Headhunters ride on growth

Updated: 2011-05-27 10:47

By Alexandra Leyton Espinoza (China Daily European Weekly)

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 Headhunters ride on growth

Ben Leary, CEO of Column Associates, says as China develops, it needs to rely more on new skills and new labor techniques to run businesses. Alexandra Leyton Espinoza / for China Daily

Recruiters aim to plug HR gap as country powers ahead

China will need about 70,000 globally experienced managers within four years, but it has about only 4,000 to 5,000 now. English headhunter Ben Leary, CEO of Column Associates, says he is in Beijing to speed up the process.

"I was expecting a workforce less advanced and less opened to new ideas when I first arrived in China," he says.

"In reality, Chinese employees are some of the most receptive people to training and development I've ever met."

Leary arrived here three years ago after working for more than 17 years in the executive management industry, recruiting for the banking and technology and industries.

On arrival, he was the director of talent management for a global software company and was disappointed with his experience.

"Having spent 12 months working in a global software company, I was afforded the opportunity to meet with a majority of my competitors and I wasn't impressed," he says.

"I noticed many recruitment agencies masqueraded as headhunters in China. Sometimes it felt like the Wild West; everyone is entering China at the same time to a young industry that is still learning."

After one year he started Column Associates, which provides high-level talent acquisition solutions and human resources (HR) consultancy services to the banking and technology industry in China.

"The strategy was to replicate the levels of service Column Associates deliver in the rest of the world, at a price point that was acceptable in a price sensitive market such as China," he says.

"Selecting suppliers in China is a minefield, understanding the difference between a true headhunter and recruitment agencies takes time. Once you work with a true search firm, you understand the difference in value."

According to Wen Zanling, HR specialist of talent management at Ethos Technologies, the obvious benefits of a headhunter is that they can recruit challenging positions on short notice. For higher-level positions, such as managers and executives, regular company recruiters find it difficult.

"Such candidates usually don't post on portals. They find headhunters to help them with their job searches. In those cases, it makes sense to use a headhunter," she says.

Ethos Technologies will not use headhunters for entry- or mid-level positions. They are "cost prohibitive" and often the candidates provided are the exact ones that the company would have found itself, she says.

"We've heard of candidates directly request one salary, but through the headhunter request a higher number," she says.

"It's beneficial to the headhunter. It's also beneficial to the candidate. But this inflates the market and most likely prices them out of our range."

Wen says headhunters will proactively call employees at companies and encourage them to leave before they otherwise might.

"This is bothersome for employers, but ultimately just a reminder

to the employer that they need to work harder to keep their people happy."

Ethos has also used Internet tools such as LinkedIn to recruit, but have not successfully hired anyone.

"Mainly it's because most candidates on LinkedIn are from overseas and they want salaries comparable to that offered in the US and Europe," she says.

"We use LinkedIn mainly to look at people's backgrounds and see if we have common friends who can act as references."

Leary says many companies in China that profess to search for candidates tend to rely heavily on online advertisements, databases or Internet tools such as LinkedIn,, Zhaopin or Ushi.

"This way, companies in China are being presented with candidates who are active job seekers or the best of the happy and unemployed. It's a method that is used for low-level recruitment in Europe and not for headhunting," he says.

Leary says executive searches utilize high-level interview techniques and contacts and has been around in the halls of Cambridge and Oxford in the "old boy's school network" over hundreds of years.

"It's very easy to attract unhappy people. It doesn't take any skill from the recruitment company. Headhunters work with organizations on specific mandates to source the best of the best individuals from the market," he says.

"The non-active job seekers, those that are happily employed, are the ones that are actually doing a great job for their current company."

Because of the rapidly developing market in China, it is not only hard to find the right individuals for the right jobs but also to avoid nepotism, which plagues many Chinese companies.

"At the moment, the current employment in China that I noticed is many times based on personal relationships," he says.

"Of course we also build relationships or guanxi, but as China develops it needs to rely more on new skills, new labor techniques and not on senior managers or their friends to run businesses."

One other big difference is that HR departments inside Chinese companies have a greater influence in the decision-making process compared to that of multinational companies, where HR often supports the hiring manager in policies but are not included in the final decision.

"The positive side is that HR adds structure to the overall interview process and more knowledge when it comes to contract issues, benchmarking and on boarding candidates. The negatives come when too many key stakeholders are influencing and making decisions," he says.

China's very young and underdeveloped recruitment landscape is what has made Leary's first years in the country interesting and exciting. It makes him feel like an apprentice, not far away from the role he had when The American TV-show, The Apprentice, was launched in the UK through the BBC.

Together with 12 other candidates, they were competing for a job for British business magnet Lord Alan Sugar.

"My experience in the TV show The Apprentice gave me new challenges and a number of business situations. Incorporating a company in China is exactly the same, except it's not on television being viewed by millions. You are allowed to make mistakes," he says.

The first year is always a struggle for newly formed companies in China. He also found it hard to attract the right talent for his company, employees in China who could develop business in China with multinationals.

"I have started companies in the West, where the process is simple compared to the minefield of issues you face in incorporating a company in China, as with many other processes in China," he says.

"I was warned by my mentor back in the UK that making a business profitable in China takes two things, patience and money."

The patience has started to pay off. The company has already established relationships with a number of global international companies, and Leary has been invited to talk about business on the radio as a way to exchange knowledge with other companies in the industry.

"We try to give back to the community by holding seminars in schools and educating Chinese youth about business," he says.

"I always liked the idea of helping people build their futures, that's how I fell into this industry. And for myself, it's incredibly rewarding to be part of such an exciting economy."


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