It has been a few months since the merger between Whitney and O'Neill, how has the merged entity performed since then?

Peat: A number of factors have meant that the merger has gone extremely smoothly. The obvious mutual benefits of presenting an established Asia specialist as part of a global brand have materialized, and we were fortunate in that our client base had distinct synergies and overlaps anyway. This removed one of the main concerns for a merged search firm regarding 'off-limits' arrangements.

These are difficult markets for everyone, how are you keeping your heads above water?

Draycott: The nature of the search industry means that our services tend to be employed for the more strategic hiring decisions. These positions are not as vulnerable in a market slowdown. Also we have been able to adapt and diversify. We have established an Insurance practice and a Legal practice, and we have looked to broaden the offering of services we have for clients.

What makes a good headhunting firm in these difficult times?

Draycott: I think the ability to add value is essential. The best search firms will be seen in an advisory capacity by their clients; as a provider of information and market knowledge rather than as a people-broker. 

Is it tempting to start going after business in sectors that are less cyclical than investment banking and capital markets?

Peat: It's important to maintain a level of excellence in our areas of core competence. However, we must be as dynamic as the sector we support, and client diversification is mirrored in our own practice groups. Our insurance and legal practices are an example of this, reflected by a client demand and met by a global expertise in the sector.

With the development of the local markets in China, can we expect some high profile moves away from non-China Asia into the Mainland?

Draycott: Inevitably companies will continue to move operations onto the Mainland, whether in the form of JVs or independently. We've already seen some big moves on the coverage side, and I think it would be reasonable to expect a flow of individuals with relevant skills to continue in establishing franchises on the Mainland, particularly Shanghai. In the meantime Hong Kong still provides the base from which financial houses can transact business with China in a familiar environment, so we would not expect this to change dramatically in the short-term.

Peat: In line with many of our clients, we have, in conjunction with our holding company, Headway, structured a joint venture with the Shanghai Foreign Service Company (SFSC), China's leading human resource services company. Increasingly companies are diverting resources to China, and human capital is a key factor in such development.

Other than China are there any other markets that excite you?

Peat: Japan is obviously the subject of much debate at the moment; notwithstanding the current economic climate. There will be a desire by foreign firms to secure and maintain a foothold in such an important economy. Both foreign and domestic investors will be engaged in a renewed war for talent. 

Draycott: Taiwan and Korea have been active markets that have obviously opened their doors to foreign financial services recently. As independent markets they will support an enduring demand for country specialists, and conversely for skills specialists to be based there.

Are we likely to see the Hong Kong job market rebound?

Peat: Undoubtedly some of the cuts that have been made are positional redundancies due to top down restructuring. These positions will not be refilled. However, we are still seeing certain institutions taking advantage of the depth of quality individuals on the market by upgrading, and strategic hiring remains important. Sentiment remains divided on the timing of a return to mainstream recruitment, although undoubtedly some houses will need to conduct selective hiring in the New Year.