The Asian equation

by 27 May 2008

More Australian HR professionals than ever before are fast-tracking their careers on the Asian Express. Teresa Russell talks with Australian HR expatriates in Hong Kong, Singapore and India about the pros and cons of their challenging work

All areas of HR are in demand in Asia at the moment,” says Richard Letcher, managing director of Profile Search and Selection in Hong Kong.

His company places HR professionals in roles across Asia. “One in four HR people we placed last year were in recruitment, half were generalists and the rest had compensation and benefits or OD backgrounds,” he says.

“Over the last 18 months, the recruitment market for HR has been the best it has ever been,” says Letcher, adding that the pool of local HR talent has shrunk relative to the market size (see box).

David Owens, managing director of HR Partners in Sydney, says his recruitment company has done more business in Asia in the last six months than it did in the previous nine years.

“Australian HR professionals who have worked in the region in the last ten years have been effective, popular and have set good benchmarks. In Australia they work successfully across a diverse cultural bandwidth and in Asia are quite mindful of the local ways of doing business,” says Owens.

Ideal candidate

Letcher says his ideal HR candidate is currently working at assistant VP or VP level and has banking, financial services or law firm experience. They have experience working for a good brand-name employer in a highly regarded HR team and division – perhaps even an FMCG company. “Education is not as important as experience, however a degree is very useful,” says Letcher.

Owens says that Asian employers: “Are looking for demonstrable competencies in the key HR specialty areas as well as strong generalist HR management skills. Asian-based companies are looking for nothing more than Australian companies, but nothing less either.”

In 2007, 59 per cent of Profile’s placements were expatriates. One third of them were recruited from overseas. “We’ve never placed anyone who hasn’t invested in an airline ticket to come here for interviews,”Letcher says.

“The fact that they buy a ticket means they are focused and committed to transferring here. Candidates must make the first move.”

Australian HR professionals in Asia

The HR professionals interviewed by Human Resources for this report each took different pathways to their fabulous jobs in Asia.

Angelina Gajic, director of human resources for the Asia Pacific region at UBS, did what Letcher advised and flew to Hong Kong for several interviews in a week. “I was very comfortable at Westpac, but decided I wanted to broaden my horizons both professionally and personally.

“I sent my CV through to Hong Kong via a Sydney-based recruiter. Before I knew it, I had a couple of offers to consider and chose UBS because of its culture and reputation,” she says. Gajic has been in Hong Kong for a year, reporting to an executive director at UBS in Hong Kong and with matrix reporting through to the Americas.

With experience at Westpac, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Clayton Utz Lawyers, Gajic fell into Letcher’s “utopian recruitment exercise” category.

Robin Pearce is currently in New York, working out the last weeks of her contract with News Corporation’s Hong Kong-based STAR Group Limited, before returning to Australia. Launched in 1991 with five television channels, STAR pioneered satellite television in Asia. Today it broadcasts more than 60 services in ten languages and is watched by approximately 100 million viewers every day.

Pearce had previously worked for News Limited in Australia as its group training manager, but had been running her own organisational development consultancy in Sydney for seven years before moving to Hong Kong. “I had taken time off for family reasons, then received a call from within my network at News to gauge my interest in the role as SVP HR at STAR. I knew it would be a huge professional opportunity and a great personal adventure,” she says.

Reporting to the CEO, Pearce oversaw all STAR’s HR teams, working as a business partner on corporate strategic issues and supporting them in key projects. She has recently been focused on STAR’s talent initiatives.

Fred Bertram, COO at ING Australia, has recently returned from a two-and-a-half-year assignment as managing director of ANZ’s Indian business, based in Bangalore.

Bertram was GM, shared services, at ANZ before the move. “In 2005, we decided to increase our operations in India from just being a technology shop to providing a full operational service that included technology, operations and shared services,” he says. “We went from 680 to 2000 people over the time I was there.”

Bertram’s role was to build organisational capability and manage the migration of roles from Australia to India. The growth in India was based on three factors: labour arbitrage and quality of employees; a need to re-engineer processes; and building ANZ’s talent pool, which he emphasises is not an outsourced operation.

Bertram had been to Bangalore for work, but did a reconnaissance visit with his wife before accepting the assignment.

Michele Campbell, regional head of HR for Credit Suisse’s IT division in Asia Pacific, moved to Singapore as a “trailing spouse” eight years ago. The first decade of her HR career was spent with Myer, in a variety of HR roles in Melbourne. After working for the City of Port Phillip as IR manager, then head of HR, she joined Westpac in Sydney in HR operations, moving to head HR in its call centre business on return from maternity leave.

