Interview May 2013

David Swan

Managing Director of Robert Walters Japan and Korea

What services, solutions and products does your firm provide in Japan?
In 2000, we expanded our specialist recruitment business to Tokyo. At that time, not many foreign recruitment firms were operating in Japan.

Since then, we have added an office in Osaka, and have expanded our coverage. We now place bilingual professionals in jobs across a range of areas, including the consumer goods, healthcare, industrial and technology sectors.

Robert Walters Japan focuses on the specialist career segment of the market. We thus place experienced, bilingual professionals who are typically seeking junior to managerial white-collar positions.

In addition, we have a team who recruit exclusively for Japanese firms that are globalising. I feel this is special among foreign firms.

How do you differ from your competition?
Robert Walters is the leading foreign specialist recruitment firm operating in Japan. While we access the largest database for bilingual candidates, our goal is not simply to be the biggest recruiter but, rather, the best.

We recently expanded our end-to-end professional contract recruitment service for businesses in both the Kanto and Kansai regions.
This strategy enables us to offer flexible staffing options that have given us an edge over our competitors.

Our non-commission model is exclusive to Robert Walters and ensures that our consultants work as a team and focus on accurately matching client requirements to professionals with the most relevant skills and experience.

Why did your firm decide to invest in Japan?
We opened an office here based on the suggestion of a client who worked in the finance sector.

While we recognised from the start that the country’s culture and approach to business are distinctive—unlike established recruitment markets such as the UK—at that time Japan was under-developed from an industry perspective.

Have your operations changed since coming to Japan? If so, how?
I’ve seen rapid change and innovation during my time with Robert Walters. Asia now accounts for over half of our group’s global business and Japan is the second-largest market behind the UK in our global network in 23 countries.

In addition, we have diversified our recruitment offerings to cover all professional sectors. Ten years ago, we did not recruit for some of our currently strongest performing areas, such as the healthcare, online and professional contracting sectors.

What have been the major challenges?
When we arrived in Japan, the job-for-life mindset still prevailed. Now, mid-career changes are more common; employers and staff understand the value that recruitment consultancies provide.

Another challenge has been to remove the stigma surrounding temporary work. Increasingly more companies are finding that contracting is a valuable way to add flexible headcount. Further, professionals have found that contract work can be a lucrative and reputable career option.

How do you expect your business might change?
I believe that our business with Japanese companies will grow. More local firms are moving abroad to bolster weak domestic demand. These firms need professionals who understand foreign markets and speak other languages, most often English.

Initially, we thought we would be dealing primarily with large corporations. However, many small and medium-sized Japanese companies are requesting our services.

What changes would you like to see in your sector to boost UK–Japan business relations?
From a recruiter’s point of view, more deregulation of the labour market would enable Japanese companies to react more swiftly to changes in the business environment. This would help Japan become significantly more globally competitive.

Numerous firms here have spoken about seeking more rights to dismiss workers in order to avoid situations in which retaining staff would be detrimental to a struggling company.

What do you see as the greatest asset that British firms can offer the Japanese market?
I believe British firms are exceptionally good at understanding foreign markets and integrating in diverse cultures. To enter a new market successfully, adapting to local sensitivities is essential.
With an increasing number of Japanese companies moving abroad, the ability to tailor their strategies to the local market will be of great value.

What is the major benefit Japanese firms can derive from working with British entities?
I believe that Japanese and foreign firms are very similar, in that we both favour long-term business relationships.
British companies have a history of global success and, thus, can offer a broad perspective and global reach to support businesses.
For example, increasingly more Japanese companies are operating across South-East Asia. Through our global network, we are able to source qualified Japanese professionals who have language ability in Japanese, English and, often, another Asian language.

What are the main opportunities here for foreign firms?
Japan still has numerous opportunities for firms, but they must be selective regarding where they look. For example, Japan’s ageing society has driven business demand among healthcare, software development and telecommunication companies.
We are also finding that an extremely high proportion of females are leaving the labour pool after childbirth, despite their education and, often, high level of English competency. Encouraging female participation could mean a huge potential addition to the workforce.