Headhunters drafted into top-tier mainland searches

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 10:47pm


Mainland companies are increasingly using executive search services to recruit senior employees, breaking from their previous reliance on word-of-mouth or internal referrals, according to industry experts.

'Search assignments from Chinese firms make up a significant part of our business in the region now,' said Phoebe Wan, an executive vice-president of Chicago-headquartered executive search company DHR International.

Hong Kong-based Wan said that when she joined the industry in 2005, mainland private firms generally did not use search consultants.

DHR data indicate that demand for talent in China grew strongly last year, lifting annual revenue at its local arms by 45 per cent year-on-year.

'At first people were saying mainland companies won't use such services. But now it seems they're willing to hire the most appropriate people through professional search firms,' Wan said.

While financial sector demand had weakened because of global economic jitters, employers in many other industries were actively hiring. 'However, jobseekers tend to hold more of a [wait-and-see] attitude,' Wan said.

Fluency in Putonghua is generally expected, according to Wan. Putonghua is the native language of domestic private firms' founders. They are open to talented people from any background but prefer those who are able to speak Putonghua and can understand Chinese culture, she said.

'They are also keen to hire people with an international perspective. One day when they expand overseas these talents can contribute greatly to their international business.'

But they still preferred those with a deep understanding of the local market, because domestic markets were still their focus, she said.

Frank Shu, manager at Shenzhen-based search firm Sunsharer Headhunting, said the industry's main focus on the mainland was private and state-owned enterprises, while in the past its only clients were multinational firms and joint ventures.

He said there was an opportunity for small- and medium-sized mainland private companies to recruit higher quality staff during an economic slowdown because it was cheaper than during a bull market.

'Many domestic firms have developed to a level where they need more talent to carry it through to the next phase,' he said.

'Most firms accept the idea that top-end talent should be approached through a specialist.'

He expected mainland demand for people with a Hong Kong background to rise. 'We already feel this trend is on the rise.'

Domestic companies have started to explore overseas, especially the Southeast Asian market, where Hongkongers have an advantage in understanding their culture.