Duncan Harrison is the country manager for Robert Walters Korea, the local branch of a specialist recruitment consultancy with offices in 24 countries. Business Korea sat down with him at his offices in the Euljiro district of Seoul to ask him about the employment scene in Seoul for professionals, Robert Walters’ growth in the local market, what sets the company apart, and his own personal experience. What follows are excerpts from the interview.
Has Robert Walters been in Korea for a long time? What makes it stand out, in your opinion?
Robert Walters has been in Korea for five years. Robert Walters himself came out for the five year anniversary.
I’d say the biggest differentiator is that our consultants don’t work on commission. Each of our consultants gets paid a salary. Candidates get fitted by meeting them and building relationships for the future. Each industry is very specialized, so each consultant has a very focused area that they work on. For instance, we work on tech positions for the gaming industry, or certain back office positions – very specialized. When a client calls in and wants to go over the details of the position, they can do that. Our focus is quality over quantity. We always promise our clients to not send more than four or five resumes. Our company policy is that we must interview every candidate before sending them on to our client. We only send a resume after meeting the person and doing a reference check.
Would you consider your company’s focus to be placing Korean professionals in international organizations, international professionals in Korean organizations, or a bit of both?
Ninety-nine percent of our focus is on placing Koreans into multinational companies here. That is the vast majority of what we do. Occasionally we'll get a position for a Korean speaker. For instance, we recently placed a Korean-speaking IT person in a company in Singapore. But the majority is placing Koreans that speak English into multinational companies inside Korea.
Can you give a little background on your experience? What were you doing before your current position as the country manager for Robert Walters Korea?
I moved to Japan 10 years ago for one year, and ended up liking it and staying there. I wondered what could I do that would allow me to stay and that would have a bit more career focus to it. So I decided on recruitment. I joined the Tokyo office there at the associate level, recruiting finance and accounting talent there. I worked my way up the promotion chain until July of last year, when I moved to Korea. There are more than 200 people in Robert Walters in Japan working in an organized, big office. But here in Korea we are still in the startup phase.
My background was in sales, so it was a good fit. I was quite young when I joined Robert Walters, only 23. They had five people at a young age that joined as consultants, the lowest rank in the Japanese office.
What does “sales” mean in this kind of business?
There are lots of jobs working with us. People need to develop their own business and career. But our consultants sometimes need to convince those candidates to move to better positions. That kind of differentiates us from similar, more local, agencies. We are out there finding the top percentage of candidates. We approach them and target them to work for our target companies.
Consultants have two different focuses. They need to develop their own clients and need to find candidates that are not actively looking. So they do very targeted, head-on things. We cover a lot of different industries. Consultants develop a client base, a list of companies, and then they target employees of companies in an industry that we are not working with. It is a consultant’s job to generate candidates from those companies.
What particular strategy do you use to differentiate target companies from client companies?
It is mostly trial and error. Automotive, chemical, life sciences, consumer retail, IT, online gaming -- each of those areas has a sales and marketing team. We work with companies and see how good the working relationship is; how easy or difficult. The ones where we make placements at, we'll continue that. If the company is taking up a lot of time, though, we won't develop them as a client, but we'll target candidates that are working for them. This whole process is trial and error. And, of course, there are a lot of regional agreements in place in China and Japan. We have to be careful to not work with too many companies in each industry.
What are your responsibilities and goals in your current position?
Basically I am growing and developing the company here as much as possible. When I was in Japan, a country with double the population, there were over 200 people working there. When I first came here, there were only 8 or 9 people, so it was a bit of a mismatch. The Korea office shouldn't have been as small as it was considering the size of the economy and population. Korea is the 11th largest economy in the world! So I made a miniature version of the Japan office with specialized teams. We see growth potential here, so we're aggressively hiring consultants, growing it as quickly and efficiently as possible. There is capacity here for 65 to 70 people, and we’re working to get that filled as soon as possible.
What do you look for when hiring your own employees?
What separates us from others is that we hire potential candidates to work for us. For instance, the banking team guy is a former banker. We want ones that really know about the industry and have gotten experience working there. That is our target. We try to turn our candidates into consultants. Also, it is a fast-paced environment. We use English at the desk, so we mostly look for people who have lived overseas or worked in an international environment. If they have sales experience then they are good.
What about candidates? What kind of candidates do you pursue?
It varies from industry to industry. We always value specialization. Clients always look for people with experience overseas. We look for a range of positions, mostly with 3 or 4 years of experience. Common things that clients like to see are being open minded, with the ability to speak up, and showing creativity -- not people that are going to be very much fixed on working within a hierarchical system. Western companies don't like hierarchical systems so much. The exception to those rules might be engineering positions. Any front office or finance department looks for experience working in an international company. Actually, that’s how we differentiate ourselves from our competitors. The vast majority of our candidates has worked at an international company and can speak and work in English.
What advice can you give to the job-seekers that you look to work with?
I’d give a message to people who are not actively looking for a job. They may be quite happy with a position at the moment, but it’s always worth it to have a relationship with a Korean consultant. They can always improve their resume, and improve their interview techniques too. A lot of people assume that if they meet with an agency, the agency will try to sell them jobs and get into an interview as soon as possible. But we are not like that. Don't be afraid to register with a company like us to get into a long-term relationship. It can't hurt.
Also, it would be helpful to talk about the number one reason why clients reject candidates, which is the difference between working in a Korean or international organization. The big problem that Korean companies have is that they are a bit rigid, a bit stiff, and they condition their employees to sometimes not be very good at expressing their opinions or being that creative. Almost without fail, foreign companies look for opinions and creativity. You can speak to a consultant and they can help you to be better with interviews.