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[BEIJING] Chinese independent oil companies are luring traders, marketers and risk managers away from dominant state behemoths, offering better pay and perks in a hiring spree triggered by the freeing up of China's crude import trade.
Global oil firms and commodity houses have also been raiding state giants such as Sinochem and CNPC for staff to help handle up to US$50 million a day in new crude flowing into China this year, and the cherry-picking of talent is likely just getting started.
China's independent "teapot" refiners, so called due to their small size, could be processing by the end of this year as much as a fifth of the crude imports of the world's No 2 oil consumer. Already, in the first five months of 2016 - the first full year of a dozen of them being granted crude import licences - they have captured about 10 per cent of the inbound shipments.
Shandong Dongming Petrochemical Group, China's largest independent refiner, has built a Singapore-based trading team of 11 to handle this new business, including trading and shipping managers hired from CNPC Fuel Oil Company and the CNOOC group.
"A team of this size is far from enough for our scale of 10 million tonnes a year (200,000 bpd) crude demand," said Zhang Liu Cheng, vice president of Shandong Dongming. "We'll need more to cover products, chemicals and market analysis," Mr Zhang said.
Awarding crude import quotas of up to 1.2 million barrels per day (bpd) to China's teapots has started a tussle for talent as the refiners - and the oil majors and trading houses that aim to supply them - dive into an activity previously restricted to state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
This year, use of the quotas has made up most of a 16 per cent or around 1 million bpd rise in China's crude imports, even with several underused and more awaiting approval.
Those angling for a slice of this market have already hired more than 40 traders and others, mostly from state companies, say colleagues and acquaintances of people who have moved jobs.
"We have a big but not totally motivated team," said a senior trader with a state oil company, noting that offers often beat SOE employment, particularly at smaller firms.
"Certainly we're going to see more talent outflows as the teapots have just begun hiring," the senior trader said.
Most of the hires are in their mid-thirties, having honed their craft at Chinese state companies such as Sinochem Corp, China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC) and China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC), sources said.
"Our traders are very popular," said a source from one of the state oil trading companies.
"Most of those who moved from our company are going to trading houses and majors because the perks are definitely better."
"We are looking for people who have systematic training, good relationship skills, and people who understand how China markets work," said a Beijing-based executive with a global trading house.
Also, with teapots concentrated mostly in the eastern province of Shandong, an ability on plant visits to withstand drinking bouts could also be critical as official at some refineries there are renowned for their large capacities for alcohol.
"Sometimes I'm scared to visit our refinery in Shandong as they drink too much," said a Chinese trader who buys crude on behalf of one of the teapots.
At Shandong Chambroad Petrochemicals Co, however, teetotallers would have the edge as the company has a strict no-drinking policy that bans alcohol at work and discourages its consumption even at personal events.
Chambroad, the first Chinese independent to become a Saudi Aramco client, hired a crude trader at its Singapore unit Sunshine Oil last year from a trading outfit for China State Shipbuilding Corp.
This year Chambroad set up a Shanghai-based derivatives team of 10 professionals, headed by Harry Cui, a former senior trader and head of futures research for state-owned grain processor and trading firm Cofco Corp.
Mr Cui said his team trades Brent futures to hedge Chambroad's four million tonnes of annual crude imports as well as its exports of refined fuel. "It's a small pool when you nail it down to trade experience plus market knowledge," said the global trading house executive.
For state enterprises, the loss of roughly 10 per cent of the trading teams at some companies is viewed as inevitable. So far the impact has been minimal, but that could change as the newcomers take more of the market.
Most companies - including BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Glencore - declined to comment on their staff movements. New hirees also declined to comment due to the sensitivity of the matter.