Financial headhunters are caught in a tricky situation - that of finding the right candidate for their clients. Corporates - small, medium and large - are clamouring for experienced financial controllers, or chief financial officers (CFOs) as most of them prefer to be called, especially as the need for corporate compliance gains momentum. But with the turnover among the beancounters down to a trickle, it is no surprise that headhunters are searching the market to lure experienced CFOs from their present companies with attractive incentives. 'CFOs are funny animals. They are needed in good and bad times, but mostly in bad times. We have gone through a lot of bad times in the last 18 months, and with things looking up companies are in the market hiring CFOs,' said Raymond Tang, managing director of headhunting firm Russell Reynolds Associates. Dan Chavesse, director at international headhunting firm Michael Page International, said the job market for CFOs was more driven by lack of suitable candidates. With Internet companies booming in Hong Kong, demand for CFOs had risen sharply, said Mary Wicks, partner, executive resources at accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. In the aftermath of Asia's financial crisis, corporates have learned a big lesson: that good financial managers can put the resources of the company on a stable keel at a critical time. 'It is very important to have a good financial officer,' said Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, publisher of mass-circulation Apple Daily and Next magazine. Mr Lai should know the value of a good numbers man. For the past few years he has been ostracised by the financial community in Hong Kong and has to depend on his private resources to run a string of companies. While companies know the importance of a good book-keeper, they are not ready to compromise on the parameters they have set for the candidate they want. Richard Letcher, manager of Commerce Division at Michael Page, said companies were becoming fussier in matching their criteria with the qualities and experience of the candidates they were seeking. 'Clients now insist that candidates meet 90 to 95 per cent of the criteria before they would be considered,' Mr Letcher said. One reason for this was that companies were ready to pay top dollar for the right candidate with the right credentials. 'Of late, a number of Internet companies have moved to Asia and they are on the look out for talented personnel. But talented individuals with good American degrees are hard to find. Even if you do find them they prefer to go for the banking sector,' said Ms Wicks at PricewaterhouseCoopers. So companies preferred to wait rather than go for any candidate they came across, she said. Mr Chavesse described the job market for CFOs as 'rather strange'. He said that though there was a lack of good CFOs, the market had only recently loosened up and companies were still tight with compensation packages. 'The financial package varies from company to company. Obviously, a multinational will have a better pay package than a regional or a local company,' he said. Mr Letcher said the generous packages offered to expats no longer existed and companies were cutting down on perks such as subsidised education for children and, in some cases, even housing allowances. Although the recruitment market has stabilised, overall demand is still down compared with historical levels, according to a salary guide and recruitment market trends released by Michael Page earlier this year. But the report said the economic crisis had increased demand for certain skills needed in recessionary economies, such as cost accountants and financial analysts. The high demand for such professionals had not translated into better financial packages for CFOs or even executives a level or two below. The report said the package for a finance director in a regional company ranged from $1.2 million to $3 million a year while in a local company it was $700,000 to $1.2 million a year. Mr Tang said an experienced CFO could make between $2 million and $4.5 million, excluding bonuses, depending on the size of the company. 'We are not talking of some company operating out of Mongkok,' he said. The salary levels for financial controllers and regional credit managers ranged from $600,000 to $1.5 million a year. Ms Wicks said demand for junior and middle-level accounts executives was rising because these executives were easier to find and the turnover in this segment was quite high. Another reason for a surge in demand for second and third-tier executives was the financial package. 'The middle managers are easier to source,' Mr Chavesse said, adding that money was a big consideration for some companies. Firms were cautious about who they hired because they wanted finance directors or CFOs who could provide more than basic financial skills. 'The role of a CFO in Europe has evolved, he is more like a right-hand man to the managing director. Companies are realising that a CFO can add value to the operational skills,' Mr Chavesse said. Mr Tang of Russell Reynolds said that the role of a CFO was going through various configurations. 'On one side you have the classic CFO, then you have CFOs who even head the human resources department. In some cases, they are in charge of the IT department. The demand for CFOs who have a flair for electronics commerce is on the rise. Having a commercial acumen is very important,' he said.