Shares in specialist recruitment firm Robert Walters (RWA) gained 11% to 405p, continuing their recent recovery, after it published a solid first quarter trading update which showed it was managing the coronavirus crisis well.

Net fee income for the three months to 31 March was down 11% with fees in its two largest geographies, Asia Pacific and Europe ex-UK, down just 5% and 3% respectively.

GLOBAL FOOTPRINT

The UK, the company’s third-biggest market at just over 20% of fee income, saw a 29% drop during the quarter as candidate and client confidence dropped following the phased lockdown process, although the technology, logistics and supply chain sectors were more resilient.

Japan, the firm’s most profitable market, increased fees by 10%, as did Malaysia, South Korea and Vietnam. The worst-affected markets in Asia were China, which entered lockdown ahead of the rest of the world, and Australia and New Zealand which are only now seeing infection rates increase.

In Europe, several countries including Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland saw an increase in net fees, offsetting single-digit percentage falls in France and Spain, two of the larger markets.

Performance in North America remained strong, especially in technology and digital sectors, while fees in the Middle East rose ‘significantly’.

FLEXIBILITY KEY

Founder and chief executive Robert Walters puts the firm’s success down to three things: geographic diversification, a strong cash position, and the ability of front-line staff to work out of the office thanks to technology.

The recruiter has also trimmed costs by 15%, thanks to a big uptake of its voluntary ‘one in 10’ scheme which allows staff to take a 10% reduction in working hours, and to 20% pay cuts for executive directors.

Spending on travel has been reduced to almost zero, and all non-essential spending has been cut - including the final dividend – in order to improve liquidity.

While there is no question that the second quarter will be more challenging, the firm has almost £110m of cash as of 31 March, close to double the previous year’s pile, and has 'no need to raise cash to fund organic growth' according to the chief executive.

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Issue Date: 08 Apr 2020