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Business Spectator - Seeking talent for the Asian boom

By Robert Gottliebsen
6 March 2012

The fall in profits in the December quarter and the sluggish outlook for many non-mining sector companies is focusing the attention of chief executives and boards on the question: ‘how are we going to grow the profits of this business?

And they follow that up with the obvious secondary question: ‘If we are in the booming part of the world and we are looking at an Asian century, how does our business in Australia take advantage of it?

For a great many Australian businesses, the next 10 years will mean being acquired by Asian entrepreneurs who will bring to Australian operations the skills required to take advantage of the Asian boom.

Some Australian non-mining companies like ANZ Bank, Commonwealth Bank, Crown, Qantas and Seek are expanding their businesses into Asia. CSL is finding that its markets in China, Latin America and Russia are expanding rapidly.

At the same time the majority of Australian companies are looking to re-engineer their businesses to gain profit growth in sluggish times or to take advantage of new markets.

The problem many Australian enterprises are finding is that often they do not have the skills required for expansion into Asia and India or to maximise the integration of their operations with Asia and India via outsourcing and better customer/supplier relationships and systems. But that’s starting to change.

Last week I was chatting to Nicholas Varigos, managing director of the executive search firm Oppeus International, and Oppeus’ Singapore operation managing director Lelia Lim-Loges.

They are increasingly finding Australian companies are looking for executives who have a wide knowledge of Asia. In addition, an increasing number of Asian companies are looking for Australian executives.

One of the problems Australian companies face is that very few Australian boards have recruited Asian talent.

Yesterday I picked out 14 companies at random to test whether they had obvious Asian talent on their boards. All of the companies are looking at expanding into Asia, are already there or have strong supply chain and customer links with Asia.

The companies were ANZ Bank, BHP Billiton, CSL, Computershare, Commonwealth Bank, Crown, David Jones, Myer, Orica, Qantas, Seek, Woodside, Woolworths and Wesfarmers.

BHP has a board with a clear international array of talent while ANZ and Orica both have recruited successful Asian people to their board ranks. But among the rest, obvious Asian talent was thin on the ground. Yet all these companies will need greater Asian skills, either in expansion or via customer supplier chains.

I must add that as I went through the 14 boards I found a magnificent depth of talent in most of them. Nevertheless Varigos believes that Australian boards will need to refine their skills to the new growth requirements and, as they do, it will accelerate the developing trends towards seeking talents from Asia and India.

But we should not forget that Asian companies want to understand Australia better because they see opportunities here, partly because too many of our non-mining companies have not focused on the growth sectors of the region.