From the March 2008 issue of Treasury & Risk magazine

Labor's Capitalist Problem

Until now, most multinationals in China haven't done much in the way of building in-country treasury operations. Many followed a more centralized, global treasury strategy that didn't always require staff in China. But, as a few leading edge companies, such as General Electric, Intel and Honeywell, pursue a more China-specific treasury approach and realize the operating advantage local talent can provide, that's likely to change--and in a big way.

More employers are expected to tap the relatively shallow labor pool for treasury as they expand their on-the-ground capabilities in China, potentially leading over the next couple of years to a recruiting frenzy akin to the gold rush of the late 1990s in Silicon Valley. "It would be fair to say that the treasury market segment is still in its infancy," says Pui Yee Lee, director of international treasury for Honeywell International Inc.

It's a simple case of supply and demand. Normally, candidates for such jobs in emerging markets could come from the domestic banking system or large companies, but given the strict regulation and limited use of foreign currency, Chinese banks in particular have had little need to develop the kind of sophisticated treasury skill set most multinationals are accustomed to working with. Even the smallest uptick can put pressure on such a limited supply.

Sheng Lu, a Shanghai-based partner for executive recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles, agrees that a boom lies ahead as companies change to a more decentralized treasury structure. Although he says "it's anyone's guess" as to how many jobs will be created, he said the prediction by some observers that the number of treasury jobs in China could triple in the next five years is not ludicrous.

It would not be the first time for the Chinese. Several years ago, the banks endured competitive hiring pressure in China as big global players raced to suck up bilingual professionals familiar with both U.S. and Chinese banking regulation. With both banks and corporates on the prowl, "a lot of corporations and banks [will end up] chasing the same talent pool," notes Lisa Robins, JPMorgan managing director of treasury services in China and branch manager for Beijing.

That leads to a cut-throat market, headhunters combing the landscape for the few qualified managers already in the region or with significant experience there. According to Brian Fenerty, general manager for Admark Asia, a recruiting firm based in Shanghai, the main way to find candidates is "sourcing somebody directly from a competitor"--or as we label the activity states-side, poaching employees.

A more benign way of recruiting involves working with the universities in Shanghai and Beijing to attract the many math, economics and business majors interested in working for U.S. companies. "There's a great deal of strength on the technical side [in the universities]," reports Robins.

This works best with entry-level and some mid-level postings, but can involve considerable resources to train these candidates. Besides learning the specifics of an industry and a company's culture, these candidates may have to learn basic business skills and would certainly need training in U.S. regulation in such areas as money laundering or bribery. JPMorgan also tends to send junior-level hires to work in the U.S., Europe or other countries for a protracted period.

Management and supervision of these employees, of course, is especially critical. JPMorgan, for example, has made an effort to install a handful of savvy senior-level managers familiar with Chinese culture and able to speak Mandarin Chinese, who can provide on-the-ground guidance, creating what Robins calls "the bench strength for the next level." Having already worked for the bank in Paris, Hong Kong, and the U.S., Robins herself was moved to Beijing last summer to help nurture new talent.

Outside mainland China, companies can look for recruits in Hong Kong and Singapore, where they are more likely to find mid-to-senior level people with applicable experience. But while the market is far more advanced, so too are the salaries.

Another tack is to try native Chinese who left the country 10 to 20 years ago to attend school in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore or the U.S. Now, 35 to 45 years old, the population wants to return home and take advantage of the booming Chinese economy, a "reverse brain drain," according to Heidrick & Struggle's Sheng Lu.

But when looking for more seasoned executives, particularly in finance and treasury, the essential elements do not only revolve around the skill set. In a society famous for its emphasis on doing business based on long-term relationships, companies need people with established ties to key partners, as well as government officials. The emphasis could, in fact, be on cultural savvy rather than treasury smarts when choosing for new treasury operations. "You may hire people not because they're stars, but because they have great relationships," says Fenerty.

One bright spot for treasury recruitment in China is how long people seem to stay in these jobs once they get them--at least compared to those in other areas. The average hovers around two years. "The type of person who goes into these jobs is looking for more stability than the usual marketing or human resources manager," says Fenerty. Still, a company can expect to give 15% to 30% pay raises if you want to keep people on board.

Another key to retaining experienced executives or even new recruits is to make sure the company continually gives them more responsibility. At Honeywell, for instance, there is literally a meeting of key finance executives on a regular basis to review the use of talent and ensure employees get proper encouragement. "In this market," says Fenerty, "responsibility is as important as money."

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