The man who does bosses a fat lot of good

Earning pounds 200,000 a year? Need some help with your career? Talk to John Stork. William Raynor reports
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Serving cream to fat cats is a risky business, especially as the odds favour a Labour victory at the next election. John Stork's timing might at first glance seem somewhat questionable, if not downright provocative.

Yet, having just edged his head over the parapet at a series of discreet promotional drinks parties, he is now breaking cover to chinwag publicly about how he and his partners can make the reviled "fat cats" even fatter.

"I suppose what we're doing may indeed be widening the income gap," he admits. "But with the evaporation of executive jobs and the increasing number of functions executives are being asked to fulfil, only the best will survive and those who do will be paid more.

"That's the pre-tax, non-political situation. Whatever any government does will be post-tax and political."

Stork & May was founded in the middle of 1995 to provide a more exclusive and discreet outplacement service for top executives than is available from other agencies. Mr Stork, Anthony May and their partners specialise in "career strategies" for people who receive basic salaries of more than pounds 130,000 a year and in practice with bonuses, earn an average of pounds 220,000 - share options and other perks excluded.

The most obvious question this begs is: does anyone who earns that much really need help at all. The answer is: evidently so. "Senior people on the whole don't have too many equals in their companies to talk to," says Mr Stork, "and if they do it looks like weakness. They're also more used to having others sell to them than to selling themselves. They need help in order to present themselves effectively."

He speaks from experience, as do his three partners, one of whom is also a business psychologist.

"We've all been chief executives of some kind or other," Mr Stork says, "and we understand what the options are."

An early-1960s "escapee" from Yorkshire - where he was brought up and went to university - Mr Stork moved on into advertising and within five years was appointed as group research director of what is now DMB & B.

Ten years later he left to set up his first consultancy, John Stork International, and became a global "head-hunter". By 1988, JSI had eight offices in Europe and was ripe for takeover by Korn/Perry. Mr Stork stayed on as chief executive in the UK for the next four years, until he decided to swap recruitment for strategy.

In spite of this track record, even he seems surprised by the potential of his new market. Of perhaps 15,000 executives in the UK earning enough to cross Stork & May's threshold, he reckons that, at any given moment, 10 per cent are contemplating a change of job or having one contemplated for them.

Of these, in turn, the firm has so far been consulted by 45 to 50 people - which, as its current "active' list has built up to 15 to 20, implies an average fee-paying period of four months.

How much the firm's clients have to pay is not disclosed; a lot, presumably, because, quite apart from anything else, two floors of a Georgian house behind the Royal Academy in prestigious Mayfair does not come cheap. Mr Stork admits that although it may not yet be making him pounds 200,000-plus a year, the venture has already covered the initial costs and gone into profit.

Only one client has been a woman. "A sad illustration of the glass-ceiling effect," he says. People advised by Mr Stork's firm have included professional specialists and managing, financial and marketing directors - group or divisional - in fields ranging from media and law to nuclear engineering, car manufacture, and consumer goods.

The youngest client has been 40, the oldest 55. But, Mr Stork says, "most of them have been 47, which seems to mark a critical point in senior executives' careers. People at this level work harder, have more commitment and some particular skill to offer. But typically, some of our clients have failed to get the top job in a shoot-out, not because they're of lesser calibre, but because they're a bit less tactful than they might be and/or have forgotten the importance of non-executives as king-makers."

No names, though, even of clients placed and satisfied. Not only would they rather preserve the illusion that they have managed their moves themselves, he suggests, "but there is the slight issue that if we're helping them, they're getting a hidden advantage".

Most, he claims, are known in the financial pages. Some of them, individual clients paying personally, are in jobs sensitive enough to affect their companies' share prices. "They want to move, but they don't want anyone to know, so how do they put themselves about without telling anyone? They come here because potential employers are also getting to know about us and we can act as middle men."

Whether they want to move or not, the majority of the firm's clients have their jobs changed for them, and their fees paid, by their companies.

"In this respect, we're in the same market as some of the better outplacement firms," he says, "although they tend to deal with more people and concentrate more on systems and counselling to get them off their companies' hands.

"That's fine, especially for those who are stunned by what's happened to them. But our clients tend not to be too distressed - except by losing their chauffeurs - and as most of them have given outplacement to other people, they don't want the same to be done - or to be seen by former juniors to be done - to them."

Once they have confirmed that they really want to go on working - most do, he says, because they feel that they have not yet earned enough - they have to pass "due diligence" to verify their CVs, and pay for the privilege. As its head of research is an alumnus of Kroll Associates, the corporate investigation agency, any lesser mortal thinking of infiltrating Stork & May's exclusive pool or tapping its formidable network should be warned.

"We put in a lot of listening and work upfront, so that we can advise clients what's sensible and possible, and point them in the right direction," says Mr Stork.

"It's a rough world out there and getting rougher, and we don't want them back. We want them to be successful in their new jobs, to tell their friends how good we are, and of course to tell the people they themselves then have to fire, too!"