Marlin Hawk Builds Winning Strategy on Finding Transformational Leaders

It’s been said that in New York one cannot walk a city block without bumping into a headhunter. Here’s the first of a two-part series on how one overseas search firm sent a lone recruiter to the Big Apple and turned its business into a juggernaut, winning over blue chip clients from cross town rivals.
Marlin Hawk Winning Strategy Finding Transformational Leaders

November 15, 2017 – Six years ago, London-based Marlin Hawk sent Mark Oppenheimer, then just 27, to New York to establish an across-the-pond outpost for the enterprising leadership advisory firm. He had four years of experience as a researcher and the faith and support of his bosses back home. But when he stepped off the plane in America, Mr. Oppenheimer was largely on his own.

Today, that picture is quite different. Mr. Oppenheimer is now CEO of the firm’s fast-growing Americas region and Marlin Hawk is growing by double digits in the U.S. After showing steady gains every year since his arrival, the firm’s American revenues will top $18 million this year. Mr. Oppenheimer expects that number to reach $30 million in 2019.

Marlin Hawk’s client roster reads like a Who’s Who of blue chip companies. Citigroup, United Technologies Corp., Capital One, Goldman Sachs, Bank of New York Mellon, PIMCO, Delta, PepsiCo, Citadel, Bridgewater Associates, Visa and TD Bank are just some of the more well-known brands that keep the leadership advisor’s nerve center in Midtown Manhattan on constant speed dial. Shootouts for assignments, meanwhile, are invariably against the Big Five global search firms, particularly Heidrick & Struggles and Spencer Stuart. Marlin Hawk, it is said, loses hardly any of those pitches.

In many ways, the firm’s U.S. operation reflects Mr. Oppenheimer himself – innovative, entrepreneurial, and with a relentless focus on clients. Mr. Oppenheimer, though, declines much of the credit for shaping the firm’s culture in the U.S., saying that it comes instead from his loyal and talented leadership team. “If you know me, I’m all about innovation and delivery. I’m known for moving a million miles an hour and always thinking about tomorrow. I’m all about driving game changing outcomes for clients,” he said.

This month Mr. Oppenheimer ran the New York City Marathon in under four hours. Impressive enough – but in Mr. Oppenheimer’s case it came eight months after having three vertebrae surgically fused. Up until race day, in fact, he had not run a single mile in two years because of back pain from sciatica. “Everyone thought I was insane,” he said. “But I did it to prove that no matter what the odds, if you want something badly enough you can achieve it by sheer resolve.”

‘100 Steps Ahead’

Marlin Hawk recruits top talent for a number of outstanding blue chip companies across the financial, industrial and technology sectors. According to Mr. Oppenheimer, the firm has an ability to uncover and recruit the 0.01 percent of top talent with the most ‘in-demand’ skills and then move them cross-industry. For example, its team has placed the four most high profile, machine learning leaders in recent months, each with a move into a new industry sector.

Marlin Hawk is also becoming known as the go-to firm in tangential service offerings like organizational analysis, compensation benchmarking, micro intelligence, leadership benchmarking, interim management, succession planning and nearly all aspects of talent planning and candidate pipelining. Executive search, although a core component of its leadership arsenal, is only a small part of the overall solutions package the firm offers.

Following Mr. Oppenheimer around the country, and listening to what his clients have to say, it is easy to conclude that this firm never seems to sleep. Nor does it merely just fill roles like its traditional search firm rivals. The firm’s rise in the U.S., in truth, is owed in large part to a passionate commitment to organizational and strategic analysis. Mr. Oppenheimer, after all, started his career in research. Digging deep is how he’s approached the business since day one. And that approach has now been conferred to his entire American team.

Improving the Talent Agenda at Citi

“When clients have a conversation with Marlin Hawk, it’s not about people, it’s about industry,” said Mr. Oppenheimer. “It’s about strategy.” He said the firm is not here to challenge traditional search firms inasmuch as “it is here to evolve the entire search industry faster than our rivals might like.”

As a Millennial, of course, he’s also intensely focused on the future of work, jobs of tomorrow and the soft skillsets that will matter most in the 21st century workplace. Last year, Mr. Oppenheimer and his team rolled out ATHENA, a proprietary assessment tool that zeroes in, in large part, on a candidate’s potential. More recently, the firm developed a center of excellence around artificial intelligence and machine learning, further distancing itself from the rest of the field.

This focus on AI and machine learning stretches across all functions – HR, compliance, legal, technology, operations, risk and marketing. “Machine learning, artificial intelligence and data science – that’s what we’ve taken a leadership position in,” he said. “We know far more about the top talent in this space than any other search firm. We have made the conscious decision to specialize in these areas from a strategic, structural and talent perspective,” he noted. “We’re actually 100 steps ahead of anybody else in the space.” True to form, Mr. Oppenheimer added: “Talent needs have completely changed in the last decade and so the methodology and process a search firm uses must also do the same. Everything we do is about solving our client’s needs of tomorrow.”

One of the first would-be clients that Mr. Oppenheimer approached after his arrival in New York was Citigroup – a name synonymous with the Big Apple. “I used Mark on the fringe to begin with, but he had such great command of the overall environment that I brought him in more and more. He’s now become one of the most important talent people we turn to,” said Don Callahan, the bank’s head of global operations and technology.

