Building a Better Search Firm

November 22, 2016 – When Julie Ford started Ventura Partners, she wanted to create a search firm that left behind the traditional approach that most executive recruiters employed. Her mission was to jettison the competition between partners and build an environment in which they worked together to best serve their clients. It wasn’t an outlook for everyone in a field that is slow to embrace change, but with the right people in place, Julie’s vision soon became a thriving reality.

“I founded Ventura Partners to create a new paradigm for the search industry,” Julie told me when I interviewed her and Bob Damon, a partner in the firm, recently. “Large firms, in my view, are driven by individual metrics to measure consultant performance on business booked, business executed, and quality of service.”

Setting a New Culture

In that world, she said, search consultants must develop and execute their own business to get paid. “But that compensation model often fosters internal competition among partners and not the kind of internal collaboration that I was seeking. At the outset, I knew I had to change the old executive search structure of a ‘culture of competition’ into a ‘culture of collaboration.’”

In many ways, the rise of the Internet and database platforms like LinkedIn was the catalyst for Ventura Partners, which is based in Beverly Hills. “I saw that my profession was going to be forever changed, and so not only did I want to stay ahead of that, but I honestly believed – and still do – that I could offer a more personalized approach to my clients if I opened up my own shop,” says Julie, who is president of the firm. “You have to understand that I had worked most of my search career in large firms with a large infrastructure to support. Clients pay for efficiency and want superior service for fair value.”

Julie, joined by her husband, Kevin, worked together to provide what she calls “client-centric service,” primarily concentrating on small/ mid-cap companies backed by private equity dollars. “Now, of course, it was easy for me and Kevin to collaborate,” she says. “The issue was creating a new model of collaboration that could be sustained and shared with others. This past year when Chad Chatlos and my longtime friend and colleague Bob Damon joined we wanted to make that culture of collaboration operational and sustainable.”

Team Effort

From the very beginning, collaboration was among the company’s core values. All of the firm’s partners receive equal pay. And the ultimate goal is to recruit impact players for its clients, not growth for growth’s sake.

Such a focus makes a big difference, says Bob, who came aboard earlier this year. In his experience, having held major leadership roles in both large firms and boutiques, compensation structure produced internal competition along with revenue. Yet it seldom led to the kind of coming together among partners that gave clients better results.

“The Ventura model is a culture of collaboration between all the firm’s partners,” Bob explains. “We work on all aspects of the business together. We are agnostic about who, where, and how the business is won or executed. It is a true team effort that occurs on every assignment and this ultimately translates into collaboration with our clients. The goal is to create shareholder value for the client in every search we undertake. It is a win-win across the board.”

Big Firm Experience

Julie’s background includes more than a dozen years between Korn Ferry and Heidrick & Struggles, where she was a partner. Since starting Ventura Partners six years ago, she has led C-level projects for companies such as Patagonia, The North Face, and Incase, as well as private equity groups like Gores, RLH, and Wedbush.

Bob, for his part, has 25 years of working in C-level roles, first at Spencer Stuart, and then at Korn Ferry, where he served as executive chairman of the Americas. His clients have included the NFL, Fender, Levi Strauss & Co., Office Depot, Under Armour, and more than a dozen private equity firms, such as TPG, Castanea Partners, KKR, and Apax Partners.

Julie points out that the search industry’s pricing model has remained virtually unchanged over the years. But with the advent of LinkedIn and widespread, easy identification of candidates, the front-end cycle time has been significantly reduced.

Recruiting Impact Players

“Shouldn’t that be passed on to clients?” she asks. “We believe so and we have put that into action. Our fees are customized to provide great service and great value. Larger search firms would like clients to believe that they have more access and better tools to identify and assess candidates. LinkedIn and the proliferation of readily available, validated assessment tools have leveled the playing field.”

But true value runs deeper than the fee model. It’s ultimately about getting top talent, and impact players, for its clients. “The fact of the matter is that people fill assignments, not firms,” says Bob. “It is not the size of the quiver or the structure of the bow, but the skill of the archer that hits the bullseye. Our partners possess senior level experience and unique track records for assessing what culture fit makes for a great leader in a given situation. We also have our own nontraditional methods for assessing it.”

To make a real difference in delivering high caliber hires,Ventura Partners strives to align with its client companies on every level. “We put our skin in the game,” says Julie. “We have no interest in just filling boxes on organizational charts in Fortune 500 companies. We pride ourselves on being trusted advisors to small/ midcap companies, boards, and private equity groups. We attend board meetings. We live and breathe our clients’ lives. Given our life experiences, we are mirror images of our clients. We act as, and are in some cases, independent board directors and investors. In addition, the culture of collaboration opens the door to innovation. Our partners have license to pursue their big ideas – to figure out how to remove the barriers to speed, efficiency, and quality that can trip up searches.”

Creating Value Down the Line

Boards, CEO, and C-suite leaders in small / midcap private equity-backed or owner-founded companies are what some would call Ventura Partners’ sweet spot. “Working in this closely-held environment enables us to develop and hone deep, intimate relationships with clients,” says Bob. “We sit with clients, solve problems, and find solutions. That’s our focus.”

The firm also concentrates on collegiate and professional sports groups as well as teams. Ventura offers clients a wellspring of knowledge and expertise in sports. That’s not easily found in the search industry. “Bob, for example, is a rare breed having actively worked on searches for the commissioners of the NFL, NHL, and MLB during his career,” says Julie. “And we are extremely adept in consumer brands in the broadest sense, including lifestyle brands, action sports, specialty retail, health and wellness, nutrition, food and beverage, and the hospitality sectors.”

“Chad’s addition to the team has been very exciting as he brings tremendous search experience in the sports world working on some of the biggest searches to include football coaches at Michigan, Florida, and the Atlanta Falcons. He has introduced a consultative model that is redefining talent management in college and professional sports.”

That kind of expertise is of great benefit to clients. “Our intense focus assures that every piece of information accumulated is leveraged to create more value down the line,” Julie says. “We have been able to create incredibly rich data stores in our areas of expertise. That’s the key. We are not jack-of-all trades; we are the ultimate masters of some.”

Blowing a Client’s Mind

The roots of Ventura Partners go back a number of years, and as is so often the case they stemmed from the experience of working for a big search firm. Julie and Bob worked together at Korn Ferry a decade ago. And while they have fond memories of working with many of their clients, there were also less inspiring moments.

“We had periods of time where we felt like we were working deeply with clients as partners,” remembers Julie. “We had passion for their products, their culture, and their mission. We were helping them realize their goals and dreaming their dreams alongside them. It was like we were a boutique within a big firm.”

“But not every client relationship worked that way. There were times that we simply had to take on searches to drive revenue. We both knew back then that we wanted to create a place where we could have those good but fleeting moments all the time – where our partners could perform their best. As a result of our equal partnership and careful consideration on assignment selection, our clients come first. Now, every day we go to work we love what we do, and do what we love.”

Ventura Partners would be a poor fit for a run-of-the-mill search partner, Bob admits. Cog-in-the-machine types would do better to look elsewhere. “Our search partners can’t stop thinking about the next great idea that will blow a client’s mind,” he says. “All of us can’t wait to get to work. Every day, we collaborate on projects we believe in with clients we trust. Who wouldn’t want that?”

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

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