It may have been boldness or bravado, but when James Hickman and Scott Harrison opened Aquis Search they began a journey that would lead them around the region and eventually to Europe.
The pair launched the boutique executive search firm in January 2009, during the middle of the financial crisis, in what Hickman describes as “the worst market in history”.
“It was all the things you have ever heard about start-ups (and recruitment companies), the good and the bad. We really had to live and breathe it, because if we didn’t, in those economic conditions, the experience would have been short lived.”
The steep learning curve provided valuable lessons, however, “In any new firm you have to work hard and smart, but because we grew up in the global financial crisis we had to be super efficient,” he remembers. “We’d backed ourselves, which meant we didn’t have much money to play with and we were under pressure before we’d even opened the doors.”
Hickman, who has worked in training and executive search throughout his career, and who describes himself as a ‘Hong Kong kid born and bred’, moved into search after a friend invited him to become a researcher in a front office financial services executive search firm.
“Even though I had all of this experience in training, I started at the bottom as a financial services generalist researcher, covering investment banking, private banking and a little bit of asset management,” he says.
“It was a semi-retained contingent model and I focused on equity research, sales and trading, then built a derivatives book when derivatives, convertible bonds and structured products were newer to Asia.”
His next move was into corporate finance in a fully retained environment covering capital markets, mergers and acquisitions, and private equity. “At that point I developed a little bit of a reputation as a business builder. I wasn’t frightened of doing new things. I just got stuck in,” Hickman says.
“In my third job I set up the risk and compliance desk for a global legal boutique, and soon realised my own personal brand was stronger than theirs, and it was at that point I spoke to Scott about setting up on our own.”
Aquis started as a niche recruiter covering the legal and compliance sector, before moving into risk and finance, expanding as demand for governance professionals rose in the wake of the financial crisis.
“We opened four offices in four years and employed about 40 people then. As you can imagine, in that sort of environment, it was often two steps forward and one step back, and as you’d expect we worked pretty hard as well!”
The hard work paid off, and today Aquis Search has more than 70 staff, and together with the its sister companies the total headcount is around 125 across seven offices in Beijing, Hong Kong, London, Mumbai, Singapore, Shanghai and Taipei.
Hickman says: “About three years ago we were really able to put the pedal down and we doubled in size. We’ve been able to do so because our foundation is really solid. I can’t say enough good things about our administrative and research support, they give our consultants the opportunity to focus on what matters.”
Aquis Search prides itself on the fact the it hasn’t lost its personal touch as it’s expanded. “Almost everything I’ve done has been Asia-centric. I am a Sinophile to all intents and purposes, and we like the idea of being ‘global locals’. We’re an Asianbased firm and one of the few search firms going from east to west. We also know our core specialisms better than our competitors because we’ve been here [in Asia] for longer and we have a larger footprint in those areas, both in numbers of staff and geographic coverage,” Hickman says.
“We are very focused on helping candidates progress in their careers. We listen to what people really want to do in their lives and what their drivers are outside of work. We also tend to give more objective advice than many of our competitors, we’re not on the sell, and that stands us in good stead with our candidates and clients, creating longer term relationships,” he says.
While some aspects of Aquis Search have not changed since it was launched ten years ago, in other ways the company has evolved significantly.
“You start with a business plan and it almost immediately changes depending on the types of clients, candidates and consultants you are able to work with and market forces generally,” Hickman says, explaining that the firm is not afraid to make bold decisions.
“We turn up in markets that other people aren’t looking at because there’s a high barrier to entry, but if you can make things work when there is a high barrier to entry, you can do really well,” he says. “We’re also continually evolving and changing, and trying new things, because if you don’t you become uncompetitive. So we’re still pushing ourselves. I think that’s the secret. For us it’s about evolving as a firm and globalising now.”
Going forward Aquis Search continues to expand. “We have big plans and there’s still a lot more we can do.”