rogue recruiter -david-perry

“Snack Vendor” — or Undercover Job Recruiter?

To Fill That Open Position, These Guys Go to Extremes; Stalking on the Ski Slopes

By SARAH E. NEEDLEMAN

It was a humid June morning on David Perry’s fourth day of masquerading as a snack-food vendor inside an industrial park. He had one day left on the canteen truck he’d rented for $500.

The executive recruiter, wearing a hairnet and an apron, finally got a customer to tell him what he needed to know: the identity of a technology guru a client had hired Mr. Perry to poach from a competitor.

David Perry has made his living off rogue recruiting tactics.

Mr. Perry’s client didn’t know this person’s name. So for days, the recruiter had been asking every coffee, cigarette and sandwich buyer who the “genius” was behind the large, publicly traded company’s top-selling piece of software. Finally, an unsuspecting patron spilled the beans, and Mr. Perry got his man. “It was real hard detective work, but it was fun,” he says.

Executive recruiters typically rely on networking and corporate contacts to court prospects. But for those like the 48-year-old Mr. Perry — a small subset of the multimillion-dollar industry — chasing down top talent for the corner-office and other hard-to-fill jobs is a sport. They are maligned by traditional recruiters, but their tactics — which can be unconventional, paparazzi-like and some say borderline unethical — can lead to lucrative careers and long lists of loyal clients.

“How else can you get at these people?” says Mr. Perry, whose search firm, Perry-Martel International Inc., employs three researchers, plus his wife, Anita, who handles research and administration. “They’re behind steel gates.”

Once, after dozens of failed attempts to reach through normal channels the CEO of a technology firm, Mr. Perry says, he hopped a plane and sneaked into the basement of his quarry’s New York workplace and gave a janitor $100 and a self-addressed envelope. The Ottawa-based recruiter says he was counting on his target’s having a private washroom with a phone — and asked the janitor to send him its number. Mr. Perry says those digits arrived in the mail a few days later. Soon after, he scored a meeting with the executive, who agreed to take the position Mr. Perry was hawking: CEO of a large, publicly traded software company in New York.

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In 2006, Peter Polachi, co-founder of Polachi & Co., a small search firm — and another aggressive recruiter — went after an executive whose online corporate bio described his love of fly-fishing in a particular river in Montana. After calling several outposts along the waterway, he found a guide who’d led the executive on numerous expeditions and was able to pinpoint this man’s regular spot. “I know how to fly-fish, so I just ‘happened’ to bump into him,” Mr. Polachi says. Though he succeeded in hooking the executive long enough for him to listen, a non-compete agreement prevented the person from changing jobs.

Three years earlier, Mr. Polachi pressed the assistant of a sought-after CEO on why the executive was too busy to take a call. The assistant blurted out that the executive kept such a tight schedule that he got up before dawn every morning just to have time to get his shoes polished. Mr. Polachi, based in Framingham, Mass., drove to New York and, on a hunch, took a seat the next morning at the shoeshine stand in his target’s office building. The executive arrived minutes later and noticed a copy of his company’s most recent annual report resting on his neighbor’s lap. The CEO “struck up a conversation with me,” says the headhunter. “At end of day, he was recruited.”

Many senior executives who’ve been snagged using these extreme methods won’t talk publicly about their experience. But clients and associates of Messrs. Perry and Polachi confirm their accounts.

“You’re talking about a guy with an exceptionally high batting average,” says Steve Panyko, who hired Mr. Perry to handle more than a dozen searches while serving as president of CML Emergency Services Inc., a telecom company that was sold in 2006. He has since retired.

Tod H. Loofbourrow, president and CEO of Authoria Inc., a global talent-management-software provider based in Waltham, Mass., credits Mr. Polachi with recruiting more than half of his firm’s 12-person executive team.

The $500 Meeting

Not all ruses pan out. Mr. Perry once showed up at an executive’s company Christmas party wearing a crisp white button-down shirt and black dress slacks — just like the waiters working the event. Grabbing a tray, wine bottle and bar napkin from the kitchen, he walked the room until he found his target. Mr. Perry whispered to the man, “This message was left for you,” and handed him a blank envelope. Inside was a note promising a $500 check toward the executive’s charity of choice if he’d agree to meet the following day. Mr. Perry got the meeting and sent a check to a Chicago-based children’s nonprofit. But during the face-to-face, it became clear that the executive was a poor cultural fit for his client, a large, Midwestern technology firm.

Some professionals say they’re flattered by the recruiters’ efforts to court them. “I like an aggressive person,” says Brian Clark, who was recruited by Mr. Perry in the mid-1990s to a small technology company in Ottawa. Mr. Clark recalls Mr. Perry calling him every day for two weeks pitching the job. He wasn’t interested in working for a start-up but finally budged after Mr. Perry mailed him a $600 plane ticket, leaving that week, to the potential-employer’s office.

Peter Polachi, an extreme recruiter.

