Shares in recruitment firm Robert Walters (RWA) rose 9% to a one-year high of 690p as the staffing specialist said it is ‘currently confident’ that full-year profits will ‘comfortably’ beat market expectations.

Positive trading conditions continued throughout the first quarter to March 2021, and Robert Walters’ 11% drop in net fee income to £77.3 million represented a marked improvement from the previous quarter’s 26% fall, as activity picked up in its core international business.

SEQUENTIAL IMPROVEMENT

CEO Robert Walters insisted the improvement in performance since the group’s second quarter of 2020 had ‘continued through the first quarter of 2021, with candidate and client confidence sequentially improving across most of the group’s global footprint’.

With market sentiment improving, Walters increased headcount during the quarter, focusing its hiring on geographies and disciplines showing the strongest signs of growth.

CONFIDENT OF A FORECAST ‘BEAT’

Already benefiting from operational gearing, Robert Walters is ‘currently confident that profit for the year is likely to be comfortably ahead of market expectations’, so long as there are no further globally disruptive events to derail progress in the months ahead.

Recruiters were hit hard by the pandemic, which triggered a hiring freeze, yet the likes of Hays (HAS) and PageGroup (PAGE) have sounded more optimistic of late as vaccines drive a reopening of the global economy.

In today’s update, Robert Walters said activity levels across permanent, contract, interim and recruitment process outsourcing all ‘trended positively’ through the quarter, while the ‘large majority’ of its offices are now open.

The UK, which represents just over 20% of income, saw a 12% drop in fees due to lockdown spanning the entire quarter, although the firm said there were ‘early signs of an improvement in client and candidate confidence’.

Elsewhere, Asia Pacific net fee income was down 3% to £32.8 million, with the company citing positive signs of a recruitment activity uptick in Japan, the group’s most profitable business. Europe net fee income softened 15% to £21.8 million, although two of the region’s largest businesses, France and Spain, returned to growth in the quarter.

Having re-commenced dividends late last year, Robert Walters also highlighted the strength of its balance sheet. The company closed out the quarter with the best part of £140 million net cash in its coffers and also has a £60 million committed loan facility to call upon, which expires in 2024.

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Issue Date: 14 Apr 2021