The candidate on the phone has an attractive resume and, having worked his way up to bank branch manager, is now looking for another position, perhaps at a foreign investment bank.

The problem is, he has only one answer when Midori Yoshida asks, “What can you do?” It’s “I can be a branch manager!”

“It’s very sad, but there is nothing less useful than a generalist,” said Yoshida, president of I-Brain, a headhunting firm specializing in the financial sector. “But that’s what (Japan’s) companies have been raising.”

Midori Yoshida, president of I-Brain

Headhunting, body-snatching — these names reflect the fear corporations have toward a profession that snares their best and delivers them to the competition. And Yoshida, a former money manager with a disarming smile and a nose for what companies want, is a prime example.

Amid intensifying competition in the financial sector, business is booming. Financial firms are now taking a hard look at their earnings per employee. Talent is the hot commodity, and it means “a lot of money” for Yoshida to find it and lure it away.

Just six years ago, when she headed the now-defunct Sanyo Securities Co.’s Ginza branch, working in the financial sector was as steady and uneventful as being a civil servant. Salaries rose regardless of whether workers got the job done. Sales quotas could be cleared on the strength of the firm’s brand and business could be secured by simply offering the same services and products as the rival next door, Yoshida said.

Then Sanyo failed in 1997, one of a spate of financial failures that rocked the nation that autumn. Now, once-solid financial institutions are merging and restructuring to avoid the same fate. Smaller firms with innovative ideas are stealing away longtime customers from the nation’s Big Three brokerages.

Every month, Yoshida interviews roughly 60 people. The pace has led her to double her commission target for the year starting October 2000, and it’s only three years since she opened her office in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward in 1997.

“People are becoming insecure when they think about the future. They are asking themselves, ‘Do I want to stay here after a merger?’ ‘Am I developing skills I need for the position I want three years from now?’ and ‘Am I marketable?’ ” said Yoshida, who left Sanyo a year before it failed.

The questioning is intense for job hunters in their forties and fifties, who are the most difficult to place, she said, adding that people fresh out of school should keep in mind that skills should be sharpened for their own sake and their own future, not for their companies.

Many job seekers come to her with thick files full of reports they’ve written, saying they can do anything and everything, but can’t articulate what they want to do and why a firm should hire them. Time and time again, Yoshida has been forced to tell them she does not have the post they desire and that they are better off looking for solutions at their current job and should develop their strengths further.

Every experience adds to your marketability, Yoshida said, pointing to her past as Japan’s first female branch manager at Sanyo. There, she trained 1,400 people to pitch funds to customers and learned to listen to employees’ worries and fears and offer advice.

The questions she now asks to Japan’s financial workers are ones they have never had to ask themselves before: “What are your skills?,” “What do you want from your career?” and “Where do you want to be three years from now?”

The answers are never easy and consultations don’t earn her the big bucks, but Yoshida sticks with it. She says she understands the shell-shock felt by the people who seek her out.

“I have to evaluate people — their talents and experiences — just like companies do their assets. But after all, I’m still dealing with people.”

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