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Interview with the Founder Dr. Bjørn Johansson

by David A. Lord, Founder and Principal, Executive Search Information Services, Harrisville, NH, USA

David A. Lord: What are the advantages of working with a small search boutique versus one of the large global players in Executive Search?

Dr. Bjørn Johansson: The main advantage is that we have a large hunting ground and few off-limits when searching for candidates. As we focus fully on each client and its potential candidates, we have more speed and creativity in the search process. Thirdly, the client always knows who is doing the search as we do not delegate to junior consultants or reseachers. Last but not least, «I have my name on the door», compared to the large global players, where the founders all left, died or have retired.

The largest search firms claim they have impressive information resources. How does a boutique address this?

Of course after 30 years in the Executive Search business we have an up-to-date and relevant database in our Firm. Often we use the very best external research organizations, but only in the identification of candidates. These research firms are often specialized in an industry sector, a specific geographic region or a functional area such as Chief Financial Officer. Our Firm is a member of the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC) which gives us access to BlueSteps, a databank with more than 50'000 executives worldwide.

As we work only at the very top level, our relationships at this level, as well as online resources, give us access to all relevant data on companies and their executives worldwide.

When a company has a global search, why not select a firm that has offices and consultants in many countries?

I personally do not believe that a search consultant sitting in another country who does not know the client and its culture could convincingly represent the client.

We undertake assignments only where we are sure we can solve the needs of our client. By focusing on top management only, we can take a global approach. We turn down assignments below top level that are the bulk of the business for the large search firms.

Since I started our Firm 20 years ago, we have successfully executed assignments in more than 35 countries on all continents.

How do you price your services?

We are a retained Executive Search Firm, and we always offer a fixed flat fee based on two elements: Complexity of the search and expected compensation.

Personally, I have never understood how US search firms could charge one-third of first year compensation. If I have to find a Chief Executive Officer of a Swiss private bank, 90% of all potential candidates would be based in Switzerland. If on the other hand, I have to search for a Chief Executive Officer of a global European based chemical company, the candidates could sit in Europe, the Americas, Asia or Australia. Such an assignment is truly global, much more complex, time consuming and will involve extensive travel. Therefore a higher fee is justified.

By the way, our minimum fee for a search assignment is USD 160'000 and for a Board of Director search USD 110'000. We bill the client over a three or sometimes a four month period depending on the urgency.

When should a client choose your Firm?

When a client is looking for a new Chief Executive Officer, a new Chairman or a Board Member. The client should also come to us when a Chief Financial Officer, Human Resources Director, Division President or a Regional Executive is needed.

We prefer difficult search assignments where the candidates could sit literally anywhere on the globe. A client should also choose our Firm when confidentiality is critical and speed is of importance.

What experience does your firm have in placing women in top management and Board of Director positions?

We have recruited numerous women to Senior Executive positions around the world. Unfortunately, it is sometimes very hard to find women executives qualified and willing to take on these roles. Statistics from all corners of the world verify this.

I make it a regular part of my work to advance the discussion on women in senior management in television interviews, speeches and written articles and by being active in business networks for women.

How has the Executive Search business changed over the last 30 years?

Most of the «mystique» of the 70s and early 80s has gone. Executive Search has become «big business,» very transparent and fully accepted as a part of the free market economy. There is greater specialization in search. And management talent has become a global issue.

But the search consultant's main objective has not changed: To help the client find the very best candidates for a specific position where the placed candidate will deliver exceptional results.

How do you see Executive Search changing in the next 10 to 15 years?

First of all, I hope there will be a focus on quality instead of on growth and quantity. We will see ups and downs as in the last 15 years (ups from 1995 to 2000 and from 2003 to 2007); (downs from 2001 to 2003 and from 2007 to 2010). The big five will stay as will various network organizations, speciality firms and local players. I see no new large search firm emerging.

Middle management search will more and more be taken over by internet portals. Chief Executive Officer and Board of Director searches will continue to grow. Clients will continue to ask for quality and speed. I hope our Firm will strive to be the best and that our Associates will always have pride, passion and fun for our unique business.