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Pekarsky & Co February 2017 Newsletter – If You Can’t Join ‘Em, Beat ‘Em

February 3, 2017

Dear Friends and Colleagues,


I have always believed that the corner bookstore proprietor is more knowledgeable about her collection and has likely read more of it than is and has the staffer at Chapters. I believe the croissant maker at the local bakery is a better pastry chef than the guy behind the counter in the Superstore baked goods department. I believe that boutique hotels and corner hardware stores and neighbourhood coffee houses are more invested in their clients’ needs than the desk clerk at the Hilton, the orange aprons at Home Depot or the green ones at Starbucks. That’s what I believe.


I’m not talking about airlines or pipelines or elevator makers. I will always prefer to fly Boeing’s 737 over Bob’s 737 but those industries are heavily regulated to protect us. However, professional services firms, or more specifically executive search firms, for whom no Bachelor of Recruitment Sciences is required and no barriers to entry exist, whose stock in trade is discretion, connection, hustle and resourcefulness, are not better simply because they’re bigger. Unlike large law firms, say, (whose practitioners are regulated, by the way) and who typically only hire students with the best grades, attract the highest-profile laterals and land most of the bet-the-farm deals, there should be no correlation between the size of an executive search firm and the quality of the work it attracts and executes upon. McDonalds makes the most burgers; they don’t make the best burgers.


It should come as no surprise, then, that as the Founding Partner of a boutique search firm it is my belief that we are simply better, or at least as good, at search than the global giants whose “partners” are really just employees, at worst, or shareholders of a widely-held multi-national corporation, at best. Clearly, there are some exceptional search people at big firms, and I’ve learned from some of the best, but the great ones are usually great already; despite the brand, not because of it.


I also happen to believe that when companies select a vendor, particularly in economically challenging times, that they have an obligation to buy local. Only, of course, if the product is as good or better and if the price is competitive compared to the national or global offering. After all, if you can get as good if not a better product for a comparable price, why wouldn’t you support the entrepreneurial local vendor who pumps those tax dollars and those hard earned profits back into the local economy that benefits us all rather than toward the bottom line of some giant US or global enterprise?


So maybe that’s why the conversation on our rooftop patio during our firm Stampede party last July, and the events which followed it, so shook that belief and even caused us to seriously entertain two very real advances from two very large national and global search firms interested in acquiring us during the latter half of 2016.


Sure, we’d had knocks on the door before but we never answered; hardly surprising given the foregoing battle cry for the little guy. We even boast on our website that “We Know Small Is Mighty”. And it’s no secret that I left a “Big 5” global search firm to start this one after leaving a global law firm to join that one.

I readily admit to having a healthy chip on my shoulder when it comes to the myth that bigger is better. I think the fixation on large, the comfort and safety of hiring the big brand, is more about the decision maker protecting his or her hindquarters than anything else; an elixir that will ward off criticism if things go sideways and the choice is questioned.


So why, with all that, would we dance with the devil?  Let alone two of them!


The answer lies with that disheartening conversation on the rooftop last summer. It was with a soon-to-be-retiring senior executive at a large company who is a long-time client of ours from whom it had been widely assumed for the past couple of years a significant search would be forthcoming to fill the void created by his inevitable departure. Absent his ceasing to age (which I submit is never a good result), retirement was looming and there would be a search for his replacement. So we stayed in touch and hoped for the opportunity to pitch for the work.


While enjoying my beer on my roof that fateful July afternoon, he said, “you know you’ll never get the search for my replacement, right?” In fact, I did know that, because the VP of Human Resources shared the news with me a week earlier, far more delicately though no less painfully. “We would simply never entrust a mandate as important as this,” continued the rooftop beat-down, “in the hands of a little boutique firm.” And while he didn’t pat me on the head after delivering the news, the kick to more southerly regions of my person was punctuation enough.  I had, after all, met with him on several occasions during the past few years, asking only for the opportunity to pitch, for our firm’s most dominant area of specialization is his functional area – law – and he knew that we had successfully executed dozens of round-the-globe searches for identical roles at similarly sized companies. “The only way you’ll ever get a mandate like this” he continued, helpfully, is “if you sold to one of the large global firms.”


Like being fired in a crowded restaurant or dumped in a packed bar, I had no choice but to take it, act graceful and carry on with my hosting duties. Not easy for I am a sore loser. But this was neither the time nor place to remind him of all the flaws in his reasoning; of all of our firm’s past successes; of the fallacy in the myth that bigger is better; of the higher fees the global firms charge; of the bait and switch of the senior partner landing the search while some junior is left to work it; of the purported superiority of their research capabilities; of the reluctance to actually involve one of those many global offices for fear of having to split the fee; of the reminder that our Internet works outside of Canada and our phone plan includes long-distance. Instead, I grimaced gracefully and offered him another beer.


