Western bosses look east for jobs

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 November, 2011, 12:00am


An increasing number of Western chief executives are eyeing top posts in Asia as companies back home cut staff numbers.

Asian companies, by contrast, are in expansion mode, providing a safe harbour for executives escaping the chilly economic environment in their own countries..

Recruitment experts say that in the past, Western executives were often unwilling to uproot themselves and come to Asia. Now headhunter firms receive more inquiries from Western executives seeking jobs in the region than there are vacancies.

David Hoffmann, founder, chairman and chief executive of Chicago-headquartered global executive search firm DHR International, said many Asia-Pacific companies were offering job opportunities for so-called C-level executives - chief executives, chief financial officers and chief operating officers.

At the same time, the same top job opportunities in Europe have declined as companies there 'delay' recruitment amid the sovereign debt crisis.

In the US, where unemployment has hit 9 per cent, demand for executives is a far cry from the heyday before the financial crisis, particularly in the financial sector.

Banks in the United States and Europe - including HSBC, Bank of America, BNY Mellon and Barclays - have outlined more than 90,000 job cuts in recent months as part of broader cost-cutting initiatives. Some multinational firms, such as mobile phone maker Nokia and BlackBerry manufacturer Research In Motion, have also announced thousands of lay-offs.

'Five years ago, if a large Asian large corporation offered a top post to a Western chief executive, many would simply say 'no' as they considered it too troublesome to relocate their families to Asia,' Hoffmann said. 'But many are now responding well to Asian companies' global searches for chief executives. They quickly pack up and bring their children to Hong Kong, [mainland] China and Asia as these are the areas which have the strongest demand for C-level executives.'

Other recruitment firms have had similar experiences. Barons & Company director Jerry Chang said his firm received far more applications than vacancies available.

'There are many lay-offs in the US and Europe so the ex-bankers or ex-CEOs need to find jobs. Those who still have jobs do not feel safe about their job security. That explains why we receive so many applications every day,' Chang said.

Chang says Asian companies now offer similar or even better packages for their chief executives or other senior managers so Western executives coming to the region do not need to take a pay cut. But not all Western executives could fulfil their dreams, he warned.

'Many companies want to have people who have working experience in Asia or who know the local language to handle their Asian business,' Chang said.

Hoffmann, however, said that when companies recruited chief executives globally, they wanted the best talent with the right skill set to create profit growth. Those who have local language and cultural knowledge would be at an advantage, but it was not a must.

DHR set up an office in Asia six years ago and has expanded to 13 offices in the region, including Beijing, Tokyo and Sydney. It uses Hong Kong as its regional headquarters. Revenue from Asia now represents 25 per cent of its total business, compared with 65 per cent from the US, and the rest from Europe and Latin America.

Hoffmann is so optimistic about Asia that he plans to double the firm's headcount to 200 over the next three to five years.

He believes future revenue will be split almost equally between Asia and the US, with a small contribution from the rest of the world. He has put the brakes on expansion in the firm's European operations as the continent's economic problems show no signs of a quick recovery.

Top executives need to be more flexible when searching for work. Bankers who have lost their jobs, for example, should consider other industries.

'Investment banks are facing a lot of challenges as there are not many transactions and deals these days. It would be better for them to consider joining other industries,' Hoffmann said, as many other industries have recovered from the 2009 crisis and hired top executives. The industries most likely to hire in the US and Asia are health care, consumer products and manufacturing.

'Many investment bankers are well educated and their skill sets are transferrable as they know management and financial matters well. They can be chief financial officers or chief executives of other companies,' Hoffmann said. 'They could also consider setting up their own businesses.'

Hoffmann, a former banker himself, decided to set up DHR in 1989 after he was made redundant by a financial company.

'From my personal experience, there are good opportunities to start a new career. You need to be honest and assess what you are good and not good at while you also need to understand your passion about what to do for the rest of your life,' he said. Those who are good at cooking could open a restaurant. He liked to negotiate so he started a recruitment firm.

'Starting a new career in a different industry is not going to be easy. You may not earn as much as you were in the banking sector. However, we have seen many former bankers enjoy their new jobs more than before. I am one of those!' Hoffmann said.