Adrian Tan, the Managing Director and Co-Founder of RecruitPlus, has come a long way in the recruiting scene. From working in tech startups, he worked in a sales role in the aerospace sector before shifting into the recruiting sector.
He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce (Marketing) from the University of Western Australia, which he completed via a distance learning program at PSB Academy. His first job was with Starhub in Customer Service, before progressing to two Internet firms, both of which collapsed the middle of the Dotcom Bubble.
He went on to join an online brokerage, DBS TD Waterhouse, which disrupted trading by running on a business model charging low self-administrative fees and disrupted the market at the tie. Leaving because he felt he lacked a job-fit for the role, Tan joined SATAIR, which distributed aircraft spare parts.
However SARS came and caused business to suffer. Haunted by the fact that he’d been retrenched twice and eager to avoid the experience, Tan decided that the best way to avoid retrenchment was starting his own business – RecruitPlus.
What led you to become a recruiter?
I jumped into it by starting RecruitPlus, with three other friends. They were my classmates from different educational institutions. One was from my secondary school, Hai Sing Catholic High. The other two were from PSB Academy. Also, I’ve always had an interest in helping my friends find jobs.
I was inspired by my Hai Sing friend, Ryan Lee. He created his own business and was self-employed, doing structured cabling. The idea of becoming my own boss came from Ryan. But I was also inspired by my current wife and then-girlfriend, whose own job as a recruiter inspired me to become one. She educated me on the business model of the recruiting sector.
How long did it take you and what did it take to get to your current position?
From day one till now, it’s been more than 10 years. Hard work and dumb luck. And a lot of persistence. I’ve had numerous opportunities to give up. And when that opportunity came up, quitting was very attractive. To push and carry on with what you have requires a lot of willpower, especially when everything around you seems to be against you.
Whats your opinion on the current HR space in Singapore?
Honestly, I think it’s too saturated. There’s too many players. Five years ago, there were many companies you see now that didn’t exist back then. And five years ago, LinkedIn just got invented. The unemployment rate was not as low as right now, so that creates better marketplace for everyone.
But now, we’ve got new entrants from the UK, US, Australia and Japan. When they come to set up a Singapore office, its not like how local players did it, by bootstrapping from the ground up. They’re willing to burn $2 million in their first two years of operations to establish themselves. If you multiply that by the number of entrants, its rather overwhelming. But the political stability, ease-of-business and good infrastructure attract them here I guess.
Opinions on the recruitment sector and prospects until 2016?
I foresee a lot of mergers and acquisitions in the recruitment industry locally, which I predict will undergo a stage of consolidation. With Singapore being a regional HQ, many foreign companies that are cash-rich will look to acquire a small business, merge their assets into their own, rebrand and grow from there. The most recent acquisition was Scientec, which does healthcare and pharmaceutical recruitment.
It also depends on whether another global recession is coming on. With the amount of money the US has printed, to recover from Lehman Brothers and the global financial collapse, its like feeding opium to an addict.
There’s no real stimulus in the economy because we have not really recovered from 2008. As with all economists, with more money supply, you have greater inflation, and people will spend differently. They’re stretching the rubber band and hoping it won’t break, but ultimately it may pop anytime
LinkedIn (LI) may also become more aggressive, with aggregating job ads. Monster tried to leverage on Facebook to create a platform, called Be Known . But people use FB for social activities, rather than job-seeking. One good thing about LI is that its more of a business networking platform. Rather than simply telling people you’re looking for a job, it allows you to seek jobs as well as network.
Recruiting services have always been optional, with recruiters an option and a luxury, unlike lawyers and auditors.
Social recruiting – how will it disrupt the recruiting sector?
The present options in Singapore are okay, but there’s not much traction. We have Jobs Tribes from Malaysia, but I don’t see anything fanciful. I’ve also looked at Peerbrief from Australia and think they’ll be much more disruptive than other alternatives on the market.
Many startups are founded by people who haven’t been involved in the industry previously, with a lack industry experience, who have a lot of catching up to do. Peerbrief is founded by the guy currently running 33 Talents in Australia, so they have an advantage in knowing the protocols and procedures of recruiting.
With social recruiting, the focus has to be on Big Data, where you can see certain trends. How customers and employers are getting good hires from internal referrals, form employee referrals
Employee referrals are limited and can be costly. For Barclays, an internal referral can generate $10 000 and for Credit Suisse it’s $5000, so its treated as a secondary income stream by employees. If you can open this up to the world, you effectively can have the whole world helping source the best candidates for the job.
How should employers invest in their staff?
I think that for the new generation, you really need to engage them on the positioning of the company. For instance, you’ll want to get their participation in working on employer branding. The kind of engagement I’m seeing is frequent appraisal. They may not even last a year, so feedback must be frequent.
Managers need to increase the frequency and reduce the period in-between appraisals in order to increase engagement. 15 Five is an employee engagement tool I use in RecruitPlus. Every week, we’ll receive notifications to log on, receive a questionnaire which takes 15 minutes to fill in and five minutes for managers to review.
It facilitates bite-size communication in a time-tight environment, as one-to-one face time is a luxury in a recruiting firm. It’s not a replacement, but it helps to make one-to-one face time more targeted and beneficial to higher value staff. It’s comparable to brainstorming sessions in a sense. It also helps to get employees profiled on site likes Glassdoor or other employer branding platforms, as doing good reviews and helping with overall branding of the firm.
