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Nesu: The solo headhunter

What are the ins and outs of the headhunting industry? Oon Yeoh talks to Nesu Pang, a self-employed headhunter, to find out.

IN the war for talent, many companies have to rely on “headhunting” agencies to help them recruit the right executives to fill crucial vacancies.

The advertising and media agency sector is highly competitive, with a very high staff turnover rate.

One of the most effective headhunters in this niche sector doesn’t work for a recruitment agency but is self-employed.

Nesu Pang has worked on both sides of the media sector, with extensive experience working for media agencies as well as for media owners.

Her introduction to headhunting for the media sector came when her manager at a TV production company invited her to join a new regional recruitment company that the manager was helping to set up.

Nesu worked there for one and half years before striking out on her own. She talks to SAVVY about the ins and outs of the headhunting industry and explains why she prefers to stay self-employed than start an agency with staff.

What made you decide to set out on your own?

I didn’t like working for a regional company. They didn’t understand the local scene. I felt I could do a better job if I was running my own headhunting business.

What gave you the confidence to do this?

Having worked in the media sector — both in the agency and owner sides — since graduation, I knew the business well and I had a good network of contacts in the industry. I saw that many media agencies had trouble getting good staff. This was a never-ending problem so there was definitely a demand for this service.

Was it a struggle at first?

Actually no because I had accumulated some savings and I made sure my car loan was already paid off before I did this. Also, my housing loan was very manageable and I didn’t have many other commitments. After about three months, I started making money so I can’t say it was much of a struggle.

What level of employees do you headhunt for clients?

All levels from executive to CEO. The clients tell me what they need. After I understand the culture and vision of the company, I set out to find the right candidates for them.

What’s your success rate like?

If I take on an assignment, I usually get them the right person for the job but sometimes perhaps because the job or the company is not that attractive, I have to say no to the assignment.

I reject clients about 30 per cent of the time. I’m very upfront with them about the issues they have that make it hard or even impossible for me to find suitable workers for them.

How do you make your money? Does the client pay?

It’s entirely on a success basis. I get paid a percentage of the candidate’s annual salary if I successfully place them. It’s the client who pays, not the worker.

How many placements do you do a year and what is the salary range like?

I do between 14 to 18 placements per year. The salary ranges from as low as RM3,000 per month to RM38,000 per month.

To be effective in your job, do you have to constantly network?

Yes, I often meet people for lunch and dinner. So I’m networking all the time. I meet with potential candidates much more than with clients. I’d say the ratio is 70:30 for candidates and clients.

When you’ve met a new prospective candidate, how long can it be before you end up placing him or her somewhere?

Sometimes very quickly if the right opening is there but sometimes the gestation period can be as long as one or two years. That’s because I don’t only meet with people when I have a job for them. Sometimes it’s just pure networking for future opportunities.

How do you go about approaching prospective candidates?

Oftentimes it’s just cold calling. I tell them I’ve heard good things about them and then I ask them if they are open to exploring new options. If they yes, we meet up. If they say no, I won’t disturb them.

What do you talk about when you meet them purely for networking purposes — meaning you don’t yet have a job for them?

I try to find out what they want to achieve career-wise. Once I understand them better, I am better able to match them with the right clients. This might sound cliche but what motivates me is that in helping these people, I feel I’m effecting positive change in their lives.

What’s a typical day like for you?

One of the best things about being a one-person show is that I have a lot of flexibility in my schedule but I do try to stick to a standard routine. I wake up at around 7.30am, walk my dog, do some exercises, read a little and then eat my breakfast. My working day starts at around 10am.

I spend a lot of time communicating — making calls, returning calls, e-mailing and working on proposals. Lunch time is spent networking — usually with candidates. In the afternoon, I get back to work, do a bit of exercise and walk my dog a second time. Come evening, I’m off networking again, usually with clients.

You obviously love your job. What’s the worst thing about it though?

When you meet a not-so-good client or candidate, you really hate it. At times like that, I really wish I was not in this line. It can be emotionally draining.

How do you plan to expand if you don’t want to build an agency with employees?

I envision growing a network of associates. Already I’m working with another freelancer whom I think is quite good. When he helps me out, I offer him a profit share. I prefer working with associates who are self-employed as they are essentially entrepreneurs. I don’t want to have staff.

Do you plan to go regional?

I have a few regional clients. I prefer to focus on local business because regional work requires travelling which is quite disruptive. This kind of business can’t be done purely via e-mail or Skype. You need to meet face-to-face.

What do you think was the biggest factor in your success?

I think parental influence is important. I grew up in an entrepreneurial environment as my parents were business people. And entrepreneurship is something my father really encouraged.

When I told him about my plan to leave my job to start my own business, his response was, “What took you so long?”

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