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  Chinese Way>Life

Headhunting from the Hutong

2013-01-09 11:06:51

(China Today)


Executive search is all about finding the right people to grow businesses; profits are inexorably linked to the cyclical nature of economic growth. While industry fortunes have languished in the U.S. and Europe since the 2008 financial crisis, demand for executive talent has continued to surge in emerging economies like China, Brazil and India.

According to a recent report by the Association of Executive Search Consultants, 52.5 percent of industry representatives anticipated a shortage of executive talent in China this year. Only 11.5 percent of respondents anticipated a shortfall in the U.S.; 3.3 percent said the same for the U.K.

The prospect of a protracted economic slump in the West was one factor that encouraged Leary to set up his executive search business in Beijing. He first arrived in 2008, having worked for 15 years across the globe for some of the industry’s biggest players.

Leary seemed to have it all going for him in the West – he was the UK country manager of SpenglerFox, the world’s seventh largest search firm, and had participated in the British version of the hit American TV show, The Apprentice. But he saw greater possibilities in China.

“When I first came I wasn’t doing executive search per se, but was working ‘client-side.’ Through that work I got to meet with a lot of the boutique executive search firms that operated in Beijing. I wasn’t impressed, and thought to myself, ‘I could do better than that.’”

Leary went out on his own and founded Column Associates Beijing in the middle of 2009. While he seems to have been spared the horror stories many Westerners tell with regards to setting up a business in China, the process was far from easy, he says. “It took about seven months from the initial paperwork to getting it up and running. This is actually regarded as fairly swift; thankfully, I’d surrounded myself with the highly competent local staff. But I still went gray in 2009,” he jokes.

Column Associates now turns a profit. It specializes in recruiting local and foreign talent from the mid-management level and up for foreign corporations operating in China. Each of the consultants in the company’s busy hutong office focuses on niche markets in banking and technology. Leary himself concentrates on conditional access, digital rights management, broadcasting and satellite operators. “Knowing the industry in which you work is key,” he says.

“It’s fortunate for my business – though unfortunate for China – that most small search firms operating in the country today don’t know their industries. In fact, executive search in China these days is very much a kind of ‘Wild West,’” Leary says.

“In the professional sense, what many firms do isn’t really executive search at all. They just put advertisements up on weibo (Chinese Twitter) or job sites and receive replies from candidates who are actively looking for jobs. What we do, on the other hand, is to look for those who aren’t looking for us.”

Leary says his team eschews technology and goes “old school” – telephone calls, building relationships over dinners – to motivate people to move. “All this requires extensive training and development of our staff – something in which our competitors don’t seem to invest.”

All the big international recruitment companies are present in China. By and large they are volume recruiters – “chucking mud at a wall to see if some of it sticks” – is how Leary puts it. Boutique firms like Column Associates prefer to focus on presenting a lower volume of higher quality candidates to clients, for higher fees, of course.

It’s in this boutique side of the business that Leary says China is playing catch-up with the West. “What we do is best practice, I would argue. But after three years in the business, we still haven’t seen our boutique competitors moving away from Internet searches and crunching numbers to a more tailored, personal approach like ours. Change will come eventually, but only after a shake-out.”

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