Inside Eye

Back to Contents of Issue: July 2000

Risk-Taking Gaijin Are the No. 2 Headhunter Target

by Steven Herman

My buddy Rajiv calls me and says he's got a problem and wants to talk. I suggest we meet at the Park West Café in Yoyogi Uehara.

"Anywhere but there!" he exclaims.
"But Rajiv, the food is great -- "
"I know, but I can't have a meal there without someone butting in and offering me a job."

I suggest as an alternative the Westin, where a few days later Rajiv describes his quandary. He works as a local hire for a respected Fortune 1,000 firm as the No. 2 on the ground in Japan. He's certain to end up as an executive back home or in Europe within a few years as long as he's a good boy.

"Not a week goes by without a job offer," he says somberly as he digs into his nasi goreng. "They're all Internet plays, offering to match my salary and give me a piece of the action."

He says the calls stopped for a while in mid-April following the brief market tumble, but the respite didn't last long.

"It's unbelievable," he continues. "I'm being offered fancy titles -- president, COO, you name it."

Rajiv is not alone. I confess during our brunch that I've had a few similar calls.

"So what should we do?" he asks.

I tell him that it's a seller's market for young executives who know enough Japanese to hold their own around a conference table or a sushi bar. Rajiv says the funny thing is that he used to feel lucky that he had managed to secure his present position. "I started out in Japan as an English teacher," he recalls. "I graduated from a little college in the boonies no one has ever heard of and I studied astronomy. Suddenly the headhunters are treating me as if I have a Harvard MBA."

Rajiv laughs. I can tell he's trying to figure out if he should push his self-worth up a notch. Rajiv is worth a lot more than he thinks just by being a bilingual already living in Japan. There's a glut of venture money and ideas here, but a scarcity of talent to run the operations. Bilingual Japanese who are creative thinkers are the real elite, but they tend to be ultra-cautious concerning job hopping, so it's the larger pool of risk-taking gaijin who are the secondary target of the headhunters.

"If I stay with my company, I'll always have a comfortable upper-middle-class life, whether it's in Tokyo, London, or New York," he says. "But I'm never going to be, um, rich."

"Nothing wrong with rich, Rajiv."
"So why haven't you jumped?"
"The Statue of Liberty," I reply.

Rajiv can't decide whether to laugh. I tell him that our plight is like those of our antecedents who fled their homelands in search of opportunities. They could have chosen just about anywhere, but they went mostly to America. I feel I've been offered a lot of opportunities to settle in the Amazon, but I've not seen Lady Liberty yet.

Rajiv says it's a strange analogy, but that's why he wanted to talk to me: he knew I'd come up with a way of looking at it that he hadn't pondered.

"Actually my relatives 150 years ago left India for Fiji before immigrating to Canada," he says. "I don't want to end up in Fiji."

"A lot of dot-coms are Fiji," I say. "But I think I've come up with an evaluation criteria." I explain that my first rule is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If you're being offered a huge chunk of the company and the owners are boasting they'll be a Mothers listing next year with an initial valuation north of ¥50 billion, something is probably fishy. I shun anything overly B2C that has nothing proprietary, and anything that lacks a brand name or the "wow factor." I like to see there's more to the investment pool than a single ¥100 million backing from the likes Softbank or Hikari Tsushin. I'm also heavily biased in favor of B2B ventures that bridge Japan with the rest of the world, or companies that create, market, or license content for broadband cable or 3G wireless.

Two weeks after our lunch, Rajiv gets in the water and soon sees the Statue. He's now a VP of an established European firm tasked with doing deals with Japanese cell-phone companies. And Rajiv has scored enough stock options of the 20-year-old firm that trades on a major European bourse to put a couple million bucks in his pocket in a few years, barring a worldwide depression. Nice sailing, Rajiv.

Steven L Herman is a veteran broadcast journalist in Asia.

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