In a tricky hiring market, executive search firms work to sell candidates on St. Louis

September 7, 2018 | St. Louis Business Journal

Executive search firms face hurdles in getting C-level executives to relocate to St. Louis.

A few years ago, a publicly traded, multibillion-dollar company hired executive search firm DHR International to help it fill a C-suite position in St. Louis. Scott Harris, managing partner of DHR’s St. Louis branch, knew it wouldn't be hard to find someone with the right skills and experience. He was more concerned about finding someone who would want to move to St. Louis.

“It’s a big secret,” Harris said. “People don’t know much about St. Louis.” One of his jobs as a recruiter, he said, is to get them excited about the city. In the case of the multibillion-dollar company, his firm located a talented executive from the East Coast who was frustrated with her commute. She spent over two hours in traffic each day. Harris pointed out that the company she was interviewing at was right next to a highway and a large selection of houses.

"And ... she got a job offer and she accepted," Harris said.

Executive search firms are specialized recruiting agencies that conduct exhaustive, nationwide searches to find C-level candidates. According to market research from IBISWorld reports, large companies are increasingly hiring executive search firms to help them through the difficult process of hiring top-level talent. The industry grew 3.4 percent in 2017, the report said. Harris and other professionals say that because St. Louis’ current climate of low unemployment makes in-house searches harder, local executive search firms are doing good business. Yet while demand for their services may be strong, their job isn’t as easy as it once was.

“St. Louis is a challenge, unfortunately,” said Carrie Hackett, president and managing partner of health care executive search firm Grant Cooper. A lifelong St. Louisan, she said the city has not received much positive press lately. The city’s Midwest location — no mountains, no ocean and hot summers — also can make it a tough sell at first.

Reluctance to relocate, however, is not just a problem for St. Louis search firms. Harris, who places executives in firms across the country, said that in his 17 years in the industry, he’s noticed job seekers putting more value on quality of life. It’s no longer just a question of whether they like the position. Will they like their new city? Will their spouse find a good job? Will their children mind changing schools?

“A much smaller pool of people are willing to go by the old nickname ‘IBM’ — I’ve been moved,” Harris said. “Work-life balance is a much bigger thing.”

Paul Esselman, senior executive vice president and managing director of St. Louis-based Cejka Executive Search, agrees. His firm places high-level health care executives. Esselman said that over the last five years, he has seen more executives leaving their spouses and kids behind so the kids can finish their last few years of high school. After a child graduates, the spouse and younger children move to join the executive in the new city.

“There’s much more consideration for disrupting the high schooler’s life,” Esselman said. Accordingly, “we focus on what the family unit is looking for, not just the candidate.”

Esselman, Hackett and Harris acknowledge that despite changes, the demand for executive search firms in St. Louis remains robust. In their years as executive search professionals, technology such as video interviewing, texting and social media have actually made the process easier, and dramatically cut down on cost and time.

Nonetheless, the dual threats of low unemployment and unwillingness to relocate create problems. These days, Harris said, “It takes longer with our pick and shovel to find the treasured gem.”

Read about what jobs are shaping the St. Louis workforce here.