“My husband could have moved to anywhere in Asia, but we chose Singapore because HR job opportunities were greater here than other Asian locations,” says Campbell, who started working for Credit Suisse on a six-month contract in a regional back-office operations HR role.

She then joined the company as a permanent employee and rose to director level over a four-year period.


All four expatriates have found their work in Asiato be challenging, interesting and fulfilling. Gajic says that working in Asia’s financial hub in a global company with managers who understand how critical it is to attract and retain good people is invigorating.

“It took me about six months in the role before I got comfortable understanding the business. Now, at 12 months, I have started getting real results. My clients expect me to help them create good people strategies to align with what they are doing. They don’t pay lip-service to HR – they get it,” says Gajic.

Pearce was continually travelling during her first three years at STAR. “I knew when the airline cabin crew started calling me by my first name that I was travelling too much,” she says.

Her work across the region in India, China and Indonesia involved diverse challenges. “I worked extensively in two of our India businesses. One was a mature business, operating in an increasingly competitive environment, while the other was a joint venture start-up that went from 20 to 2000 people in 12 months.

“When we invested in a terrestrial TV business in Indonesia, the HR challenges included change and integration issues and talent assessments.”

Bertram found it challenging working in a caste-based society that also strongly differentiates between people based on their state of origin. “Culturally, getting people to say ‘no’ is quite difficult, so we focussed on a break-out program to have real conversations. Although we remained respectful of Indian culture, we are an Australian company and required our people to be more open. Conflict avoidance then became less of an issue,” he says.

Other daily challenges that Bertram faced included the pervasive dirt, daily power cuts and smells. “You live a first-world life in a third-world country and work in an office that is as good as or better than in Australia,” says Bertram.

Campbell has a seat at her organisation’s global HR table and is an advocate for anything Credit Suisse delivers, leads or manages in Asia Pacific. “From a regional perspective, I manage seven people and oversee thirteen locations with extremely different cultures, legislation and banking regulations. It is challenging, yet rewarding, exposure,” she says.

Campbell’s main HR challenges in the region include talent acquisition, retention, employee engagement and diversity. Work/life balance is always on her mind, particularly when working with different time zones. Credit Suisse’s flexible work policies allow her to balance this across the day and evening.

Making the transition

Gajic used the Australia Association in Hong Kongto help her meet other people there and has found her move fairly easy.

Pearce says that working with skilled, smart and experienced HR teams across the business meant she was supported everywhere she went. “My skills and knowledge have broadened enormously and I have formed a handful of personal friendships that will last a lifetime,” she says.

She is returning to Sydney in a few weeks to “resuscitate” her HR consultancy and reconnect with friends and family.

Bertram and his wife socialised with a large expatriate group in Bangalore. “During our time there we saw a massive change in the city. Moving back to Australia has been reasonably easy. You change a bit, gain a bit and leave a bit of yourself behind on overseas assignments,” says Bertram.

Campbell moved for two years but has been there for eight. “There are enormous career development opportunities in Credit Suisse. I’ve been given the opportunity to move to London or New York, but Asia is a huge growth market – and where the action is for me,” she says.

Advice for others

“Do your research before you come and be prepared to step out of your comfort zone,” says Gajic. “Maintain your Australian networks of friends, family and recruiters. If you are working for a global company like UBS, you will see best practice and work with the best and brightest. Asia is fully resourced,” she says.

“There are enormous opportunities in Asia for people who want to work in growth businesses where HR plays a significant role,” says Pearce. “It’s not always easy but it is worthwhile. It was a privilege to be there.”

“Understand other cultures, but don’t be scared of them,” says Bertram. “Be respectful, but stand your ground on things that matter,” he says, adding that the likelihood of getting a senior role in Australia without offshore experience is diminishing every year.

Campbell advises HR people to open up the scope of where they look for work: “Opportunities are huge in Asia. Don’t be scared to move out of your comfort zone and remember that Australia is always there to go back to – if and when you want to,” she concludes

Contemplating a move to Asia?

Visit Asia for at least a week to attend interviews

Have interviews scheduled before departure

Visit between January and September - the HR job market peaks in March-May

Learn about the local culture. For example, business cards are always presented with two hands in Asia

Use any contacts you already have in the region

If using a recruiter, know where your CV is being sent

Have/get financial services or professional services experience

Work on Asian projects before you arrive, even if from afar

Don't expect a large ex-pat package. You'll get a good base salary with excellent tax rates

Move earlier, rather than later, in your career

Plan to stay 3-5 years. Keep answers to interview questions about your length of stay as open-ended as possible.

Source: Profile Search & Selection