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Money Moves

Defying downsizing

by Sophie Leung

Financial recruitment firm embraces financial downturn to source the best recruits

Nicholas Neal, managing director
Optimum Hong Kong Limited
Photo: Wallace Chan

Unlike many recruitment firms forced to downsize as a result of the US sub-prime crisis, one company has taken the bold step of starting a regional branch at such an uncertain time.

Compared to last year, the financial sector recruitment market is currently unsteady and the outlook will remain unstable for the coming months. Consequently, banks are navigating through the crisis by focusing on cost base, of which salaries constitute the largest portion of operating costs.

"This is a tough and challenging time to start a business, but I am confident we will capitalise on our efforts and quality service when the economy recovers," says Nicholas Neal, managing director, Optimum Hong Kong Limited. Mr Neal makes an analogy with the buy-low-sell-high approach in stock trading regarding the launch of the new company.

A specialist in recruitment for the banking and commerce finance sectors in Asia Pacific for more than 10 years, Mr Neal is convinced his realistic market view coupled with a determination to offer quality service are essential to sustain the company through the current turmoil. Experienced in confronting various economic crises as a recruiter, Mr Neal remarks with confidence, "Good recruiters can excel in spite of economic downturns."

Anticipating growth

At a time of doubtful financial expectations with an unfavourable market backdrop, Mr Neal stresses that most of the current job openings originated from replacement needs rather than business expansion. For example, in the last six months he has noticed a significant drop in demand in the areas of internal audit, compliance, risk and control room —t raditional back office support areas in financial institutions. Regarding future predications, Mr Neal envisages a similar situation for the coming six months.

"However, I have confidence in the future of the overall economic and financial environment and foresee the hedge fund sector as the major source of anticipated growth in Hong Kong's financial markets," notes Mr Neal, predicting job openings will result from newly launched hedge fund companies in Asia. He is also optimistic about specific markets associated with asset management.

From a regional perspective, Mr Neal has focused on Singapore as its sizable financial market is showing positive signs for growth. He adds, "Shanghai should not be ignored because its financial market is growing so rapidly. The market there currently demands numerous quality candidates to fill sales-related positions in the private equity and corporate finance sectors."

In addition, financial institutions in Shanghai which have managed to avoid substantial negative impact resulting from the US sub-prime crisis now enjoy a highly advantageous position and can subsequently hire the best people. In light of prospective growth, Mr Neal plans to extend Optimum's operations and open offices in Singapore and Shanghai later this year.

Partnership works

Regarding recruitment strategy, the company adopts a proactive and targeted approach when identifying candidates for specific employment opportunities, rather than solely managing a database. Mr Neal emphasises the importance of service quality, especially in a depressed market. To this end, he invests considerable time understanding client needs and discussing opportunities for growth at length.

He adds, "Industry-related knowledge and close client relationships are imperative to success. We are confident we can capitalise on the expertise and partnership model." To achieve this, Mr Neal ensures his team of consultants is poised and ready to offer the full range of recruitment services bolstered by their own market expertise rather than market inflation for profits.

For middle-level financiers, Mr Neal's observations are twofold: firstly, many of these top-notch professionals have already made a career move in the last two to three years; and secondly, many of them are now more aware of increased risk when considering a potential career shift. To people considering a change, his advice is clear: "Finance candidates should evaluate new job opportunities using a holistic approach rather than looking solely at title, salary or any single component of the role. They should pay attention to the actual career development on offer."

Mr Neal's final piece of advice is a reminder to jobseekers in the field to brush up their communication and interpersonal skills. As an experienced recruiter himself, he can immediately see if a candidate is commercially smart in responding to difficult situations or just reiterating textbook responses. "While professional qualifications are the pre-requisites for most openings, candidates should focus on developing their soft skills and decide if they can fit into a specific corporate culture," concludes Mr Neal.

Against the odds

  • Quality service still pays in spite of market downturn
  • Knowledge and relationships fundamental to recruitment success
  • Hedge fund sector to see future growth
  • Singapore and Shanghai show great financial potential


Taken from Career Times 18 July 2008, p. A6

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