Career Advice Company Initiatives

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Michael Page is looking for smart recruitment consultants as it goes from strength to strength in China

Michael Page is already the largest international executive recruitment business operating on the mainland. However, according to Anthony Thompson, the regional managing director for Greater China of the firm’s parent company, PageGroup, it could double the size of its workforce over the next three to five years – if it wasn’t for just one issue.

“The only thing that will limit our growth is our ability to hire, train and retain the best available people,” Thompson says. “[A workforce of] over 400 people is large by recruitment-company standards in Greater China, but very small relative to the market size.”

To accommodate some of the new consultants it plans to take on, Michael Page has recently acquired more office space in Shanghai and Guangzhou. Thompson says there is also substantial appetite for growth in its Suzhou, Shenzhen, Beijing, Taiwan and Hong Kong offices.

“We’re taking a greater market share in a constantly expanding market,” he says. “The majority of companies in mainland China have always recruited directly, but this is changing. More and more companies are recognising the value of using an effective recruitment partner.”

Thompson, who has 13 years of experience in the Chinese recruitment market, points out that there have, of course, been huge changes in China’s economy over the last decade.

“When we first started working in southern China ten years ago, it was a base for very high-volume and low-margin manufacturing,” he says. “If you now look at some of the big companies we work with, such as Huawei, Mindray and Tencent, they are hi-tech, high-margin manufacturing companies which place a strong emphasis on research and development as opposed to putting pretty basic widgets together. So places like Shenzhen, and to an extent Guangzhou, have probably become too expensive for companies to rely on for high-volume and low-margin production. Those activities have moved into central or western China, or other locations, such as Vietnam.”

Other changes have also become apparent.  “Ten years ago, the vast majority of our clients in China were foreign companies,” Thompson says. “Looking at the business now, the proportion of our client base that is made up of state-owned enterprises, or companies of Chinese origin or ownership, is growing rapidly – it’s well over 30 per cent in some locations. Building these relationships has required a long-term approach and a willingness to build trust and prove ourselves over a number of years.”

This process has caused the company to change its perspective. “Over time we have become more and more aware of the importance of understanding the market we’re working within,” Thompson says. “I’m sure 20 years ago we were a very British company, operating in a very British way. Nowadays that doesn’t work. For example, our [online] marketing material in China is in Chinese, with a tab if someone wants to look at it in English. Five, six or seven years ago, the material would have been in English with a tab to hit if you wanted to read it in Chinese.”

Being in the recruitment business doesn’t make it any easier for Michael Page when it comes to finding and hiring its own staff, Thompson says. “You are dealing with people and not products, and it’s not an exact science,” he says. Those who do join the company, however, require attributes that go beyond tertiary qualifications and a track record of success at work or in academia.

“Is an individual someone who is likely to be trusted and is credible? It’s their energy, enthusiasm and interpersonal skills that most companies look for,” Thompson says. “Ninety per cent of our staff in mainland China speak Putonghua, but Chinese language skills are not always essential. An open mind, cultural sensitivity and strong communication skills, however, are.”

Thompson says there is a sense of loyalty between staff and employer at Michael Page that works in both directions.

“A lot of the senior management team have been here longer than me, which is pretty unusual for the recruitment industry, which tends to be quite transient. Most of our competitors tend to go out and buy other recruitment companies and bring in very senior people from outside. We don’t do that – we believe in organic growth,” he says.

“Someone who works here can generally see where their career path is going and they know there’s not going to be someone brought in above them from outside the business. How quickly they get to that level is up to them, but it’s a meritocracy and that eliminates quite a lot of disappointment. Maybe we would grow faster in some locations if we went and bought another recruitment company, but long term, that won’t be right for the business culture.”


RETAIL "This is in response to a rapidly expanding middle-class and technological developments."

PROPERTY, REAL ESTATE AND CONSTRUCTION "A lot of this is because of retail development all over China aimed at serving a more discerning and demanding consumer base with an increasingly international outlook."

TECHNOLOGY "This is in terms of both R&D and manufacturing. As the industry becomes more and more sophisticated, candidates who have been educated, or have worked internationally, are increasingly in demand."

FAST-MOVING CONSUMER GOODS "As more brands enter the market, how a company presents itself is becoming more important - it's not just about price anymore."

PHARMACEUTICALS AND HEALTH CARE "This encompasses everything from selling and marketing to R&D and new products. More and more people are also looking to go private, as opposed to using government-provided health-care products and services."