November 13, 2015 – One of the hallmarks of outstanding companies is that they have a knack for being one step ahead of others in understanding where the market and the innovations that drive it are headed. It’s not clairvoyance so much as an immersion in their field, knowing its inner workings, identifying trends early, and building relationships. For executive search firms, particularly those in specialty areas, those ingredients are the difference between being a leader or an also-ran.
Bianca Coulter has built a career out of staying ahead of the curve. After a successful 10-year stint with Korn Ferry in London, she spent some time developing a healthcare practice for an executive search firm in the U.S. Then in 2003, Bianca founded London-based Coulter Partners, which specializes in global life sciences. Back then Europe seemed way behind the North American market and less obvious as a place to build bio-pharma and med-tech businesses. Big companies and investors interested in that market were wary of committing their resources for such endeavors in the United Kingdom and Europe.
“The perception was that the conditions for employing large numbers in European locations were not as good as in North America, and that for earlier-stage businesses, it was extremely hard to find entrepreneurial leadership, let alone ROI success stories,” says Bianca, who is chief executive officer. “We did very well serving the needs of companies bucking the trend in the U.K. and Europe, and built our team here, but also started to work extensively in the U.S. too.”
The plan, Bianca says, was to recruit talent for clients back home. But as it turned out, Coulter Partners won the respect and trust of companies in America and began branching out. Once primarily focused on sourcing talent from around the world for U.K. and European-based businesses, the firm is now firmly ensconced with eight locations in all major markets. It employs some 50 people.
As life science businesses started to open up around the world, Coulter Partners was well positioned to take advantage and grow. “Our sector has changed beyond anyone’s expectations over the last two decades,’ Bianca says. “Vast volumes have been written about changes in understanding of disease progression and causes, gene and cell therapy approaches, the role of the immune system in cancer treatment, the rise of the rare diseases- and personalized medicines- business models, the power that technology advances have brought to scientific and medical endeavor, the patient journey, pricing and reimbursement, etc. Advances in science and technology obviously cause the bio-pharmaceutical and medical devices sectors to evolve at a pace that outstrips most others. This has major implications for search firms serving the sector.”
It certainly poses some challenges. It’s critical that a specialized search firm like Coulter Partners stays abreast of trends in technology and the marketplace. Recruiters, meanwhile, need more than a surface understanding of the science and technology behind the varied businesses. They also have to be able to speak the language. And perhaps most important, they have to build relationships and have access to leaders up and down the sector’s entire value chain.
But there’s also a bigger picture comprehension that’s essential to finding and recruiting potential leaders. “We need to understand the appetites and needs of the major multinationals to understand the drivers for investors and entrepreneurs in the early-stage company sector,” says Bianca. “In the mid-cap and growth segments we have seen that the type of leadership required is competed for and still rare. We need to be able to evaluate who can succeed as a leader in each different type of business model – and to keep in touch with academia and leadership in research institutes, to know the implications for business models of the latest discoveries, and scientific/technical progress.”
“In our sector the combination of the patent cliff and the constant innovation and progress of science means that any business has to evaluate its relevance and future potential on a very real time basis. In order to evaluate leadership we need to be absolutely up to date with these drivers and we therefore need people in the team who can engage highly intelligently with the market.”
Seldom does Coulter Partners find the kind of recruiters it wants at other search firms. “Most search firms do not go into such depth and so growing our own team has involved hiring Ph.D. scientists and experts from R & D careers, and from top quality consultancies and leading edge companies in our sector,” says Bianca. “We do not rely on public domain information on databases or broadly accessible networks. We engage with the marketplace as peers, to help understand what has and has not worked, the pros and cons of specific scientific approaches and disease-treatment strategies, the impact of new technologies, and the threats and opportunities that exist.
“This means that when we consult with clients about their leadership needs, and the specialists they are going to have to compete for to succeed in such a fast-paced change environment, we can truly add value to the debate and help them secure very rare and highly valuable specialist leadership.”
That, in turn, means having a global network to be able to quickly tap into. In a sense, geographical borders matter little for many of Coulter Partners’ client companies, especially when it comes to the flow of money and talent. These businesses tend to require more than one center of scientific excellence as well as a cosmopolitan leadership willing to move around the world. “We often experience investors and founders asking us to help them decide where to build headquarters for new companies where they are likely to find the most appropriate leadership talent, and of course we are constantly required to find people who will relocate as well,” Bianca says. “Again this requires reach into all corners of the market but has little to do with bricks and mortar. While our office network is growing (eight locations in North America and Europe), the key has been to have multi-lingual, multi-market experience and connected researchers and consultants. Our team speaks many languages and has worked in all major bio-pharma markets and is organized as one P & L to ensure collaborative information and experience sharing.”
For Coulter Partners this for the most part calls for developing its own team as opposed to plucking talent from other recruitment firms. “The ‘eat what you kill’ remuneration structures of many of our competitors do not equip people with a team mindset,” says Bianca. “The great by-product of this challenge for us is that we have evolved our own excellent personal development and training processes and systems, and hired exceptionally team-oriented people who care about one thing above all – client and candidate satisfaction.”
Contributed by Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor, Hunt Scanlon Media