in English. We are in the Netherlands quite accustomed that almost everyone speaks English, especially in the business environment. My department in the Netherlands contains about half of expats, who could get along fine by just being able to say ‘good morning’ or ‘enjoy your meal’ in Dutch. In São Paulo, this was another case. Or rather, totally different. Hardly anyone speaks English and without speaking Portuguese you cannot actually do your job. Within my teams no one spoke English and the partners I worked for, this varied. This was also the case for the customer. The senior management speaks mostly English, but certainly not in the workplace.
In the beginning, working in Brazil was therefore very difficult, especially with a professional competence as a professional accountant. With a good study discipline and much needed exercise during the hours I could eventually, after three or four months, carry on with my job in Portuguese. How I met my deadlines in the first months still remains a big question. Because every expat KPMG São Paulo had to do his work in Portuguese, this was also the main language at meetings or lunches with only expats. It is remarkable that you are unable to continue speaking English with each other.
The Culture Shock
On just this subject, I could probably write a whole new article. So let me limit myself to the most remarkable differences.
Parties and Churrascos
Brazilians invite you very easily for a party or a barbecue (churrasco). A party or barbecue can be thrown for no reason and it’s all initiated a day or few days in advance. Generally speaking, the more people are invited, the more fun it is. This meant that from the first weekend I was there, I was invited by colleagues and it was a great opportunity for me to gain new contacts. Talk about the difference at my return in the Netherlands! See the last section for the reverse culture shock.
Kissing and Hugging
In the Netherlands, we give our customers a hand while greeting and colleagues greet in the morning with a ‘hi’ or ‘good morning’. You might give a female colleague a kiss when it’s her birthday. The difference in Brazil is quite large. Female colleagues are greeted with a kiss every morning and it is very normal to also greet female clients this way. Men greet each other with a hug (abraço) where you can absolutely touch each other’s shoulder or abdomen. Something I would only do with my best friends in the Netherlands. This ritual also takes place at the end of the day, by the way. When you’re the first to leave the office or the client, you’d better take extra ten minutes.
My first day at the office in São Paulo, I thought I would be polite by asking my colleagues if they wanted a cup of coffee or tea. In the Netherlands I was after all quite used to it that everyone gets coffee once a day for all colleagues. When I posed this question to my colleagues in São Paulo, everyone stood up for a twenty-minute coffee break (cafézinho). It is perfectly normal in Brazil just to take two to three times daily coffee break and talk with colleagues about football, weekends and other topics.
Although Brazilians seem informal, hierarchy is extremely important. Disagreeing with your boss is not an option. As a critical accountant from the Netherlands this was a very difficult aspect of Brazilian culture for me. In the Netherlands we focus less on hierarchy and it is most important in accountancy that you continue to critically evaluate each other’s work. Where my teams finally managed to appreciate my approach without hierarchy (trainee is just as important as the partner), the senior partners I worked with had a hard time with it. Fortunately, as a foreigner (gringo), I was allowed a little more. The younger partners, who often have worked abroad for several years, had had less difficulties with it. I must secretly admit that upon my return to the Netherlands, I was occasionally irritated by a trainee who argue with me about an audit approach.
Working Hours and Motivation
The days in São Paulo are long, very long. This is partly because you have to avoid the jams. It is normal to drive to the client before the jams (before 7:00 am) and go home after the jam (after 20:00). On the other hand days also become longer because of the above-mentioned coffee breaks and the lunch time of at least an hour. Lunch is the most important meal, and thus a large amount of time is to be spent. I must admit, I was very lucky to be living near the office(fifteen minutes walk). São Paulo is so large that many colleagues sometimes take one to one and a half hours on the way to the office or the customer. Many colleagues are after 6 ‘o clock off to work and do not return before 9 ‘o clock in the evening.
Moreover, it is customary in Brazil to start working if you are still studying. This means that after a long day, the trainees and seniors could still have college to attend to from eight to ten ‘o clock in the evening. It must be delightful to wake up the next day and head to your customer at six ‘o clock in the morning. I forget by the way to point out that most of the people could not afford a car and therefore have to deal with the overly crowded public transport. Perhaps it is not so surprising that the Brazilian colleagues do not have much spare time to learn to speak English. Although the working days are long, especially if they need to be combined with studying, motivation is huge, and everyone is set very positively. You will hear few colleagues complain about the working hours. A job at KPMG and similar businesses is for many a unique opportunity to have a better life. Therefore, they are extremely grateful.
Although growth in Brazil in recent years is rather disappointing, the accountancy is still a market with huge growth. The two years I worked in Brazil, KPMG achieved at least twenty percent growth. That means that your turnover doubles in five years time and the staff numbers should grow with it. By such an enormous growth comes a lot of pressure, particularly on senior staff. It is relatively easy to take on new employees (trainees) but to attract twenty percent more managers every year is almost impossible. It meant that in my two years in Brazil, I had to manage fifty percent more hours than in the Netherlands. This is partly due to lower efficiency, but largely also from a shortage of experienced people. It is especially this aspect that underlines the concept of Brazil as an emerging market. This kind of gigantic growth sets you challenges that we do not have to deal with in the Netherlands. Certainly not in recent years during the crisis.
Violence and Safety
Before I went to Brazil, I was quite frightened regarding to violence and safety. Fortunately, I can say that I have never experienced something bad in my two years in Brazil. Fortunately, my girlfriend and I were able to live in a good neighborhood, which helped a lot. Additionally, you can avoid a lot by being careful: take a taxi in the evenings, never carry much money and leave expensive jewelry out of use. Unfortunately, it can be different. I know several Brazilians and expats who have been robbed several times, mostly under gunpoint. That we are not acquainted with these kinds of confrontations in the Netherlands, is certainly a privilege. Back in the Netherlands, it was very crazy to see kids play on the street, which is definitely not possible with the huge traffic chaos in São Paulo.
Laws and regulations
KPMG has a global audit methodology: KPMG Audit Methodology (KAM). Furthermore, we use the same program worldwide (eAudit) to perform our audits. This makes it very easy for a KPMG employee to be able to work anywhere in the world. Thus it was also easy for me to get started in Brazil. In addition, the accounting rules in Brazil are entirely based on IFRS. CPC (Brazilian GAAP), with a few minor variations, is similar to IFRS. In this case too, it is easy to do your work. If you are used to IFRS financial statements in the Netherlands, then they will not look different in Brazil. Of course those accounts are usually in Portuguese instead of English. By contrast, the tax in Brazil is enormously complicated. There are taxes on federal, state and municipal levels. Additionally, there are taxes on profits, sales and other policies. Taxes may also vary by product or service. In short, an impenetrable forest of tax rules, which unfortunately makes it necessary to involve direct and indirect tax experts in addition to their own two tax teams to each contract. Additionally, it is usual to involve an IT expert and a financial instruments expert for each assignment, big or small. It means that for an average assignment, four teams of specialists are needed. If then also valuation issues or environmental issues come into play, the amount of experts involved becomes enormously large.
Reverse Culture Shock
In the meantime I am again in the Netherlands for a few months now and you could say that I’m currently in the middle of reverse culture shock. I seem to have adapted quite well to the Brazilian life. I get easily annoyed by friends or family who want to make an appointment four weeks in advance. I’m cranky because of the Dutch weather, although the winter was less cold this year. And finally, I am still unable to adapt to the twenty minutes lunch break in contrast with the one and a half hour to enjoy a hot meal.
Fortunately, this is all part of it, and it shows that I have been able to adapt well to the Brazilian (work) culture. It was a fantastic experience, an experience never to be forgotten.