Asia's banks still selectively hiring

We talk to Charlie Thomson, founder of Singapore-based search firm Meridian Partners, about who’s hiring in Asia and why he remains bullish on the region.

What is the background of Meridian Search?
Meridian is a boutique search firm I founded a few years ago with two ex-markets colleagues. We specialise in fixed income, currencies and commodities (Ficc) appointments for front-office and senior-level positions. I’ve worked in Asia within capital markets since 1993 across Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore. My colleagues are also banking-industry veterans from around Asia.

Did the market downturn in 2008 have a significant impact on business?
Actually, the market downturn of 2008 was what prompted me to start the business. I did not like the way the bigger search firms were operating and I saw an opportunity to add value, and make it a more personalised service.

Is the current downturn in banking worldwide creating a proliferation on the supply-side and not so much interest on the demand-side?
If I was sitting in London or the US right now I would be pessimistic about the macro-picture however Asia is still hiring even now. In fact I’m busy trying to get an offer out for a hedge fund as we speak! The investment banks visibly downsizing here tend to be the ones who over-hired in the market post-2008, particularly in sales, and whilst globally elsewhere one might use the term downsizing I think in Asia so far it’s more like selective reductions as we haven’t seen the kind of staffing reduction Europe and the Americas are experiencing presently.

What kinds of financial institutions are downsizing? And which are hiring?
Hiring at this moment is mostly buy-side and real-money accounts. The sell-side tends to be more wary and it is harder to get across at present, although to be honest when new headcounts are placed into Asia for next year I have a wall of mandates to cover so I think there should be a lot of musical chairs.

What is your outlook for the near future?
The outlook for 2012, assuming headcounts return to normal and worries of Greece exiting the euro desist, is very healthy here in Asia as there is still a shortage of talent and a great deal of future demand. We are growing our practice. We recently brought on board Catherine Lajeunesse at a senior-level in Hong Kong. Her hire is part of our continuing confidence in the region, and belief in the sustainability of the financial-services sector in Asia.

Are large sign-on bonuses and other incentives still necessary?
Sign-on bonuses and incentives are still taking place for the moment but increasing pressure from head offices are making the process to get them ever more difficult.

Are firms moving to less fixed and more variable compensation?
Compensation remains a mixed bag with the sell-side having high fixed components and the buy-side preferring a higher variable.

When people are so readily available why do recruiters still hire a firm like Meridian?
We only employ seasoned market professionals. Our consultants draw from personal experience forged through working knowledge of the markets they specialise in. We want both candidates and employers to have the confidence to know that we speak the same language.

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