As Big Search Firms Expand, Smaller Specialists Thrive

March 14, 2016 – Oftentimes when big companies grow bigger, they come to dominate the landscape and plow under their smaller rivals. But the executive search industry is witnessing something quite different. These days, the big search firms’ drive for ever-greater profits actually seems to be feeding the success of their boutique competitors.

Alan J. Work, president and founder of Work&Partners, believes that big-firm growth is only making businesses like his more attractive to clients. In theory, the big firms may be better known, but they can’t provide the same customer care and flexibility that his White Plains, NY-based firm, and its brethren boutiques, can deliver, Alan told me recently.

Mastering the Trade

“Due to the fact that many of the larger firms, particularly those that are publicly traded, have to satisfy the bottom line or quarterly earnings, spending significant time with one specific client is counter to the type of pressure they are under to add to their volume,” he says. “Because we are nimble and require far fewer clients, to not only survive but also succeed, we can spend the time necessary to get inside and understand the culture from top to bottom.”

The result, he says, is that he can do better work and clients seem to positively acknowledge the partnership being formed. “We’re not, therefore, viewed as a recruitment firm that is going in for the quick score and moving on to its next assignment. I think we are beginning to see more clients really taking a harder look, and I think the lines of demarcation are getting larger because, quite frankly, the larger firms are expanding while we are remaining small and pure-play search providers.”

Work&Partners provides recruitment services across technology, management consulting, financial services, and various digital disciplines. For a smaller search firm, balancing such an array of specialized sectors and serving them well can be a difficult trick to master. But Work&Partners handles it with aplomb. It counts among its clients companies like Capgemini, Merrill Corp., LiquidHub, Deloitte, and PayPal. Alan started Work&Partners in 2002, following a dozen years as a founding partner of Hechkoff/Work Executive Search.

Stick to Your Knitting

Alan says he understands why the big firms have been expanding their offerings in recent years and why their clients might find their ancillary services beneficial. On the other hand, he believes this trend simply makes Work&Partners stand out even more. “Look at a firm like Korn Ferry, for example,” he says. “They recently acquired Hay Group for almost $500 million. But they have been broadening their services for some time now and they are looking more like traditional consulting firms than traditional retained search firms. In some respects, I think this is helpful to their clients because as a ‘broader’ consulting firm they can service their clients from top to bottom and side to side.”

But, he adds: “Here, again, I think this has helped distinguish a firm like ours that is not pushing into every business. If we attempted to broaden out to include audit and assessment or compensation consulting I think it would be a turn-off to our clients. Instead, we are focused on just search and, for those clients of larger search firms that still want just that, it’s helping firms like ours that are sticking to their knitting so to speak.”

As search firms begin to look more like consulting firms, Alan agrees, consulting organizations might well start to look to search firms as acquisition targets. “It could happen,” he says. “Years ago, firms like A.T. Kearney were involved in search, and with the industry broadening and the lines blurring I would really not be too surprised to see consulting firms looking at recruitment once again as a viable option.”

Early in his career, Alan had little desire to work in executive search, though a number of firms expressed interest in him. Instead, he became a sales executive in the garment industry and did well. After about six years, just before he was to get married, his then fiancée convinced him to talk to her best friend’s sister, who ran a search firm that specialized in recruitment for technology companies.

“Initially, I thought they might introduce me to IBM,” Alan remembers. “But instead, they offered me an opportunity to work with them in executive search with a focus on the sales/sales management side of the high-tech sector. I came on board in the middle of a big economic downturn and survived by the skin of my teeth. I naively thought that I would be protected because of the personal relationship that existed. I found out later that they had let go many relatives and friends of the firm’s leadership. On the serendipity side, I got married, moved into a new place, and changed careers all inside of six weeks, which, 30-plus years later, has proven to have been a great decision.”

One-on-One Partnerships

A big part of Alan’s success comes down to him taking advantage of opportunities that present themselves. Getting involved in recruiting for management consulting firms some 25 years ago, for example, was largely the result of a void in the marketplace. “The big search firms tended to struggle in that space, based upon client feedback [and our subsequent experiences and successes] and I felt that the mindset, processes, and personalized service that a firm like ours brings gave us an advantage in a very competitive environment,” he says.

Because of their size and approach, smaller search firms with specialized experience can do very well in spite of the big firms. “I genuinely believe that some of the best one-on-one relationships exist in firms that are boutique in nature,” Alan says. “That’s not to say that consultants at large firms don’t care about clients or hard work. But as the large firms keep getting larger there has been a tendency to look at this business in more of a commoditized way instead of what we view as a one-on-one partnership.”

At his firm, Alan himself dives in on any given assignment and puts in the hours and effort to get it done properly. “I’m not handing it off to a junior consultant who might also be working on a dozen other assignments,” he says.

Also, as a boutique firm, Work&Partners can be more nimble, proactive, and able to respond to evolving market directions. That’s partly a function of the firm’s size but also because of its hard-won knowledge of the industries it serves. All that allows the firm to branch out into more than one sector and to serve its clients in those areas well.

“Our successes in healthcare, big data & analytics, and in chief marketing officer functional searches certainly have given us a hybrid look, but with a specialist tint,” says Alan. “Not every firm our size has narrow specializations. In fact, there are dozens of firms that I would call ‘semi-specialists.’ They work across maybe five to six sectors; they know the space well, and maintain a focus on just those sectors without adding or subtracting. It’s worked well for us, but it’s not an uncommon combination for this industry.”

Not long ago, Work&Partners placed much of the senior management team at IT systems integrator LiquidHub, from its chief operating officer, to its digital practice leader, to its corporate strategy officer. It was just one example of how a small firm working as a partner to a client can make a big difference in that company’s success, not to mention its own success.

Here Come the Millennials

“Clearly, having a relationship like we have with a LiquidHub puts us in a terrific position to add value and have a tremendous impact on their business,” Alan says. “We work very closely with all of their leadership [CEO, COO, CFO, CHRO,VPs and practice leaders] from beginning to end and also have done SME/consulting type assignments for them around growth strategies and the hiring experience. I believe we are considered trusted advisors and we value that relationship tremendously.”

This is where he thinks a firm structured like his works well with clients. “Again, this is not a knock on the large generalists, but when you know and understand your space as well as we do, as is the case of other firms with a similar make-up as ours, we can spend significant time on the inside and are not pressured to have to go out and land 10 other assignments simultaneously.”

Hiring in the technology field poses particular challenges for client companies, Alan says. Younger professionals are increasingly winning jobs over older individuals who may have more experience but lack knowledge and awareness of new and cutting-edge trends.

“Companies are really looking at a much broader scope of candidate today versus in years past where they may have considered only a very seasoned professional,” says Alan. “In short, they are keeping their options open. I also think that technology companies are looking, to a greater extent, at best athletes today versus those that may operate in narrow silos. There are a great many talented professionals in this space and the landscape is highly competitive. It makes our work more interesting, for sure.”

Contributed by Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor, Hunt Scanlon Media and Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media

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