Successful at shopping for talent

When it comes to executive recruitment in retail, Moira Benigson has bags of experience
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The Independent Online

Compared to the well-known names of executive recruitment, such as Spencer Stuart and Heidrick & Struggles, Moira Benigson is a minnow. While these firms employ hundreds of staff, hers has just a handful. And yet, in her chosen field of retail, she exerts a great influence that belies the size of her company.

Compared to the well-known names of executive recruitment, such as Spencer Stuart and Heidrick & Struggles, Moira Benigson is a minnow. While these firms employ hundreds of staff, hers has just a handful. And yet, in her chosen field of retail, she exerts a great influence that belies the size of her company.

One of the keys to this success is that, like boutique shops that acquire reputations for anticipating and satisfying their customers' needs, Moira Benigson Executive Search prides itself on building relationships with both the companies that are its clients and the individuals that it places. It has, for example, been working with the fashion chain French Connection since 1991 and has also closely followed and played a part in the development of the career of Yasmin Yusuf, who moved from Warehouse to Marks & Spencer before just joining the currently in-vogue niche chain East.

Benigson, who set up the company in London in the late 1980s after arriving from her native South Africa, also attributes her success to making "interesting and surprising appointments". This ability to move beyond "the usual suspects" and put together people who might not be obvious partners is partly a result of intuition on the part of her and her team.

But it is also down to the consultancy's passionate interest in the whole culture of retail and brands. As well as working extensively in the fashion arena, Benigson has carried out assignments for Woolworths and Allied Domecq. In support of this enthusiasm, the company carries out extensive research among retailers around the world and also organises various events - from symposia to small events where high- profile speakers can meet people they might not otherwise come across.

Talking to Benigson it is clear that retail - particularly at the fashion end - is a consuming passion. She has views on what is going right and wrong at just about every group of stores you could name. She is forever trying to spot trends and is obviously constantly trying out in her mind potential partnerships.

Not that she departs from the norm just for shock value. She would not have been able to enjoy the long-term relationships with companies that she has if her appointments quickly failed or created problems in the boardroom. Since companies have personalities and cultures, it is essential to take these into account when making a placement, she believes.

At her own company, based in North London, she is proud that "We are agile, we are entrepreneurial" - and that she is the oldest employee. As a result, she is concerned that it keep developing. As part of this, in 1999 she opened a New York office, which enables her to bring some top American talent to Europe at the same time as helping to keep the company abreast of retail developments in the United States.

She has also set up an operation within the company known as mbs.change, which is aimed at helping companies to create an environment in which talent can thrive, individuals can work as a team and performance can be measured and assessed. Benigson explains: "When we get a big assignment we meet 20 people in the company so we know exactly what the culture of the business is and who fits in well."

In recent years, Benigson's company has acquired a reputation for putting together whole management teams - in part in response to the trend of many retail groups abandoning public listings in favour of going private. One client that has been helped in this way is Liberty, the prestigious London shop that was taken over by Retail Stores in 2000. From this it has moved into creating another division - dedicated to finding non-executive directors. And in keeping with the company's policy of taking a fresh view, the aim is to work with younger managers, the so-called marzipan layer in companies. "And we're having some success with that," says Benigson.

Perhaps the combination of a true understanding of how certain retail companies work and a real interest in developing individuals' careers will enable Moira Benigson Executive Search to make more progress in this area than some of its better-known counterparts.

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