Searching for Chiefs

April 29, 2015 | Invest Korea

Through finding leaders for both Korean and foreign companies, DHR International helps businesses in Korea succeed

By Chang Young

When was the last time you saw a job posting for a CEO?

When it comes to the C-level positions - Chief Executive Officer, Chief Finance Officer, Chief Information Officer, etc. - companies typically don’t turn to job boards. Instead, they call upon executive search firms like DHR International.

The largest foreign executive search firm in Korea in terms of consultants and the fifth largest in the world, DHR International opened its doors in Korea two years ago amid a growing need for executives in foreign companies establishing their businesses here. With Korea’s globally leading shipbuilding, mobile device, semiconductor and other industries, more and more investors exploring business expansion opportunities in Asia were - and are - choosing Korea over its neighbors.

“You cannot be a world leader and not be in Korea,” said Philippe Tirault, managing director of DHR International in Korea. “Korea is a very strategic market.”

DHR International, based in the United States and with 52 offices worldwide, is a retained executive search firm, which means the client will give them a mandate to search for talent. The process involves industry mapping, contacting often more than 100 people to identify the best possible candidates and a lot of time. Contingency-based search firms, on the other hand, operate mainly using a database of candidates.

“When you need to recruit a CEO, you need to find the best people,” said Tirault. “Because at the C-level, recruiting the best people has a direct impact on the bottom line, on how the firm operates.”

With roots in Korea dating back to the mid-80s, Tirault knows how to find Korea’s best. Thirty years ago, as a banker in Seoul helping foreign companies open their doors here, he saw that one of the difficulties they faced was finding the right people. Tirault started his own executive search firm in Korea, one that was successful in other parts of the Asia-Pacific region as well, eventually sold the firm, worked for the Korea office of a top global executive search company for eight years and joined DHR two years ago.

“I think it’s one of the main attractions of Korea,” said Tirault, about the country’s human resources. “The quality of people. You get not only technical skills but you get also dedication, loyalty, positive energy, and that’s very important.”

Tirault and his 14-person staff find and place C-level executives, mostly Korean, in their client companies, which are mostly foreign. The team specializes in the industrial, financial, fast-moving-consumer goods, professional services, technology, pharmaceutical and medical industries. DHR Korea is DHR’s second-largest office in Asia Pacific in terms of revenue.

Last year, 80 percent of this revenue came from foreign companies. But with the number of Korean companies seeking DHR’s services quickly rising, Tirault thinks the majority of their recruitments will be for domestic companies within five years.

Korean companies, especially the conglomerates, are finding that they sometimes need to recruit executives from outside. They’re seeing the advantage of having foreigners join the team. And they’re also expanding globally, establishing multiple offices worldwide and realizing they can’t have Korean expatriates running all their regional branches.

This was the case for foreign-invested companies in Korea in the 80s. Most were run by expatriates. Now, understanding that localization and local management are keys to succeeding in Korea, many foreign companies have Korean executives.

“It’s really promoting Korean management,” explained Tirault, about what he does. “Because nobody’s better in Korea to run a business than a Korean. That makes a lot of sense.”

Once, DHR Korea even got a request from a German auto company doing business in China. They struggled there. Their attempts with foreign management, foreign-influenced Chinese management and local Chinese management had all failed. DHR Korea proposed and found them a Korean manager, considering the strength of Korea’s automotive industry and that Koreans are culturally well accepted in China. It worked out well.

Nowadays, Tirault has noticed a trend of foreign companies not only choosing Korea to begin with, but moving their Chinese business to Korea.

“You need good engineers, you need a stable environment, you need a business-friendly environment, you need good people. Dedicated, loyal, hard workers. Then you look at Asia and you check all those things - Korea is coming on the top of the list,” said Tirault, who is also a consultant for DHR Korea. “So that’s something very interesting.”

Another trend he has noticed is global businesses choosing Korea for their research and development (R&D) centers and, as a result, Korea’s growth as an R&D hub.

“And people I know who have built up their R&D centers in Korea are extremely happy,” he said. In light of these developments and successes, Tirault plans to expand his staff this year and aims to double the business in three years. After all, Korea is a country of growth, which means it’s a country that will need more leaders.

“I think it’s the most important market for DHR in Asia,” said Tirault.

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