Finance Chiefs Urgently Wanted -- At Almost Any Price

Here’s good news for Asia’s CFOs: Headhunters and the companies they work for in this region are laying out the red carpet for you.

“Right now, there is a shortage of qualified candidates, from CFOs to compliance people to risk people, even treasurers and accountants,” says Pallavi Anand, Director of finance recruitment firm Robert Half Hong Kong. In the company’s latest workplace survey, 90% of respondents across Asia said their company is struggling to find skilled finance professionals, particularly those based in Hong Kong and Singapore.
Those findings, however, also bring not-so-good news for the CFO. Sure, you may now more easily find your dream job, one that involves stimulating challenges in a city where you’ve always wanted to live and attached to a very comfortable compensation package.
But you are also likely to find that your first order of business is the same as in your old job: to make sure the current finance team stays intact and bolster it with the recruitment of capable and experienced new people – the same challenge, as it happens, facing 90% of your peers. There are ways to make this happen, as discussed in “How to Retain the Mid-Career Finance Manager.”
Whether the CFO stays in his current job or moves on to another company, the tasks of retention and recruitment are getting more expensive. Anand reports that 35% of employers in the Robert Half survey are having to raise salaries and incentives, some by as much as 50%. “You’ve got sign-up bonuses as well,” she adds.
But companies may have little choice. According to the Robert Half survey, 45% of finance professionals in Hong Kong plan to look for employment or a promotion with a new company in the next two years.
Sellers’ Market
For the CFO looking to move up, the climate has never been better. If you have the right credentials and track record, you can essentially write your own ticket. It is effectively a sellers’ market out there, especially in Singapore and Hong Kong, which host the Asia Pacific headquarters of many of the world’s multinationals.
Their footprint in Asia is growing ever larger. The world’s Fortune 500 companies have long had a presence in the region. They are now expanding as economic and business prospects in China, India, East Asia and Southeast Asia look brighter even as they slim down in the US and Europe. Global bank HSBC, for example, has announced plans to lay off 30,000 employees over two years – but recently hired 1,500 new workers in Asia Pacific.
“There’s another wave of companies coming in,” adds Victor Penna, Head of Regional Solutions & Advisory Team, Asia Pacific, at J.P.Morgan Treasury Services, referring to “Fortune 1,000 companies and below that are now looking to set up regional treasury centres” – and to expand the finance function. Local enterprises such as Lenovo in China and Tata in India are expanding as well.
All this is stimulating demand for mid- to senior-level finance talent. “You’ve actually got a lot of entry-level staff that are coming in,” explains Anand, as universities and accounting schools churn out a steady stream of finance and business graduates. “There isn’t a talent shortage there.”
She is hopeful that those entry-level staffers will eventually be trained up into the senior levels. “That will help the problem take care of itself,” says Anand, “but it will take a while for us to get there.” Indeed, 58% of Hong Kong respondents in the Robert Half survey still expect “a chronic shortage” of finance talent going forward.
According to the survey, says Anand, about 30% of Hong Kong executives are experiencing difficulties filling up posts in finance, up 11 percentage points from last year, while 24% say the same thing for compliance positions, up 8 percentage points.
Getting on the Train
So how can CFOs get in on the action? You should have the right skill sets and track record. “If you are trilingual, where you can speak Cantonese, English and Mandarin, that definitely works in your advantage [in Hong Kong and China],” says Anand. “But there are lots of people that are not tri- or bilingual but have the skill sets, and they are doing perfectly well. At the end of the day, the emphasis is on the skill sets.”
People in compliance and risk are particularly in demand. “These are two areas that I would say companies would pay an arm and a leg for,” says Anand. But hands-on experience, not just paper qualifications, is required. “I would say three years-plus [of experience], but even having two to three years, you would definitely have a lot of employers interested in talking to you.”
Being on a recruiter’s radar is also helpful. Robert Half maintains a list of finance executives whom Anand describes as “passive candidates” – these are people that are not actively looking for another job, but have developed a relationship with recruitment firms as a client, for example, or a social contact. “They are only happy to learn about certain opportunities that tick some of their boxes and will give them an immediate career jump,” explains Anand.
You can also get in touch with recruiters directly. “You might know that, 12 months from now, the company will be offshoring to India or the Philippines and your role will not be required,” says Anand. “So you can approach a headhunter like us and ask, ‘Can you keep a lookout, and anything that comes up, I would be happy to be informed of it, but I’m not actively looking until 12 months from now.”
You can also approach the particular company you’re interested in. “Many job seekers seem to think that the only way they can gain direct access to employers is either by applying to a job advertisement or applying through an employment agency,” says recruiter Brian Moore, who runs a company that bears his name. “You can send your CV directly to the company.”
Contact the CEO or functional line manager rather than the HR department, he advises. “You can benefit further by trying to reach the contact first on the phone,” says Moore. “You may even manage to secure an interview. Even if the meeting is simply an information sharing session, it is the perfect opportunity for you to ‘sow the seed’ so you’ll be considered when the opportunity rises.”
Free Advice
In the current talent-short environment, many recruiters don’t even charge candidates for their services – they are paid by the employer. Robert Half’s business model has never included charging candidates, says Anand, even though its consultants provide advice on “everything from educating them about the market to what they can do to enhance their skill sets.”
“Everybody gets a little rusty,” Anand observes. “Headhunters can definitely assist a senior candidate with what sort of [interview] questions they could come across, what today’s employers are looking for and how to tweak their resume or themselves. Image makes a big difference today, how you present yourself and how you come across.”
Anand also advises finance professionals to network. “At the level of CFOs you get most of your opportunities by networking, whether it is your headhunter or people from the same industry at that senior level,” she says.
“If you’ve just started off your career and you’re only two years into it, you should stay with the company and get a solid number of years of experience, that would be three or over, before you decide to change,” she adds. “Acquire as much training and development at the company you’re at to better your skills. Employers always like a stable resume, and stable usually means a minimum of at least three years – that shows some sort of longevity.”
Note of Caution
Be aware of the downside, however. “There are recruiters who ask for permission to send your CV to a potential employer won’t tell you who the employer is,” says Moore. “It’s up to you, but personally I would never allow my CV to be sent to a company unless I know who the company is and am happy with it. You could be placed in a vulnerable position.”
And remember that today’s sellers’ market can easily turn into a buyers’ one tomorrow. Even senior finance people got fired during the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009.  
Some savvy CFOs had taken the opportunity to hire the best of them to strengthen their teams. That’s a good lesson to draw from if a double-dip recession occurs, as some analysts fear.
About the Author
Cesar Bacani is Editor-in-Chief of CFO Innovation.

Suggested Articles

Some of you might have already been aware of the news that Questex—with the aim to focus on event business—will shut down permanently all media brands in Asia…

Some advice for transitioning into an advisory role

Global risks are intensifying but the collective will to tackle them appears to be lacking. Check out this report for areas of concern