The right aptitude
It took a while for Matthew Bennett to find his niche, but just a few months into his first role in the recruitment sector he was already sure that it was the place for him. Previously, seven jobs in four years after leaving boarding school in Australia had seen him try his hand at everything - from driving airport buses and rounding up cattle to selling mobile phones and computer hardware.
The net result was that he had a good idea about all the things he didn't want to do as a career, but couldn't see where to turn next. "I was struggling to find a direction and, in fact, my parents made me take a two-day aptitude test to work out what I should do. It said I was best suited to being a gardener," Bennett recalls.
Salvation came in the form of a friend's advice to give the recruitment sector a go. The logic was simple: it seemed a good fit for his personality as someone quick to learn and good at developing relationships. Also, an opening was available.
"Getting into recruitment was the turning point," says Bennett, who has now been in the industry for an unbroken 21 years and was promoted to Greater China managing director for Robert Walters in 2013. "From early on, I was lucky to have managers who led from the front, believed in me, and were clear about what I could achieve if I put my best foot forward. Later, getting married and starting a family also had a major impact on my career as it dawned on me that I was responsible for giving them the same sort of fortunate upbringing I had enjoyed."
The son of a shipping executive, Bennett spent much of his early life in Japan in a protected and privileged environment. What made the most lasting impression, though, was seeing the respect his father showed everyone in his office - from senior colleagues to the cleaning staff - and the concern he had for their welfare.
That is the general approach Bennett now looks to follow in his own dealings with clients, candidates and an expanding team. "I think success comes from creating an environment where there is open and honest communication. And, as a leader, I like to provide people with skills that are useful both in and outside the workplace. That helps them enjoy a better life, which can only be a positive."
The company's in-house "rules" include not staying unduly late in the office, switching off mobile devices for at least an hour on getting home, and keeping fit and eating healthily to reduce stress. They might all seem simple concepts, Bennett says, but they are capable of having a real impact on team spirit, enthusiasm and productivity. When coupled with a focus on long-term relationships and putting client and candidate interests first, they become the basis for a winning corporate philosophy.
"My view of management is that, rather than complicating the issue, you should focus on initiatives which are simple and clear, yet critical to the success of the business," says Bennett, who has been based in Hong Kong since 2000. "There is no point having a page of great ideas if you are not capable of executing them. Strategy is useless unless you can bring it to life, so why complicate things?"
That said, one current priority is running the rule over the mainland offices which are now part of his remit. The initial aim is to boost revenue and increase management effectiveness without adding to headcount there. Another goal is to achieve growth by taking market share from competitors in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
A third is to find ways of dealing with the effects that social media is having on the recruitment sector. In particular, these relate to how consultants make and maintain contacts and the relevant skill sets needed for managing each stage of the hiring process.
"Everyone is looking for the top 10 per cent of candidates in the market and doing their best to retain their top talent," Bennett says. "That means a lot can go wrong during the recruitment process if you are not close to candidate and client and communicating as they expect. Consultants need to hone their skills in managing the whole process, not just the initial stage of sourcing candidates, because too many projects still fall at the last hurdle."
As a keep-fit enthusiast and recent convert to meditation, Bennett leads by example when extolling the benefits of staying sharp by staying in shape. Lunchtimes often include a session at the gym and weekends are likely to see him out with friends paddling a surf kayak between Clear Water Bay and Stanley
"I work to live, not live to work, but I have also spent a lot of my personal time learning to be a better manager and a better leader," he says. "The recruitment business has given me a huge amount of opportunities, which is why I am so committed to doing the same for others. I tell people in our office that they control their own lives. If they are not enjoying something at work, they must do something to change their mindset or change their job. I feel strongly that no one should live a life which is unfulfilled."
BREAKING NEW GROUND
Matthew Bennett offers five ways to succeed in setting up a business unit
Do your homework "Make sure you have sufficient market knowledge about potential clients and likely competitors, and get a realistic idea of how big or scalable the business could be."
Pick leaders "Put the right people in place and, in particular, appoint a manager who is ready to take ownership of the unit and is not afraid of making decisions."
Specialise "A common mistake is to look at all kinds of opportunities rather than finding a 'sweet spot' where you can be an expert in the field."
Build a base "Establish a strong support network, which will be a big plus when is comes to cross-selling, making new contacts and picking up expertise."
Get backing "Be sure that you have the commitment of stakeholders. The streets are not paved with gold, so you need a long-term plan to build a business and backers who understand the challenge and are ready to give support."