Mr. Clark, now vice president and general manager at Jade Software Corp. in Atlanta, later hired Mr. Perry to recruit talent for him. In 2002, the headhunter set his sights on Blake Carruthers for a sales position at Jade. When Mr. Carruthers failed to return the recruiter’s numerous calls, he found himself face-to-face with Mr. Perry on a remote mountain-bike trail. Mr. Carruthers was about to traverse an intricate 15-mile path with a group of hardcore bikers. “I thought that maybe he was trying to lose some weight,” says Mr. Carruthers of his double-take upon seeing Mr. Perry on a bike. It worked, though: He took the job.

That was the second time that Mr. Carruthers ran into Mr. Perry on a mountain. A few years earlier, the sales executive was skiing on an expert-level hill at a Quebec resort when he spotted Mr. Perry, an amateur skier, his arms flailing for Mr. Carruthers’s attention and seemingly stuck halfway down the slope. “Within 30 seconds he goes, ‘I got this opportunity I want to talk to you about,’ ” recalls Mr. Carruthers, who had been dodging the recruiter’s phone calls.

Companies that Mr. Perry and Mr. Polachi poach from aren’t as thrilled and consider rogue recruiters a menace. Mr. Perry says he has received more than 40 cease-and-desist letters, plus threats of lawsuits from employers he’s lured talent from during his career. Some might argue that his job involves trespassing, but so far he hasn’t been arrested.

Many in the recruiting industry also take issue with the brazen approach to headhunting. “It cheapens the reality of the hard work that goes into executive search,” says Peter Felix, president of the Association of Executive Search Consultants, an industry group with 6,000 recruiter members in 70 countries.

“If you’re in the business of recruiting leadership candidates, you have to bring tact, grace and integrity to the profession,” adds Joseph Daniel McCool, who wrote “Deciding Who Leads” about the recruiting industry. 

Mr. Perry, whose Tudor-style home rests on one-and-a-half acres in the posh neighborhood of Gatineau, Quebec, says he earns about $500,000 a year.

Lucrative for Some

The average for recruiters who work on retainer at the partner level ranges from $350,000 to $400,000, says Brent W. Skinner, a director of executive-search research at Kennedy Information Inc. i n Peterborough, N.H. “But the ceiling can be much, much higher for exceptional performers in lucrative niches,” he adds.

Mr. Perry charges clients about a third of the total first-year compensation for the jobs he fills and insists his recruiting style works. In 22 years, he says he has completed 991 searches for jobs paying roughly $170 million in salaries.

“I don’t care if you’re available [or not], I don’t care if you want to move,” says Mr. Perry. “I have to get in front of you and tell you why you should listen to me.”

Write to Sarah E. Needleman at sarah.needleman@wsj.com

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page D1

TESTIMONIALS

David and Anita are wonderful people who never gave me any reason not to trust them, their judgement, or that they did not have VanillaSoft’s best interest at the forefront of each discussion. They were overly prepared in all phases throughout the interviewing process when dealing with the candidates and our internal team. They not only said they cared but they took the time to show how much they cared with each member of the search team by getting to know our personalities, our communication style, and our passion for VanillaSoft.

Scott AmersonScott Amerson - Vice President Sales, VanillaSoft

David Perry is a world-class executive recruiter. He is a brilliant man, dedicated to his profession and to the success of his clients. He understands leadership and he is able to use this understanding to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Ron Weins - Partner, TotemHill

If you fast forward, we roughly tripled the valuation of the business. The valuation was in the 20s of millions of dollars when I got there, and the business sold for about $70 million.  We did this in 14 months.

Steve Panyko - CEO , CML Emergency Services

One of the things that David does that other recruiters just don’t, is actually listens to your requirements as an employer – who you’re looking for, what the qualities and qualifications are. He tries to quantify and understand the ideal candidate. Most recruiters don’t do that. They take a bunch of notes, promise you they’ve got lots of people in their database that fit the description and then deluge you with resumes of candidates that don’t fit the bill.

Rudy Richman - Vice President Sales, Protus-IP

David … always showed tremendous professionalism and poise in his ability to continue on what he knew was a tried and proven method that he knew would yield the right result.

Jordan Sweeney - Search Chair, AECOM

David completely redefines what your expectations of a recruiter should be. He helped me assess the skills I needed, coordinated the hiring plan cross functionally and finally presented outstanding candidates that accelerated my plans and reduced my hiring needs from 7 down to 4. Those new candidates then helped me accomplish in 18 months what was scheduled to be done in 36. If you are looking for talent management for your organization – you should begin with David.

Allan Zander - CEO , Data Kinetics

He nailed it right on. I think what the biggest thing was is because we had that conversation beforehand, he asked some hard questions, he had a real good idea as to what type of fit we were looking for, what type of person we needed. When he brought forward the candidates, like I said, there was no doubt that either one of the first four would have been a good fit.

Sheryl Blackburn - Vice Chair, Canadian Livestock Records Corporation

David has boundless energy and displays a commitment to projects that borders on obsession. He establishes a strong and almost uncanny understanding of the companies he works with and balances the empathetic (and frequently competitive) relationships that are crucial to the success of his projects. He is innovative and highly creative. But most importantly, David consistently displays a level of integrity far beyond the standard in his industry.

Stephen Munro - CSO