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
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.
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.
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
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.