The Tax Expat in Kuala Lumpur

We’ve been ticking off a lot of ex-pat destinations throughout our interviews. Last time we jumped from Auckland to San Jose to Tokyo with Anna Ogenblad, who started her career in GST and is now back in Europe as a global VAT specialist with Sony Mobile. Here it is if you missed it.

But this week, we have our first Transfer Pricing ex-pat, Sam Barrett! Sharing his 18-year career as a tax ex-pat, Sam boasts several global destinations, ranging from Mexico City, London, New York, Brighton, Luxembourg, Stockholm, and now Kuala Lumpur!

This is another excellent read where Sam talks about his risk appetite and what it’s like being an ex-pat with a young family.

A huge thanks to Sam for sharing his journey!

Sam, welcome to The Tax Expat! Great to have you join us, particularly as our first Transfer Pricing ex-pat! TP is known to be a globally mobile tax discipline and that’s certainly reflected in your 18-year career where you’ve worked in six different countries! Before we dive into that, can you introduce yourself to those who don’t know you?

Sure, I was born in the North and raised in the South West of the UK (otherwise known as ‘cider country’ ??). At the age of 17, I l left home for the bright lights of Essex to work for Ford Motor Company and study CIMA. And soon after that my global tax travels began…

I’m now working in Kuala Lumpur for a tech startup as the Global Head of Tax & Treasury.

So life as an ex-pat started almost immediately for you when you moved to Mexico City back in 2000 with Arthur Andersen. How did this opportunity come about & what attracted you to the prospect of relocating to Mexico City?

I went to Mexico for personal rather than professional reasons and was teaching English to executives at a number of the Big 5 firms (as it was then). From there, I quickly became very interested in Transfer Pricing as one of my students was a Tax Manager! And soon, our lessons turned into being more about Transfer Pricing than how to conjugate a verb! Effectively, one thing led to another and I then started at Arthur Andersen as a trainee Transfer Pricer!

I didn’t realise that your tax career started in Mexico City. How long were you based there before you moved?

Just over 4 years.

Mexico City is a location that I’m quite unfamiliar with as an expat destination. What were your experiences of being a tax expat there?

I was in my early 20s when I arrived. It was amazing and scary at the same time! To me, it was a huge, chaotic, foreign land where everybody spoke Spanish (I didn’t speak a word of Spanish when I arrived – but am fluent now!). There were people, traffic, chaos and tequila everywhere. But I wanted to fit in socially and professionally, learn Spanish and lap up all of the new sights, sounds and experiences.

Professionally, it was quite challenging – I didn’t speak Spanish and not everyone spoke English, so initially, communicating was difficult. I had the added difficulty of learning Transfer Pricing as well! These were also the times when there was no open-door policy and partners had to be addressed as ‘Sir’.

Overall, the first two years were quite tough but I learnt so much professionally and I did grow as a person. I embraced everything that was thrown at me and I felt, with this attitude, I was able to get the most out of the experience.

From Mexico, life abroad then became a recurring theme of your career as you then went on to work in New York, Luxembourg, Stockholm, and Kuala Lumpur, with some UK pit stops in London & Brighton. How much did your early experiences of moving to Mexico shape your career plans to have an international career?

Living in Mexico opened my eyes to the wider world that’s out there and, ultimately, it made me realise that you can combine tax and travel. From there I had the bug!

Over my career, working in different environments and countries – with different people from different backgrounds – allowed me to gain an understanding of how different minds work. But as well as countries, working in different industries has also allowed me to do this too. Ultimately this range of experiences has enabled me to gain respect, appreciation, and an understanding of backgrounds and experiences different to one’s own. From this, I was then able to learn from them myself.

But put simply, global experiences allow you to be more understanding, flexible and most importantly, agile. In my opinion, this is something which I think a lot of people who have just experienced one industry/country/culture tend to struggle with.

I genuinely believe that achieving success in the workplace (and life in general) is all about effective communication and relationships, no matter what role or career you have. You can be the best tax and transfer pricing technician in the world, but if you can’t sell your idea to non-tax people (ie. ‘what’s in it for them?’, ‘What if we don’t do what you say?’) or lead and execute across functional, multi-jurisdictional projects (different approaches may be required in India vs Germany vs Mexico, for example) then your success will be limited.

My global experience has allowed me to work with many great people, all different in their ways, and also several not-so-great people. But, ultimately, I’ve learnt from every single experience.

This diversity is certainly very clear in your resume. On the one hand, there’s a diverse range of countries you’ve worked in – some are familiar and well-traversed expat destinations and some are not! But, on the other hand, this diversity is reflective in the companies you’ve worked for, which range from Fortune 500 multinationals like Kimberly Clark to emerging startups like iflix.
As an expat, how important and influential have the range of countries you’ve explored been in shaping you as tax professional?

Yes, I tend to seek out new experiences, meaning the whole thing – job, country, life, rather than purely just the role. I may have more of an appetite for risk than most and maybe that’s led me to the not-so-common places I’ve lived and worked in.

At no point in my career have I ever really sat out and planned too far ahead. I’ve simply judged each opportunity on its merit and, if I had a good feeling about it from the interview process, if it was a step upward career-wise (or could lead to something bigger and better), if I would be learning something new in a new industry or environment, then I was up for the challenge. This is my criteria.