One of the reasons, said Mr. Callahan, is style. “He’s a fresh personality with a wonderful network of people. Mark understands people in terms of skillsets, and he can be very candid with me in saying, ‘This is someone you want to take a look at because it’s someone who can make an impact on your team.’ We believe talent is a critical component in terms of what we do. Citi is a talent-based organization, so building a relationship with Marlin Hawk has been all about how we improve our overall talent agenda.”

Streetwise Approach

Since his arrival to New York, Mr. Oppenheimer’s primary mission has been to build Marlin Hawk’s U.S. business around finding solutions to whatever talent challenges a client might have. Marlin Hawk, he decided, would concentrate on the transformation of the enabling functions, bringing a truly cross-industry and global view of the landscape.

“In the beginning, the focus area for us was technology,” he said. “I told clients that if you’re looking for a certain role, we can help you by first looking at the structure and strategy of competitors, and from here customize a proactive talent solution to help leapfrog the competition.” That, Mr. Oppenheimer said, was in stark contrast to how traditional headhunters worked. His focus would go well beyond the identification game, and instead converge on market intelligence and competitive analysis first. “The people part is actually quite easy,” he said. “It’s the analysis and assessment to prepare to ensure effective candidate assimilation that is more complex.” That streetwise approach is essential to understanding Mark Oppenheimer.

“In a rapidly changing business world, tradition can be an asset. But companies that refuse to adapt will struggle to grow. We help our clients see the big picture and show them how the right talent can redefine their business. We then go out and find these people.”

In delivering talent, Mr. Oppenheimer refused from the very start to merely dust off and rehash old tried and true candidates. Instead, his emphasis was on ‘diversity of thought’ – digging deeper, thinking broader, to uncover fresh faces that would bring new perspectives. “One of the things I always tell clients is that you won’t see any of the usual suspects with us. We’ll go to the ends of the earth to find next-generation thinkers who can change and evolve your business and in turn your entire industry,” he said.

Going that extra mile, he added, was an early epiphany he had when he first arrived stateside. “It was in the early days beating the pavement in New York when it all started to congeal for me,” he said. “The real opportunity that I saw ahead was to build a different type of brand – a brand focused on bringing a new age of talent methodologies to functions going through significant transformation.”

Working Around a Major Roadblock for USAA

So it was that the firm focused like a laser beam on blue-chip companies with pressing needs for change in areas like analytics, data science, digital, marketing, mobile, and more – all undergoing one form of transformation or another. “Although I was still virtually on my own, within a year we had about 15 blue chip clients,” he said. To center the business on research and market analysis – not just headhunting – he assembled a team of five or six people around him. That first year in America, Marlin Hawk grossed $5 million. Its growth and expansion story then took off from there.

Heather Cox, chief information and digital officer for USAA, has worked with Mr. Oppenheimer in her current role as well as in past positions with Citi and Capital One. “He’s charismatic,” she said of Mr. Oppenheimer. “He’s amusing. He’s got a wicked sense of humor,” she said. But more to the point, she added: “He’s exceptionally good at his craft. Mark holds himself to the highest standards and the highest level of integrity and that’s what sets him apart from everybody else. And he’s quite the snappy dresser, too.”

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Mr. Oppenheimer and Marlin Hawk, said Ms. Cox, have come through on any number of assignments. But she said she was particularly impressed with him on one recent assignment. After a long, tough hunt to recruit an executive, the bank’s candidate of choice pulled out two days before the start date. “It was a Sunday afternoon and I called Mark and said, ‘I need to talk. We’ve got a problem.’ Within a half hour late that weekend Mark brought his team together and by Tuesday they presented a full slate of candidates. But it wasn’t the old candidate list. Somehow, they worked for 48 hours straight to make sure we rebounded and completely recovered. I remember Mark telling me that Sunday evening, ‘We’ve got this, we own this, we’re going to take care of this for you.’ That’s professionalism.”

Digging Deep for PIMCO

Darcy Zulpo, global head of lateral recruiting for PIMCO, has worked with Mr. Oppenheimer and Marlin Hawk dating back to her days as chief human resources officer at hedge fund Citadel. With the latter organization, in particular, she said, Marlin Hawk was instrumental in conducting a number of key searches, digging deep for the extra 15 percent of prospects whom no one else could identify. “They always had completed research and could bring candidates to the table where other firms could not,” she said.

She also enjoyed the team approach. If Ms. Zulpo or her colleagues caught wind of an intriguing individual in the market, she said she could always count on Mr. Oppenheimer to find out more. “I would call Mark and say, ‘Do you know this person?’ And he might say, ‘No, but give me 24 hours,’ and then somehow, someway he’d have a conversation with someone and was able to bring back information and market intel. It’s really the style that he elicits when he approaches anyone and how he opens the conversation, and typically they’ll talk to him.”

A Promise to Up & Comers

Inside Marlin Hawk, meanwhile, assembling a great team of recruiters, researchers and support staff has been an equally urgent priority for Mr. Oppenheimer. “The team is everything to me,” he said. “When people join Marlin Hawk, I make them a promise to look after them and make them successful. I like to pull in young talent with an edge, a spark, and give them an opportunity to grow faster and take more responsibility than is typical for our industry.”

“To do what we do,” he added, “we need the best and the brightest. We need people who can think like a strategic consultant, architect solution directly from client needs and headhunt the talent other search firms cannot. We need people who are willing to repudiate all the traditional ways of doing things while considering new pathways forward. Innovation is our culture and our ethic.”

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

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