From the downturn of the early 1990s to the deadly tsunami in Japan in March, Robert Walters’ London-based chief operating officer, Giles Daubeney, has seen his share of tough times. Nevertheless, the seasoned recruitment executive remains largely upbeat about the company’s prospects in Asia. What brings you to Hong Kong? I’m here to catch up with the regional CEO, who just moved here from Australia. I’m also here to see Matthew [Bennett], who’s responsible for the Hong Kong business, and to look into investment opportunities for 2012.
Does this indicate more focus on Asia Pacific and Greater China? At present, Australia remains our largest operation in this part of the world. [But] we seem to be growing quite rapidly in this region – we’re growing in China, Hong Kong and in Singapore, and we recently opened a branch in Taiwan.
Do you plan on opening offices elsewhere in the region? We will place more offices in the region, but the way we manage the business is not necessarily top-down. We have some quality senior people in this region who are incentivised and rewarded on a budget. They’re the ones who suggest which markets we should be looking at.
After this, we research the market, send people there on various projects, look into who our competitors are, and start to apply for licences, if needed. So, we do a lot of analysis before we actually enter a market.
What kind of job functions might you be looking to help fuel your regional expansion? We’re probably looking to recruit new consultants in all areas. So that’s accounting, legal, sales and marketing, supply chain and engineering. Now, different countries are in different stages of expansion, so we will be adding heads everywhere, but the actual number I can’t say for sure.
Will there be any internal transfers? We will expand and, where appropriate, give opportunities for international careers. These people could come from anywhere provided they meet two or three criteria. For example, they have to have been with the company for a minimum of two years and they have to have proved themselves in that job that they’re in.
How would you describe the ideal recruitment consultant? I think they have to be self-motivated, personable, ambitious and not afraid of hard work. We’ve had people from all sorts of backgrounds and education. We’ve had some with huge qualifications that have not done well. We’ve got others with not many qualifications who have done very well and have been hugely successful. I think you can train somebody. But at the end of the day, they have to be naturally capable in dealing with people.
Will there be as much of an opportunity for big commissions as there were in 2009? Perhaps. It really depends on the economy. But it’s important to remember that if you can recruit in a tough market and can learn in a tough market, it will make you a much better recruiter. If you join when the market’s easy, it’s easy – you just execute. In a tough market, you really have to go out and find the work. I myself started in the late 1980s, shortly after which we went into the recession of the early 1990s. That, in my opinion, was far worse than anything we’re experiencing now, particularly in the UK, where you had interest rates running between 14 and 17 per cent. Have your expansion plans been hampered by the economic gloom? Sitting here today, it hasn’t hampered anything. Having said that, this could soon change. The way things stand, we’re certainly looking at opening another office in Germany next year. We’re also looking to open at least one more office in mainland China, possibly two. How will the economic gloom affect hiring intentions in the region? It may well affect them and create a slowdown in hiring. But in Asia Pacific, we haven’t really seen that so far. The thing that’s important to remember about our industry is that it’s not actually about the number of jobs. What creates movement is business confidence. It’s when candidates out there are feeling confident about what’s going on in the economy, are ready for a career move and are looking for a new opportunity. If they are concerned about the economy, they won’t move. Ultimately, what you want is movement, as that generates business. So it’s not necessarily about companies making new hires or creating new jobs, it’s about the movement of people. Were the sovereign debt crises in Europe to get out of hand, would you consider downsizing or streamlining your operations in Asia? If it gets really bad, I know we’re going to have to make some tough decisions. But we won’t do anything that will affect the ability of the business to recover in the upturn. If we have to downsize, unfortunately, we will. Having said that, we certainly won’t close any offices – we didn’t in the last recession.
I think the great strength of the Robert Walters group is that we don’t have debt and we sit on cash. We also have a large contract business. So if the market really tightens up, we can easily throw up a wall of cash, because we pay our contractors weekly or monthly, yet we get paid every three months. So at the end of the day, we can afford to say that we’re probably not going to lose people, we’re probably not going to close offices. We have more than enough money in the bank to pay salaries and pay the rent. How do you differentiate yourself from rivals in the region? When we go to a new country, we’re not just there to service the international businesses. We’re there to work with the local market, and I think that’s our major edge. We tend to employ more local consultants, giving us an immediate local network. This is particularly helpful if they come from the industries for which they’re recruiting.
How do you position yourself here in the region? It’s very much about DNA. We have a particular culture at Robert Walters and a particular way of operating. Marketing and branding are very important. We always have quality office space, because the way we present ourselves is very important. Are there any notable recruitment trends in Asia? A lot of what has been going on with regards to demand for people relates to cultural shifts. If you look at Japan, for instance, that whole thing about joining a company for life has changed. And the pace of change has been extremely fast. These cultural shifts will continue to play a big role in the industry. As more and more economies change – such as Indonesia, where we’re seeing a big shift from agriculture to professional services – demand for people will continue to rise.