Given the challenges in Singapore’s tighter labour market, is it employer or employees that are the problem?
I think it takes two hands to clap. With regards to employees, recruiters are aware the issues involved in dealing with Millennials. All employers are aware of the fact that the new batch of employees are harder to work with and have higher expectations. My answer: “Live with It”.
You cannot fight aging and the generational gap. With that in mind, employers should also overhaul their entire business operation, in order to suit the new batch of employment. For example, a 5.5 day work week is a thing of the past, and BYOD policy must be dealt with before moving on to more advanced stuff like employer branding and telecommuting.
Employers need to be results-driven, not process-driven or particular about the processes that results in good outcomes. But a lot of old-school founders and company owners still conduct their operations in traditional manner. Agencies are trying to encourage them to revamp themselves but these employers are extremely resistant to changing. This is the key thing many employers have to wake up to eventually. Those that wake up later? It”ll be too late by then.
Unemployment is hovering around two percent. If you compare that with the region and the likes, that’s very low. My concern is the non-Millennial workers who’ve been displaced structurally and otherwise. They’re not facing up o the fact it’s a new era altogether
One job for life doesn’t exist anymore and flying around in business class don’t exist anymore. Psychologically, the shift is hard and they’re trying to find a similar appointment that is unlikely to exist. In the US, the contracting industry is huge – as they don’t see themselves as employees anymore.
What are the qualities of a good recruiter?
I think one of the more common attributes is being thick-skinned. You have to be very persistent, because there’s a lot of rejections. You’ve got to work really fast as well. Most importantly, you have to be up to date about the evolving trends of the industry. That last bit wasn’t that significant, prior to LinkedIn (LI) arriving on the scene. Things were done in a traditional manner. From 2000 to 2009, job portal after job portal emerged and catered to a broad audience, but didn’t directly impact recruiters.
With LI and social recruiting, recruiters now have to look at new ways to reach out to their candidates. Currently, only 2 percent of workforce is unemployed, so market trends will dictate how you operate.
In a recession, you’d get a lot of active jobs seekers. Leveraging on technology to multiply your productivity is a must, but your role is still very human-centric. You still can’t replace recruiters with robots, but you need to do more. Its about leveraging on tools and online solutions to help you, whether using Google Alerts or mining for email addresses.
Work-life balance in the recruitment sector – what’s the reality?
It doesn’t exist. The reality is that agency recruitment is a sales job. There’s a direct link between the time and effort your put in and the successes you enjoy. I’ve seen some who are ‘sharpshooters’, where they send one resume and they get hired. They can have very good work life balance.
But throughout the history of RecruitPlus, I’ve only seen that once. Because ours is a sales job, theres no set limit. The greater the number of deals you close, the more commission you receive. It depends on how much you want to limit yourself with regards to income
Your greatest challenges as a recruiter and businessperson in the sector.
During initial phase, as a startup, the key challenge is to ensure that the company survives. As a startup, few firms would have heard of RecruitPlus 10 years ago. Acquiring prospects and converting them into customers, with a practically unknown name, was a challenge.
The easiest way is to grant discounts to customers and combined it with a lot of hard work. The discount is to put a foot in the door, while the Hard work is to convince them that they hadn’t made a mistake engaging RecruitPlus
Back then, there were only a few of us, so there was no work-life balance. On weekdays, it was 9am to 9pm, while on Saturday it was 9am to 11 pm. When you’ve put in hard work, it’s nice to see that it comes to fruition.
As a recruiter, I had to ensure profitability, so that the business could remain an operational concern. Now, as a businessperson, the principle is still the same – grow the business, ensure profitability, remain a going concern. But done indirectly, as what I do is more of people management. That is, I use people as tools to impact the bottom line, which isn’t as direct as when I was doing it.
What are your most memorable recruitments?
When we [RecruitPlus] first started out, each of our invoice were $1000 – $2000. That was enough to pay the bills and maintain a payroll for a couple of staff, leaving either a few hundred dollars or a loss. My most memorable was when I did this placement and the invoice came up to $8000.
It’s not significant in today’s context, but given the market in 2004, it paid the bills and helped us to tide along. This was for a senior information system manager role with a large MNC.
Any advice for people interested in becoming recruiters?
I think that agency-to-agency, we operate similarly, like how Fedex, DHL and UPS operate in the delivery line. The key thing is to identify the agency that has core values aligned with your own, given the fragmentation of the industry.
There are agencies that are known to be dubious, engaging in churn-and-burn employment patterns and who squeeze their recruiters. You have to be very clear and honest with yourself that what you’re doing makes sense and aligns with your personal beliefs and values.
How does having family obligations, (e.g. a young child) affect you as a recruiter and manager?
Having a family means I need to take a break from my work during weekdays, from 6 pm to 9.30 pm. Whatever work that I have suspended can only resume after 9.30 pm, after my kids are asleep. It means longer working hours for me, due to delays and suspension of work.
But, otherwise, when there’s work coming in on weekend, you’ll not be so calculative. I’ll make a conscious effort not to reply to professional correspondence. Just because I’ve intergrated my work and my life in a way that fits my lifestyle doesn’t mean my colleagues are the same. I have to establish boundaries in my role as a business leader, so I’ve had to establish boundaries with regards to myself and my colleagues.
I started RecruitPlus when I was young and foolish, so I didn’t calculate the risks or perform my due diligence – something that I’m grateful for. Now I have a family, which comes with obligations, so my risk appetite is significantly different.