Why Asia's Hot Finance Jobs Market May Be Cooling

What a difference a few weeks can make. Last month, CFO Innovation published a story about how Asian companies are laying out the red carpet in recruiting CFOs and other finance executives for their expanding businesses. “It is effectively a sellers’ market out there,” we wrote, “especially in Singapore and Hong Kong, which host the Asia Pacific headquarters of many of the world’s multinationals.”

But it seems that gravity is now reasserting itself. Renewed fears about a sovereign default by Greece and the impact on Europe and the rest of the world, slower than expected growth in the US and a spate of announcements about employee firings at Bank of America, HSBC and other banks are fuelling uncertainty – and may be starting to crimp the expansion plans of many organisations.
At least that is the view of Eunice Ng, Director at Hong Kong’s Avanza Consulting. She is detecting a bit more caution in the recruitment of finance professionals because of the current volatility. “I worked on recruitment [for a senior finance post] in another Asian country,” she recounts. “The candidate already passed the CFO and the CEO and only had to meet the business partner in Hong Kong.”
When the macro-economic environment changed, however, “they no longer had the urgency,” says Ng. “They now want to defer [the recruitment] to the end of the year.” Another client in Hong Kong has decided to trim the compensation package it is willing to offer. Instead of recruiting a senior finance director, it is now looking for a controller who will be paid about 10% lower. “But the job is the same, the same qualifications, the same experience,” says Ng.  
It is too early to say whether these anecdotes add up to a trend reversal. Our previous story was based on a survey commissioned by executive headhunter Robert Half in June, which questioned 3,542 HR and finance and accounting professionals in Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. The current economic volatility started in August, when the US lost its triple-A credit rating from Standard & Poor’s.
Wanted: Commercial savvy
Avanza still paints a picture of robust demand for finance professionals – but mainly for senior people who speak and read English and Mandarin and who demonstrate commercial sense. For these candidates, says Ng, companies will consider hefty salary packages and other perks, including signing bonuses, which are consistent with the findings of the Robert Half workplace survey.
“A candidate with a superb background is always the most popular candidate,” she says. “Yesterday, I spoke to a CFO and she told me, ‘You know what? It’s been quiet for almost half a year, but suddenly in these two months I received so many calls from recruiters.’” This CFO is trilingual – she speaks English, Mandarin and Cantonese – and is focused on business partnering, not just on closing the books on time or being a compliance person.
“No matter if you are a functional expert or a well-rounded generalist as head of finance, you need to have a fabulous commercial sense,” says Ng. “Commercial savvy, this is very important. Senior finance managers will be called upon by the MD or CEO in the absence of the CFO. Even if you are the head of tax or internal audit head, you will need to be commercially savvy; you can’t just put forward the compliance aspects or the data.” You will need to frame the information in the context of the company’s commercial operations.
Also essential, says Ng, are the soft skills – the ability to communicate, inspire and get along well with superiors, peers and subordinates. “A lot of candidates fail not because of technical skills, but because they lack the soft skills that companies are looking for.”  
Are You an A, B or C?
It is common practice for headhunters to screen candidates on these qualities. Avanza maintains a database that Ng says contains thousands of names. The candidates are categorised into A, B and C. Those in C are regarded as difficult to place, but may be upgraded to B if they become fluent in Mandarin, for example, or demonstrate improved communication and people skills.   
What is Avanza looking for in a candidate? Ng enumerates some of the more important attributes:
Asia experience. Priority is given to those with a recent career history in the region. “But those with experience in other continents will not be screened out,” says Ng. “We will see what sort of companies they’ve worked with,” such as a multinational with a presence in Asian markets.
Academic qualifications. “We are looking for someone from a proper, legitimate school,” she says. An institution that no one has heard of will be a red flag. This applies to membership in legitimate professional institutes as well, such as ICPAS, HKICPA, ACCA and CIMA.  
Job history. Someone who changes jobs frequently or was unemployed for a period of time will need to have “interesting reasons” to explain why, says Ng. “Six months, one year, two years – you have to be patient, especially if you are climbing to the senior level.” Avanza will look at the last 10 to 15 years of the candidate’s work history.
References. “In the past, companies would conduct reference checks only when they make an offer,” says Ng. “These days, we push it in advance. We want to make sure the information is legitimate, especially when candidates are from overseas.” Avanza will contact the referees cited in the CV.
Soft skills. Interactions with the candidate will be an opportunity for Avanza to get a feel of his or her emotional quotient (EQ), ability to communicate and inspire, fluency in English, Chinese and other languages, and interpersonal skills. Someone who is inarticulate, who defensively questions certain lines of questioning or who is closed and unresponsive is likely to be seen as C material.
Motivation. Why do you want to change jobs? “There are usually three things: title, money or job content,” says Ng. “We rarely place candidates who talk only about money because he or she can easily move somewhere else [with a higher offer]. We focus more on their aspiration, the title and job content.”
Watch the June quarter
For the right candidate, says Ng, annual compensation packages these days can range from the equivalent of US$180,000 to US$500,000, depending on the scope of responsibility (regional CFOs are still in demand, but country CFOs for Thailand, for example, are also sought after), size of the company and seniority.
Companies are not looking only for CFO-types, but also for experts in four functional areas: tax, treasury, internal audit and compliance. “A lot of clients are also seeking well-rounded executives, for example, a planning and analysis head of finance who will also look after treasury,” says Ng.    
Another hot post is business process controller. “These days a lot of companies are driving new systems changes,” says Ng. “Finance talent with systems savvy – ERP, SAP – are very popular too. We’ve placed at least three business process control heads for Asia and also for China.”
Given the global economic uncertainty, however, should finance professionals even think of switching jobs today? There’s a seasonality to recruitment, says Ng. The fourth quarter is normally when companies start planning and budgeting for the coming year. The inward focus typically puts recruitment and promotion on the back burner. The hiring machine then comes to life around the middle of the year.  
By June next year, we may get clarity on the crisis in Europe and the fallout on European banks as well as the debt and employment problems in the US crises. This should also clarify the financial jobs situation in Asia. In the meantime, it is not a bad idea for senior finance professionals to brush up on their language, business partnering and people skills, which are assets in their current job – and, equally important, for their future aspirations.
About the Author
Cesar Bacani is Editor-in-Chief at CFO Innovation.

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