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 miscellaneous tasks. “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.
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 noncompete 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.
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. “Reaching somebody in the bathroom, that’s not the image that most search professionals would gravitate toward,” he says.
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.”