Headhunter succeeds due to her persistence
Helen Wu says the key to building her Beijing real estate recruitment firm into a success is due mainly to her persistence and patience
Fifteen years ago, Helen Wu Hongmei moved to Beijing from her hometown in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang. Like millions of migrant people pursuing their dreams in the capital city, Wu's career path was not certain. She tried her hand at being a translator, then decided to give human resources a go. Now 40, she has finally found what she was looking for: playing matchmaker to companies and would-be employees. She tells Jane Cai about how her small headhunting service has survived tough economic times to become increasingly profitable, and she offers advice to both sides in the job-recruitment process.
Many middle-aged, experienced workers are faced with a choice: follow a set career path with an employer or be bold enough to set up a company of their own. Why did you choose the latter?
Before I set up Sunshine Immensity HR Consultants in 2008, I was an HR manager with Beijing Uni-Construction Group, the largest construction contractor and real estate developer owned by the Beijing municipal government. The job was intense, and I was kept busy dealing with various headhunting agents that helped with hiring for the group and its more than 30 units. However, co-operating with these agencies did not make hiring any smoother. In many instances, quite a few headhunters didn't understand what kind of people we were looking for, either because they knew little about property development, or because they did not bother to think thoroughly about our demands.
Communicating with the agencies was time-consuming, and the effort was sometimes fruitless. It made me think - there is a big demand for professional headhunters! There are thousands of headhunting agencies in Beijing. Apart from foreign headhunters that mainly serve multinationals, the market is full of small and medium-sized hunters that cater to private companies and government-owned corporations. The appetite for human resources is huge in the private sector because of aggressive expansion and a high turnover rate for personnel. However, demands are not being met.
I once told a friend in [Uni-Construction Group's] headhunting unit that a good headhunter should be responsible, persistent and possess the knowledge required in the specific area where he works. Maybe the words struck a chord with my friend, who was the head of the service. He encouraged me to join them, saying I had the right personality. I laughed. But the HR veteran said that persistency and a sense of responsibility were the most important characteristics of a good headhunter.
He invited me for a walk around the office. It was a tidy and ordinary office with people working in their cubicles. I'd spent more than 10 years in such cubicles. Suddenly I realised that I was tired of being a cog in a huge machine, spending a lot of time dealing with internal issues. If I wanted to do something my own way, it would be easier to start a new company rather than try to influence or change an existing one. I made up my mind quickly.
Did you have a clear picture of how you would run the company, or of how profitable it would become? And were you prepared of the global financial crisis in 2008?
I did not think that far ahead. You cannot plan everything. As you walk, the road presents itself. I borrowed part of the 100,000 yuan (HK$123,420) start-up capital from some relatives.
A former colleague with the construction group presented me with some [vacant] positions, and I successfully recommended several candidates to join the group that year. A friend with Haier, one of the biggest home appliance makers on the mainland, also provided me with some vacancies. By the end of 2008, the company had net 110,000 yuan in revenue. Industrial connections and a good reputation helped me succeed in the global financial crisis.
Is it difficult to match HR supply and demand nowadays?
The demand for middle and senior management has been huge these past years, especially in private companies.
One of the focuses is on real estate developers. I have connections in the industry, as my university major was civil engineering and I used to work with construction companies. Also, it's because developers have been expanding quickly with the rapid urban development in mainland cities.
My other focus is on conglomerates - companies shifting from one business to embrace financial, mining and property-development businesses - who are willing to pay a good price for world-class talent.
It's not difficult to find well-educated people with the ability to think globally. Sometimes they hang up the phone on me. However, I don't get frustrated. I call again, saying we are a responsible agency trying to help his career. In many cases, persistence and patience pay off. But these people find it hard to stay with a private company for more than three years. Sometimes private company owners pin high expectations on executives, wanting them to excel at everything. In other cases, executives may fail to adapt to the corporate culture.
I'm happy when I'm paid a fourth to a third of the executive's annual salary when he completes his probation period. However, it always makes me feel bad when I hear that a person I recommended has left the post after less than two years. So nowadays I spend a lot of time talking with entrepreneurs before the hiring takes place, to lower their expectations. And I tell job candidates they should do their best to adjust to different company cultures.
How do you deal with bribe requests by a firm's HR department?
Most HR departments don't ask for money. In the rare instances when they hint at it, I first praise their capabilities to appease them. If they reject my candidates for no reason, I make it known to their supervisor.
That turns out to be an effective trick.
What are your plans for the next three to five years?
Another company once tried to acquire our company. I turned it down.
We made between two and three million yuan in revenue last year, which was a great leap from the 110,000 yuan in 2008. Now we have 10 employees. In the future, I hope we can set up branches in Shenzhen, Shanghai and Qingdao . However, I'm not eager to expand quickly.
Helen Wu spoke to Jane Cai