January 13, 2005

Who's Looking Out For You?
Executive Agents Can Help

Margaret Laube left McKesson Corp. in San Francisco this past spring after 14 years there, most recently running midsize businesses as president of the company's health-solutions division.

What she wanted to do next was run a business with a few hundred million dollars of revenue, about the same size as individual businesses within the McKesson group, but with more direct ownership and a chance to grow a business without having to start from scratch, which "is not my expertise," she says.

But the path to such an opportunity wasn't obvious. Traditional recruiters didn't have the right openings and private-equity investors weren't part of her network.

The solution: executive agent, an emerging breed of professional who helps high-performing executives identify their goals and shape their image -- not unlike agents for Hollywood stars and promising athletes. Then they put their clients in touch with people who offer the right opportunities. In exchange, they get a hefty retainer fee -- starting at $10,000 and running as high as $60,000 -- plus a stake in any business venture they help to arrange or a portion of the pay package they help secure.

Joe Meissner, an executive agent in Portland, Ore., tutored Ms. Laube on the private-equity world, explained how her experience would fit their needs, and coached her on how to present herself on her resume and in conversations. He also helped her identify a list of possible takeover targets to recommend to the investors. "I go through a process of packaging my clients, building a campaign around them and then deciding how to market them," Mr. Meissner says.

By the end of December, the marketing plan worked. Mr. Meissner arranged for her to partner with a private-equity firm over the next year, vetting and approaching companies they might acquire together. If a deal goes through, Mr. Meissner will get a stake in the business in addition to his retainer.

 In Your Corner

The changing nature of careers makes executive agents more valuable these days. Executives who've worked for several companies and in several careers have different problems than one who has followed a single career track. Agents can help corporate high flyers make the most of their latest job and help make sure they don't miss out on opportunities. And sometimes, as in Ms. Laube's case, they can even help create such opportunities.

An agent's role differs from that of a traditional executive recruiter, who is paid by the company, or that of a career coach, who isn't positioned to arrange opportunities. "[An agent] can help you understand the path you've taken so far and help you to keep perspective on where you're going," says Angela Gyetvan, a consumer-marketing officer with a San Francisco luxury-goods company. She began working with agent Neal Lenarsky in Los Angeles this summer. Mr. Lenarsky, who boasts a 7,000-person Rolodex, claims "I'll take 10 meetings with people to get my client one meeting."

Ms. Gyetvan concurs. "[He] has an amazing array of relationships with recruiters and with people [in your business] or in other spaces that you might want to explore," she says. At this point, while she's still exploring her interests and skills, Mr. Lenarsky is introducing her to people who've changed careers. Most interesting to her have been people who left corporate jobs to start businesses.

When she's ready to try starting a business or joining a start-up, Mr. Lenarsky will reach into his Rolodex to introduce her to entrepreneurs and venture-capital investors she otherwise wouldn't know, and will advise her on how to make the most of these meetings.

His firm of several agents typically handles about 60 clients a year while Mr. Meissner takes on only about six clients annually. They each typically work with a client for anywhere from a few months to several years. The goal is to find people with impressive track records and a healthy dose of charisma for whom they can generate lucrative, high-profile opportunities. Of course, they collect their biggest fees when a client starts a business or lands a new job. So they look for people who are "bankable," or who want to make a change in the not-too-distant future.

Packaging and Handling

Mr. Meissner recently wrapped up work for a client who had been a chief financial officer in Boston, but moved to Portland, Ore., when his wife was offered a job there. A six-month job search on his own had been fruitless. "He was undermarketing himself. So we repackaged him." Mr. Meissner coached his client on everything from the wording of emails and cover letters to how to handle interviews. Then Mr. Meissner used his more-established Portland network to arrange introductions. "Instead of two eyes looking for opportunities for him, there were four," he says.

As a result, the client started to get callbacks and in December landed a job, Mr. Meissner alongside at every step. He even suggested a carefully worded follow-up phone call when a final interview didn't go as well as the pair would have liked.

Both agents prefer to start working with clients a year or even two before they're ready for a new situation, giving them time to get to know the client, polish them and help build new relationships. Agent-client chemistry is important. And agents are wary of executives with too many gaps in their resumes, who've switched jobs too many times or whose references don't rave about them. They also eschew executives who "seem just run of the mill," says Mr. Meissner.

Because the fees are steep and the process takes time, Mr Lenarsky also rarely works with people who are unemployed. "We won't do it unless it's pretty clear they won't have to take out a second mortgage to pay us," he says. Paying fees of this size can be jolting, Ms. Gyetvan concedes, "but when you look at the value of what they do for you while you have all this other day-to-day stuff going on, it's worth it."

With practices as small as theirs, they also don't advertise and figure clients will seek them out. Indeed, Ms. Laube and Ms. Gyetvan each stumbled upon their agents through mutual acquaintances.

Such work seems likely to expand, says Andrew LaValle, a senior director with the executive-search firm Christian & Timbers in New York. He observes that as people find themselves looking for jobs more often and companies are replacing key leaders more frequently, there's a need for someone who can "identify the top drivers in different sectors and represent them to the business community."

So he and others believe that finding an agent should become easier soon as more people enter the field. For example, Clark Waterfall, a managing director with the Boston Search Group, an executive-recruiting firm in Boston, has begun to represent executives who want to be corporate directors and need help finding and sorting through opportunities.

While that work hasn't expanded into helping develop other executive positions, "it's a compelling business model, and I could easily see our firm switching sides. It's just a matter of when."

-- Ms. Gunn is a free-lance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.