He's looking out for you

Headhunting is booming as firms recruit a lost generation, writes Robert Verkaik
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The Independent Online
It is no longer enough just to have a job which comes with a guaranteed kudos or big pay packet. What matters is being recognised outside your company as a "rising star" or a "big biller". Today, the executive search business is booming because headhunters massage the egos that other measurements of achievement can't reach.

Significantly, a growing number of headhunters are moving to areas which largely escaped the phenomenon in the late 1980s. With 75 offices in the UK covering 90 sectors, Humana International reaches more egos than any other headhunter. The organisation is expanding at a rate of three offices per month and next year expects to have doubled its annual placement figures from 1,650 to over 3,000. Most of these jobs are not boardroom appointments but positions which attract salaries of between pounds 30,000 and pounds 70,000. In the past few months Humana has placed people in charity work, the arts and more incongruously, the bakery business. Humana founder and managing director, Doug Bugie, says his company is even targeting the unemployed. "A lot of people in their forties and fifties," he explains, "were axed mercilessly in the last recession. A great number of talented people were cut down in the prime of their careers. There have been a lot of damaged lives." The race is on to re-employ a sacked generation. "You have got to find those who still have the fire in their belly. They're at home, consulting, in temporary jobs, or just off the radar screen."

One reason Humana is headhunting middle management and the unemployed is because so many of the key personnel who survived the recession are being over-hunted. For five years Paul Downing, a managing partner of a medium-sized City law firm, Prinsent Curtis, received regular calls from headhunters. At first they wanted him to work for the American law firms which were recruiting in the City. "At that time the American firms hadn't got their act together and I thought it was going to be working in a small office in London - there was something of a credibility gap." Then the big six accountants started looking for lawyers to join them. "The call came at the right time," says Mr Downing, who now heads up Price Waterhouse's network of European law firms.

The man who hunted Mr Downing for job was Frank Varela, managing director of investment banking and legal headhunters, Longbridge International. Mr Downing had been approached before so he knew as much about Mr Varela's business as Mr Varela knew about his. "Paul seemed the only candidate," says Mr Varela. "However, a man in Paul's position took a lot of persuading."

Such is the boom in headhunting that both Mr Varela and Mr Bugie now talk about cowboy operators coming into the market. One apocryphal story concerns a headhunter hunting in a market unfamiliar to him. Having been instructed to find high-calibre staff for a law firm's London office, the headhunter went away and soon came back with a shortlist - unfortunately all the names were already employed at the law firm's Birmingham office.

Most people enjoy the idea of being headhunted. In 1993 the experience was made the subject of a BBC series called Headhunters. It consisted of a continuous round of sumptuous luncheons interspersed with tempting career offers. Ben Jackson is director of Harvey Sutton, a firm of legal and accountancy headhunters. He says: "These people expect a slap-up meal in an expensive restaurant and a chat about how they are perceived in the marketplace."

Humana is now about to headhunt secretaries. "Good support staff, PAs and secretaries are hard to find," says Mr Bugie. "We could follow the American example, where hunting support staff has been going on for 25 years and headhunted secretaries earn more than their bosses."

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