September 18, 2009 – Jim Gunther is principal of Harvard Aimes Group. He founded the firm in 1984 as an employer retained executive search firm engaged exclusively in the business of identifying and recruiting corporate risk management professionals. Mr. Gunther formerly served as head of risk management for Schiavone Corporation, Food Fair/Pantry Pride, and the Howard Johnson Company. In the following interview, Mr. Gunther discusses his firm’s niche of serving clients in need of risk management executives.
Tell us about the importance of risk management within a company's corporate structure – and how does your firm fit in with clients in need of risk management executives?
As you may know, I was a practicing risk manager prior to founding Harvard Aimes Group 25 years ago. Having hired people and changed jobs a couple times myself, I felt there was a crying need for someone – WHO ACTUALLY UNDERSTOOD RISK MANAGEMENT – to be involved in the process. Since then I've witnessed an evolving of the craft. There was a time when top management's expectations for the risk management function was limited to "buying the insurance" for the company. The risk manager largely served as the buffer/interlocutor between the insurance mechanisms (with its own arcane language and practices) and the company (where the important work was done). For the risk manager there was more emphasis on (and a comfort level with) speaking the insurance world's language and not-so-much that of the company's. Companies often looked to hire that narrowly defined technician. Its little wonder risk managers were seldom regarded as "mainstream managers." Their education and experience was typically quite different from that of their manager-peers. Better prepared people have come into the craft – folks with mainstream accounting, finance and legal skills (not just insurance) – and they have gradually raised the level of impact and expectations of top corporate managements.
Explain the search process for conducting assignments within the risk management sector — are there any special recruiting nuances that lead to more successful hires for your clients?
I work only on an employer-retained basis. We are able to spend a lot of time with the client (including meeting with peer level managers) before the typical project is begun. We help the client identify not only what they want but, more importantly, what they need! I also recruit every position. This may seem obvious. While we maintain an extensive database of (we hope) anyone even obliquely involved in risk management, we never assume we know who will "win" before we start the project. We believe every client is entitled to the entire process they've paid for. As it turns out, after 25+ years, I can count on one hand the number projects I've completed by placing a person I had in mind at the beginning of the project. Operating in such a narrow-niche (and actual hands-on experience in the risk manager chair), we're able to discern the buzzwords and the BS. This perspective saves the company hard dollars and management time in the execution of a search project. Lastly, while I represent the client, I've always felt that the best marriages are based on a mutuality of interests. It has to be sensible and right for both sides of the relationship or it's never going to work out long-term.
What types of positions do you generally recruit for and what are some of your most recent search assignments? How many searches do you take on annually?
When I started the company over 25 years ago, the very concept of employer retained search in the (insurance) risk management area was pretty novel. I've never restricted my practice to "only No. 1" or "only vice president" level positions. In fact, over-the-years I've done as many "No. 2" level positions as "No. 1s. I've always felt if I was going to hold myself out as "the risk management recruiting resource," I had to make myself available to fill the client's need whatever the level. In fact, it's more challenging – if not as remunerative to fill a No. 2 position because you're usually looking for undiscovered talent. We never discuss numbers or revenues but, because I work alone (with a part-time researcher) I never undertake more than four projects at any one time. Frankly, I'm more comfortable working on two or three simultaneously. Multi-tasking is over-rated.
What sectors are hot right now and which are not? Which sectors have the most growth potential in the coming 12 to 18 months?
The bad news is the Fortune 1000 has largely hunkered down in the last 18 months. Most middle management hiring has been closely scrutinized. The good news is the risk manager (since 9/11) has found a more secure seat-at-the-table. That is, I haven't seen the blood-letting nor any great trend to outsource the position as was common in earlier downturns. I believe the need to think about (and to plan for) the un-thinkable has proved its value in the boardroom. When an opening occurs, today management insists they get an individual who can be perceived as a mainstream manager (and not just a technician) in that seat. Bottom line: higher expectation on the part of management ensures steady business flow for us.
For a specific niche such as risk management, how important is it for a client to find a search firm that only focuses within this given niche?
Obviously, it's crucial! A specialist can not only separate the sheep from the goats but discern the show horses and the work horses. There's so much more to success than just knowing the buzz words.