June 21, 2018 – The most effective executive search firms do much more than simply go out and find talent. Their consultants bring deep passion, curiosity and interest to their work. What’s more, they are constantly learning about their sector, its people and the nuances of the varied roles.
In a nutshell, that’s the kind of firm that Matt Slepin has commanded and shaped since he founded Terra Search Partners 12 years ago. “The most important thing for us is to really understand our client’s business as experts ourselves and to bring a deep perspective that helps the client beyond just finding a group of candidates,” he said. “You have to be a quick study and to be curious and to become a specialist each time you do a search.”
Not long ago, Mr. Slepin spoke with Hunt Scanlon Media about a range of topics related to his firm and its work. Like many founders of their own firms, Mr. Slepin spoke about wanting to provide a greater depth of service to clients than his previous jobs allowed. He also spoke about how depth of understanding one’s industry goes a long way toward success, the passion his people bring to their jobs and the range of assignments they have taken on. And, he gave us his insights into how Terra Search finds talent for clients in the real estate industry’s four “food groups.”
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In addition to leading the firm, Mr. Slepin advises clients and manages senior-level searches for many of Terra’s clients. Before he founded Terra Search, he was a partner with several executive recruiting firms, including Heidrick & Struggles and Ferguson Partners. Prior to executive search, he held leadership, management and functional roles within the real estate industry for more than 20 years. Mr. Slepin was founder and executive director of the Multifamily Housing Institute in Washington, D.C. He also worked in key development, advocacy and finance positions for the National Housing Partnership, National Association of Housing Cooperatives and the Resolution Trust Corporation. He further rounded out his real estate expertise with NV Commercial, a northern Virginia-based commercial property company, and Reilly Mortgage, then one of the country’s leading apartment lenders.
Matt, what was the impetus behind your forming Terra Search Partners in 2006?
I had been at three search firms prior to forming Terra. I started at a small real estate search boutique that we sold to Heidrick & Struggles. I then spent three years as a partner at Heidrick and then joined a large boutique in our space. What I found at each of the firms was that my role was fundamentally more about the top line revenue results versus building a long term brand and reputation in the space and doing great work, which did not fit well with my personality. Said differently, I guess I had to do it my way and become my own boss! But truly the impetus was to create the ability to do great work over the long term, which means really going deep and consultatively with clients and candidates. And doing it exclusively in my industry, real estate, and building both my and the firm’s business and reputation over the long term, which did not really fit with the big firm ethos. Owning my own firm has enabled me to focus on areas that I never would have considered back when I started the firm. I did not know how important it indeed would be to do search to the level of depth, quality and intensity of advisory service that we do. I did not know the pleasure of mentoring and training people and building a team that grows together. It has also afforded me the luxury to start a related business – we created a podcast on leadership in the real estate industry called Leading Voices in Real Estate (on Apple iTunes and other podcast apps as well as at www.leadingvoicespodcast.com) which has been a tremendous pleasure and which I believe has a meaningful impact on our business. All of these things you get to do as a leader that you did not intend upfront, but really make all of this hard work worthwhile!
“The most important thing for us is to really understand our client’s business as experts ourselves and to bring a deep perspective that helps the client beyond just finding a group of candidates. You have to be a quick study, curious and a specialist each time you do a search.”
The majority of search firms hire consultants from their rivals. Is this your strategy?
We have hired almost exclusively from the real estate industry versus from the search industry. To be a strong consultant and advisor in our space, you really have to both understand the real estate business and also have passion for it. Everyone on our team brings that perspective.
Describe the types of assignments Terra Search Partners works on and give us some examples.
We’ve been fortunate to build a true cross-discipline practice, working with everyone from publicly-held REITs to institutions, large private firms and non-profit owner-developers. Over the years, one of our major clients has been a national non-profit housing group. We have helped them build both their corporate staff in a number of top level positions as well as regional president positions for their organization. The most recent search was a senior-level, succession type role, which presented very specific challenges for our search. In this case, we were really working to create a bench, not just for this client, but also for all of our work in their sector. Another client was a start-up private equity firm in the apartment business. We helped the CEO build his senior team when the business was first started in the 2007-2008 timeframe, just before the global financial crisis. We then helped with a recent search as one of our initial placements was promoted essentially to chief investment officer. My last example is a search we are doing in the South for the CEO of a storied real estate company that is transitioning CEOs. The founder died about 10 years ago and a new team came in to deal with his unexpected death. That team grew and stabilized the company. We are now doing a search for the next generation CEO to lead that business and its diversification into some social impact real estate investing in their region.
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Every industry sector has its own nuances. Are there any unique elements to real estate that make it a more challenging environment in which to operate?
I assume that all industries have their own nuances, so it is hard to know if real estate’s are unique or generic. But I think that the most important thing for us is to really understand our client’s business as experts ourselves and to bring a deep perspective that helps the client beyond just finding a group of candidates. You have to be a quick study and to be curious and to become a specialist each time you do a search. The top people at my firm are all deeply involved in the real estate industry and with industry trade groups. I remember when I was at Heidrick & Struggles that the depth of our involvement in our industry was fairly counter cultural, but it is the only way we know how to do it. It does not have immediate ROI and results, but it is this type of investment over the long haul that both makes for a sustainable business, but also increases our passion, knowledge and pleasure in what we do.
Sourcing top talent always remains a challenge for search firms and their clients. Have you had to reach beyond the real estate sector to identify candidates and, if so, which industries or functional disciplines best fit with real estate?
We bias our work towards looking within the industry, but there are some roles where outside experience has equal value. We are doing a search for a CFO of an apartment company at the moment and are talking to several candidates outside of real estate, one in healthcare and one in retail. We also look outside of the industry, and that search also fits the bill, where we are really seeking diversity candidates, so push the envelope further to cast that net. We also find that we can look in one or two concentric rings outside of the specific part of real estate of our client to find candidates. Real estate has what are called the four “food groups” of retail, apartments, industrial and office. It is not at all necessary, although depending upon the role, where you can pull people in from the other food groups. I know that is still real estate, but sometimes jumping food groups is considered outside the box. Finally, the real estate industry has companies that are global and of an institutional size and scale not known in the business even five, 10, 15 years ago. The skills of working both globally and working at a far different scale and with more sophisticated technologies all do necessitate finding people outside of the industry. One place to look, especially for the apartment industry, has long been hospitality, but which I still consider inside the real estate family.
Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor; and Will Schatz, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media