One Recruiter’s Journey From Industry to Executive Search

October 16, 2015 – Managing director Jeff Ashpitz has spent the last 17 years with Strawn Arnold & Associates, a leading life sciences recruiting specialist based in Austin. But it was his earlier corporate experience in life sciences, which lasted nearly 30 years, that set the groundwork for a storied career in executive search.

In this interview, Jeff reveals how that initial global sector experience prepared him for a near-two decade recruiting career, building a search brand that is now synonymous with ‘best in class’ recruiting work in the life sciences and healthcare industries.

Jeff has often said that his client’s successes depend on innovation — and that dynamic rules nearly every search assignment he and his partners undertake. As Jeff tells us, there’s nothing more ‘mission critical’ than identifying the right candidate for every job. But that’s not getting any easier, he says, due to how technology advances are transforming the entire healthcare sector — and with it, the type of talent now being recruited.

But first and foremost, Jeff explains why it has become so important, as a boutique, to stand for results and personal service. It is likely a relentless focus on that chief concern why Strawn Arnold’s clients beckon today from deep within biopharma, medical devices, generics, diagnostics, healthcare services and life sciences organizations.

Jeff, you worked for 25 to 30 years in the life sciences and pharmaceutical sectors before entering recruiting.  How did that experience prepare you to be a recruiter?

I started my career in the life sciences industry as a pharmaceutical sales representative with Eli Lilly in Canada. I spent 13 years there; I spent another 12 years with the Lederle Pharmaceutical Division of American Cyanamid in the U.S., the Philippines and the U.K. before returning to the U.S. I then spent two years with the Zimmer Division of Bristol-Myers Squibb as president of Zimmer Europe based in Brussels.

So, having grown up in life sciences, I have worked in all areas of the business, including commercial operations, research & development, manufacturing, corporate administration and C-level general management. I have a very good understanding of our life science clients’ business issues as well as candidate requirements. As I have held or supervised many of these positions, I am able to clearly and crisply define the search parameters to maximize effort, decrease time-to-fill and source high quality executives, scientists and physicians within the industry.

While working in the industry, I learned first hand that hiring the best people is critical to the success of any business. Top talent truly makes a difference. There is nothing more ‘mission critical’ than hiring the right person into the right position at the right time with the right company. That’s how I led as a general manager and that’s exactly how I think today as an executive recruiter. The network of talented colleagues with whom I grew up in the industry have been invaluable contacts as I transitioned into my second life in executive search and, for the past 17 years, thrived in the recruiting business.

What led to your decision to trade in your corporate career for one in search?

Following the hostile takeover of American Cyanamid by American Home Products in the mid 1990s, I found myself in outplacement. What do you do when you are unemployed for the first time in 27 years and have only worked with two companies? First you update your resume. You then network like crazy calling everyone in the world you know. Finally, you call every headhunter who you have ever hung up on! And I was one of those jerks who did not take calls from executive recruiters.

I rapidly expanded my network and had the pleasure of meeting Bill Strawn who interviewed me for a biotech CEO position. Bill asked if I had ever considered a career in executive search. After making a few snarky remarks about headhunters, I thanked him for his offer, but informed him that I was selling my home in New Jersey and moving to Brussels as president of Zimmer Europe. Two years later, following a divesture, restructuring and downsizing, BMS closed the Zimmer European office and I found myself in outplacement (albeit with another generous severance package) for the second time. But I was now unemployed and homeless. With the opportunity to move anywhere in the world and with the desire to never have to relocate my family again (my kids were eight and 11 at the time), Austin, Texas seemed like a perfect location. I re-contacted Bill, told him that I was only joking about the nasty things I had said about headhunters and asked if the position was still available. I am so pleased that Bill said yes, as the past 17 years with Strawn Arnold have been fabulous. My move from industry to executive search has been one of the best decisions of my life. I absolutely love the business.

How has your global experience helped?

The life sciences industry is truly a global business. Research and development knows no borders. Life science executives move from one part of the world to another with ease and they do it all the time. My global experience has provided an understanding of different cultures as well as the knowledge that there is no monopoly of good ideas in any one country.

Having lived and worked in all parts of the world, I have experienced firsthand economic, social, political, and cultural global forces and their impact on business and executive careers. I believe this exposure has made me a better businessman and a better executive search professional.

What are some key talent management trends that are driving healthcare, life sciences and the pharmaceutical sectors today? 

Big pharma continues to consolidate, restructure and downsize, while biotechnology is booming — specialty, rare diseases, and orphan drug companies are becoming very strong niche players. Generic companies are in significant growth mode, while VC-backed medical device startups have surged. And healthcare IT and services firms are growing exponentially.

Overall, technology advances are transforming the entire healthcare industry. The need for top talent has never been greater. Experienced C-level executives with the ability to transition from big pharma or big medical technology companies to smaller, entrepreneurial, fast-moving and non-bureaucratic players are in great demand. Scientific and medical advances drive the need for R&D executives with a demonstrated track record of success in discovering, developing, and obtaining regulatory approvals — and ultimately bringing new products to market to improve the health of patients and, in many cases, save lives.

Are there advantages being such a focused life sciences recruiting boutique?

Like myself, all the Strawn Arnold partners have held executive level positions in their respective segments of the life sciences industry. For example, my partner John Groover, who is our medical devices practice leader, was president of Sulzer Carbomedics prior to joining our firm. Previously, he worked with the Ethicon Division of J&J, Baxter Healthcare, GE Medical Systems and Acuson-Siemens. All of the Strawn Arnold partners have similarly impressive backgrounds and executive experiences, giving them credibility and a strong network of contacts in their respective healthcare sectors.

We have stood in our clients’ shoes and bring a business mindset and partnership approach to every search assignment. We understand the key elements of the search through the eyes of the hiring manager. As a boutique firm, the partners personally handle every aspect of the search — from developing the position profile; identifying a pool of qualified candidates; contacting, screening and interviewing potential candidates; preparing interview reports and recommendations; providing counsel to the client and mentoring to the candidate; completing reference checks; working with the hiring team to negotiate compensation and finalizing the job offer; and to sealing the deal and bringing the candidate on board. We do not have a junior recruiting staff working on any of our assignments. The partners do 100 percent of the work on every assignment and provide their personal service to each and every client. This ’boutique’ approach has served our firm, our clients and our candidates very well for over 40 years.

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media

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