Not entirely magnanimously I did, however, email the VP HR who had shared the news with me the week prior, and in my email I wrote:  “I will watch with interest as the global search firm secures a leading global candidate for you when the time comes to do the General Counsel search, though I’ll wager you a corned beef sandwich and a pickle that the successful candidate will come from Alberta at the end of the day.”  I take no joy in reporting to you these many months later that I am owed a corned beef sandwich and a pickle. An “I told you so” doesn’t pay the rent, though it does taste good.


And so we danced.


By autumn NDA’s were signed, financials exchanged, and clandestine meetings with competitor global firm Regional Leaders and CEOs were held in dimly lit restaurants in far away places.


Then, as if on cue, the music picked up and another sign that perhaps my rooftop tormentor was right, appeared.


In this case, we were at least invited to pitch. The search was for a CEO in a very niche space—the proverbial purple squirrel where no one firm could credibly boast a depth of expertise. Again, we had spent many years cultivating a relationship with the Board and the senior management team. And when the invitation came to pitch, we poured our heart into our written submissions, as we always do.  We spoke of the relative ease in mapping the space and explained that the hard part of any search isn’t finding the people, or the squirrels, but rather telling them a compelling story about the organization, about Alberta, and, in this case, about Calgary. We even went so far as to boldly suggest that they look outside their industry to bring in some new and different thinking, and we speculated that the successful candidate was likely right here in Calgary.


In the end, we again lost to a large global firm who flew in a partner from a US office who, allegedly, specialized solely in purple squirrels. That actually made me feel better, until I read the press release a few weeks ago announcing that the successful candidate would be joining from outside their industry to bring in some new and different thinking and, wait for it, he came from right here in Calgary.


Again, unable to ignore a friendly poke, I emailed: “Congratulations on the hire. Heck, if I’d known you were going to hire a local guy with no [industry] experience I would have thought we might have had a better shot at this one. Either way, a good result in the end for you.  Pleased for you.”


So pleased.


Yes, we enjoy nipping at the heels of the big guys and we are self-aware enough to know that we aren’t going to win every mandate. And to be perfectly clear, we take no issue with the end results above; in both cases the ultimately successful candidate was a strong choice, but the furthest thing from a global one.


And so our modest losing streak last summer drove us into the arms of those two large firms and caused us to flirt, rather seriously.


Who can blame us. The market, or at least a certain segment of it, simply can’t ignore the allure of big. The adage that “no one ever got fired for hiring IBM” haunts us frequently. Sure, we’re nearly eight years into this venture and we have completed over 500 searches for some of Canada’s largest companies, government bodies, academic institutions, not-for-profits and professional services firms, yet the voice in our head (and on our roof) whispered, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”


Then a third portent occurred. The closest thing we had to a doppelganger is, or was, BluEra; a well-run local boutique search firm and kindred spirit built on relationships and community. So when they announced their sale to DHR International and the consequent end of the BluEra era, our dance suddenly felt more like a game of musical chairs. We feared the music might stop without a chair for us (as recently as last week, another chair disappeared with sale of Conroy Ross to Optimum Talent, another strong local brand selling out and ‘going big’). With all this peer pressure surely we’re to be forgiven for temporarily straying and forsaking our boutique roots to explore our options, right? All the cool kids are doing it.


Then an amazing thing happened. Both deals died. One offer we flatly rejected, the other, turns out, was never that serious to begin with. And rather than regret, we felt immense relief. Both suitors did a great job articulating why the deal would be great for them but failed to make clear what was in it for us. Best we could tell, it was about making them bigger and making us disappear.


And within weeks of our renewal of our vows to ourselves, having arrived unflinchingly at the decision to double down on the Pekarsky & Co. brand, we won (and recently successfully filled) a CEO search with a European backed start up here in Alberta; a COO search with Canada’s largest collection agency based in Toronto; a CFO search for a start up involved in the manufacture and distribution of biodegradable remediation products; and a VP, Global Consumer Marketing for Travel Alberta. Just last week I was on a conference call with a client in Paris and another in Tel Aviv while I dialled in from P&Co global HQ in Fernie, BC. Turns out, we already are global. We already are operating in the C-Suite. We already are an award-winningsearch firm attracting national media. We already do have great researchers and market share and, even, Internet. Turns out we don’t need to join them to beat them.


Having wrestled our existential crisis to ground, we, like many in Alberta, are feeling better about the road ahead. In fact, we are not a seller but a buyer. We’ve just added a new Principal in the Edmonton office, Julie Baron; a new Office Administrator & Marketing Coordinator, Amy Livermore; we are actively seeking an Associate to join our Calgary office; we are in some very interesting discussions about a strategic alliance of like-minded boutique search firms and we are in conversation with an intriguing senior lateral hire.


And I’ll bet you a corned beef sandwich and a pickle that we’ll be the better for it.




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