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Global recruiter Robert Walters on world growth hot spots, and, Ireland’s prospects Back
Chief executive of the global recruitment giant, ROBERT WALTERS in an interview with DUSTIN O’NEILL talks about the Asia Pacific market’s role as the driver of fee incomes for his firm. He says the Irish unit of Robert Walters has returned to profit and is well positioned to enjoy the benefits of a rising economy.
Established in 1985 to place accountants into corporates in London, the Robert Walters Group has since developed a strong international profile now having 44 offices in 21 countries and employing 2001 people. It has been this international business that has underpinned the firm’s recent growth as it copes with a challenging UK market. Asia Pacific in particular has driven revenues. The firm moved into the Chinese recruitment market in 2008 through its investment in Talentspotter, where it purchased a 70 per cent stake, the legal limit for foreign ownership at the time. The Chinese firm had two offices, in Shanghai and Suzhou, a city of 8 million people that Walters openly admits he had never heard of. Talentspotter was completely rebranded within two months of the deal - this fast-track rebranding was insisted upon by his Chinese co-investor - and the firm has already grown from 40 employees to 180 employees with two new offices in Beijing and Nanjing. 'The scope for growth in China is as infinite as I have seen in any market,' says Walters. 'We are seeing wage inflation of 15-20 per cent and the average placement in China is not far off a placement in the UK'. The Asia-Pacific region currently accounts for 50 per cent of the firm's income and about 70-75 per cent of the company's profits and Walters says the firm will become increasingly Asia-Pacific-centric in the coming years with new offices in Jakarta and Taipei in the pipeline.
Robert Walters


Japan is the firm's third most profitable office and is what Walters describes as a special case as he sees 'a cultural shift' in employment habits and an internationalisation of the economy where bi-lingual candidates can call the shots and where commissions are about 40 per cent. On the other hand the Australian market, the destination of many Irish professional emigrants, is 'overbroked' in his opinion with commissions averaging 20 per cent. He says the recruitment market is two-speed in Australia at the moment with the east and west coasts booming and the banking downturn weighing on Sydney in the centre.

Turning to other markets the firm is targeting South America as its next big step - the firm currently has an office in Sao Paolo and is hoping to expand its network in the coming years. Another hotspot he identifies is Mongolia, which will be catered for through an expansion westwards of the Chinese subsidiary. He also sees opportunities in Europe and in particular Germany. Walters admits that the firm's 'biggest mistake' was pulling out of the German market in 2002.

The firm has since reentered the German market and has offices in Frankfurt and Dusseldorf, but 'it has taken an long time to get back in.' He says the German employment market has improved in terms of flexibility and it has 'an attractive competitor landscape' - with currently only one main player in the market - and Walters intends 'to spoil their party'.

Recruiter's landscape
The economic downturn has led to a polarisation of the global recruitment industry says Walters which has seen a 'Darwinian, survival of the fittest' with most large players being able to absorb losses and survive and many medium sized firms dropping out, leaving just one or two large players and a wide range of small boutique firms in each market. Walters sees a bright future for the recruitment sector, he feels the internet and online networking sites such as Linked-In don't pose a threat to recruiters, and have, in fact, made them more relevant than ever. 'There is too much information out there, there is no disintermediation of information and this has made the need for recruiters greater than in the past, but for different reasons.'

Irish office
While the firm had to 'flex' the business in the downturn, which included downsizing the Irish office, the global nature of the business has helped it to weather the storm caused by the financial crisis (in Ireland and globally) says Walters. He admits that there had been some 'pain' in Dublin, however, the Irish operation only experienced one year of losses and is now profitable once again 'and well positioned to enjoy the benefits of a rising economy.' Walters is upbeat about the Irish economy and says, 'Ireland has all the credit for facing up to its problems and the fact that major companies are still coming here will make it more attractive for people returning from places like Australia.'

The increasing amount of global financial regulations such as Solvency II, Basel III and AIFMD have created a strong demand for compliance professionals as companies look to sure up their compliance functions according to Walters. 'We are getting more and more legislation, not less...this is creating a mountain of complexity in which everybody has to become a specialist.'

This is a view shared by the firm's managing director in Ireland, Louise Campbell. 'In Ireland we are seeing huge candidate shortages for our clients in niche areas such as risk and compliance...what we are seeing is that for our clients there is now no such thing as a generic accountant or lawyer - they are looking for specialists. They want professionals who have experience with Basel III or Solvency II, and if they can speak German as well, all the better. It is a big change from a few years ago.'

Such is the demand in these areas, that there have been instances where finance professionals on 12-month contracts are being offered completion bonuses, something unheard of up until recently she added. The demand has also led to salary increases with Robert Walters' latest salary survey showing an increase in basic salary from €100,000+ to €110,000-130,000+ for head of compliance positions in Ireland while chief risk officers can command a basic salary of €130,000-150,000.

There is also a very strong demand for internal auditors, with the firm reporting a candidate shortage in the area as a large amount of newly qualified accountants in Ireland are emigrating to Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
The shift in emigration amongst professionals is clear when you consider that Robert Walters' Irish office used to 'import' and 'export' an equal amount of professionals during the Celtic Tiger years. Currently, international placements involving the Irish office are working out at 90 per cent leaving Ireland and 10 per cent arriving in Ireland.
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