Interview: Top DHR Recruiter Sees Business Returning … Slowly

July 10, 2009 – Colleen Hulce serves as executive vice president and managing director of DHR International in Los Angeles. In this capacity, Ms. Hulce also serves as global leader of DHR's chief financial officer practice. Since joining the firm in 2005, Ms. Hulce has worked on numerous CFO searches and the direct reports to the CFO including VP tax, treasury, planning and analysis, and controller. She has also completed senior assignments in direct and digital marketing, procurement, and operations. Ms. Hulce spent 15 years with Korn/Ferry International before starting her own firm, which was acquired by DHR four years ago. In the following interview, Ms. Hulce discusses financial recruiting on the West Coast as well as nationally and what to expect for the financial industry in the coming year.

Tell us about recruiting on the West Coast — is business weak or strong there given the economic difficulties in California?

California is definitely slow from an employment perspective at every level. I believe we may have the highest unemployment rate in the country. Additionally we have few major corporations based in California as many have left for tax reasons and the general cost of doing business in our state. Relocating people here is difficult at any level and most C-level searches require a national effort as there is not a plethora of talent here in all functions, particularly when you’re conducting a C-level search for a Fortune 500 company or larger. The private equity market is our best shot at search business right now and we have a strong presence to serve this sector in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and NYC.

Who's hiring right now in that regional market and at what levels do you see activity? What areas seem to show the weakest activity?

Interestingly we actually have a handful of clients in the retail sector being managed by Los Angeles and D.C. that are staffing at the C-levels and for their direct reports. We have also completed a few key board searches for Fortune 50 and 500 companies in the first half of the year. In terms of regions, I believe the Midwest and parts of the East Coast may be the busiest but the market is spotty across the country and in most industries. I would say that financial services is the weakest right now, but it will come back and DHR is positioned well to handle future demand.

What about the rest of the country where you conduct search work — what are you seeing right now?

I touched on this in the preceding question a bit. I’d add that we’ve had activity in Chicago, St. Louis and recently completed a very significant search out of our Dallas office for an investment bank and for a major retailer in Phoenix. There are others of course but I would highlight those. There isn’t an industry sector that is currently recruiting a lot of people at any level. Healthcare could be the one exception.

Has there been an improvement over the last 12 month period?

During the last few months there has been some improvement but I don’t believe anyone in the top five global search firms could honestly tell you they are exceptionally busy at present.

Where do you see us heading in the second half of 2009, and what's your best guess for 2010 given what you know right now?

As you’ve reported there is a lot of talk about the third and fourth quarters being more robust, but personally I am not sure what the talk and those feelings are based upon. Of course we would all love to see this happen and there could be pent up demand that would keep some of us very busy during the last half of 2009, but I’m not seeing the market support a boom in executive searches. I am more optimistic that we will have more sustainable activity in the first and second quarters of 2010 but don’t believe we will return to what we all feel are normal levels for quite some time.

Are you concerned at all about the growing trend of companies developing their own internal recruiting staffs, effectively bypassing the search industry?

This practice of developing internal staffing has been going on for a while and, no, I’m not worried about it. During this recession a lot of highly qualified people have been laid off and the many Internet options out there enable internal recruiting functions to find talented people. It still takes a good deal of time and resources to identify the highest quality people available and potential candidates with secure, good jobs are extremely challenging to attract. I’m not concerned about this over the long run and confidential, C-level assignments and board searches will continue to go to search firms.

What’s the industry look like to you right now?

The top five search firms have all cut back more dramatically then they have in previous recessions and many smaller firms have gone out of business or merged with others. Our industry is smaller now and will look different for the foreseeable future. All of this is in response to the global recession. Many factors, including internal recruiting functions, have an impact but in my view there will always be a need for executive search for the most senior-level and challenging assignments.

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