Learning to quickly change and adapt, as you say, is paramount for a tax expat, particularly with the cultural nuances and business etiquette changing from country to country. Which country did you find the most challenging to adapt to from a professional point of view?

As I said before, being agile, but also having the utmost respect for the people, culture and country you’re living in, is so key to fitting in and advancing. I’ve never really tended to ‘hang out’ with the expat groups wherever I’ve been because I truly wanted that local experience and I think that’s contributed to my understanding and, subsequently, achievements wherever I’ve been.

I haven’t found anywhere that challenging except for my initial couple of years in Mexico (nearly 20 years ago now) when I didn’t speak Spanish. Other than that, I’ve been lucky to live in countries where the level of English has been good and never really struggled to fit in or adapt.

And on the note of challenges, in your career as a tax expat, what’s been the biggest struggle in your whole journey? 

Every time I’ve changed jobs, I’ve taken a step up to a more senior and broader role and have changed countries too! From TP, to International Tax, to Head of Tax & Treasury, all with changing countries and companies every time. That’s been challenging!

Linked to this, I guess it’d also be the initial pressure to be accepted and prove yourself as the foreign / imported so-called ‘expert’. I think there tends to be more pressure (or maybe it’s just me?) on an expat hire compared to a local hire in terms of feeling the need to justify the real or perceived increased effort and cost to bring you to the country to do the role.

That’s interesting, I’d never thought about that type of pressure before!
So, Sam, I know you’re now based in Kuala Lumpur with your wife and three-year-old son. How much has having a family impacted your career as an expat? I’m interested in this because many of the candidates we speak to like to travel before they have family commitments but, at the same time, I speak to many tax professionals with families who have reached a point where their careers has become stagnant and they need a new challenge. 

I’m so very lucky in that I have a wife who’s supported me along the way and with whom I discuss my professional career and experiences daily. She doesn’t have a tax background so must be extremely bored (or blindly in love!), but it keeps me real and gives me that perspective that’s different, blunt and honest; one that we sometimes need or a position we don’t see when we’re in the moment at work trying to find a solution or address a problem. It’s refreshing and necessary to survive and grow.

We also have a 3-year-old son, born in Brighton (UK), who’s now been with us in Sweden and Malaysia (and who knows where next!). I guess it’s much easier to move abroad when kids are pre-school and I think that the experiences we’ve been able to give him and share with him along the way are second to none.

I had a great childhood (thanks Mum and Dad!) but I think he beats me hands down! That being said, will we settle down? My wife says ‘yes, soon’ (apparently!), I don’t know though. As long as we continue to be together, and are growing as a family unit and me professionally, I don’t know whether we’ll ever settle down. The world is a big place you know…

It sounds like the perfect set-up and, I guess, adds to the excitement that you don’t know what your next step is!
If you could rewind the clock to 2000 when you were preparing to catch a flight to Mexico City and venture on a career-long journey of working around the world, what (if anything) would you do differently?

I regret very little in my life. As long as you learn from both the good and bad experiences, I think you’re winning.

One thing though that I would’ve done differently (but chose to spend my time in other ways) would have been to learn the languages better in the places we’ve lived. Speaking Spanish has opened another world to me and I’m sure if I’d also learnt the languages of the other countries, my experiences would have been greater.

I’ll ask you how your Malaysian is coming along next time we speak, then! 🙂 You’ve now been in Kuala Lumpur for a year, working with a tech start-up – an entirely new experience. What does KL offer as a location?

Working in KL in a 3-year-old tech startup is the polar opposite of working for a 150+-year-old mining equipment company in Sweden! Both have been amazing experiences but this move has tested my agility!

KL reminds me of Mexico City in the early 2000s in some ways: the number of people, traffic, chaos, its stage of development, and the sometimes cowboyish ways of doing business you just don’t get in the UK, France, Australia or the US, for example.

KL is an amazing place with amazing food and people (similar to Mexico). It’s also a great base for people wanting to travel socially in Asia on the weekends or during the many holidays for all faiths that we have in Malaysia. It’s also a wonderful place for kids with hot weather all year round (not everyone’s cup of tea, but better than cold and wet Blighty!).

What advice can you share for other tax professionals who are considering a relocation abroad for their career?

DO IT! It’ll make you. How many people get the opportunity to work and travel? What’s the worst that could happen? Do you have to return home after giving it a go? At least you’ll have tried it. Who knows, you may really love and embrace it and it could be the stepping stone to life as a career expat!

Wise words! Sam, before I let you go, I’ve got some quick-fire questions!
Favourite place to live (personal)?

Kuala Lumpur

Favourite place to work (professional)?

Kuala Lumpur (with family), New York (pre-family)

Is working in New York all that it’s hyped up to be?

You gotta do it – once! I’ve done it, but wouldn’t go back with my family

The best location for the cost of living?

Kuala Lumpur

Worst location for cost of living?

Luxembourg & Stockholm

Which country has the best food?  

Mexico & Kuala Lumpur

Which single city that you worked in would you recommend to a first-time expat?

New York

And for a seasoned expat?

Kuala Lumpur

You can spend the rest of your career in any city around the world. Which one?

Why just one?

Sam, thank you so much for coming onto The Tax Expat to share your experiences!

Are you a Tax Expat? If so, we’d love to hear about your experiences and share them with our global tax network. For more information, please contact Alex Mann.

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