SEARCH FOR TOMORROW
AS THE FASHION WORLD TURNS, EXECUTIVE SEARCH FIRMS KEEP UP WITH THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS.
Byline: Laurie Sohng
NEW YORK — Bill Maher is a talker. David Kanal is more mellow. Maher dispenses little anecdotes about the ins and outs of the executive search business with a colorful quirkiness that comes from, well, a lot of quirky incidents. Kanal is more prone to data base references. Together, these headhunters for Johnson Smith & Knisely, New York, represent two sides of the changing executive search scene in the fashion industry. The old-boy-network, as it affectionately (or disaffectionately, depending on where one stood among the old boys) was called, isn’t quite as intact as it was a short time ago. Although it remains true that “who you know” is crucial to keeping afloat in the swirling eddies of mergers and other melees, it is ultimately what one hangs on to that keeps one’s head above water.
Today’s buoys are all about balance — classically trained MBAs with a creative streak. While that, in and of itself, may seem like a tall order, the wish list can grow even more lofty. Catch them at a relaxed moment and potential employers will repeat a common fantasy: A candidate who understands MIS, can formulate budgets, create and adhere to calendars, is linked to the consumer, can design and market a salable product and is ultimately a team player without too many annoying eccentricities. According to the Johnson Smith & Knisely duo, this is the stuff employers’ dreams are made of.
But it is also the stuff of attainable resumes. As Maher, managing director at JSK, puts it, in this era of reality-based desires “the days of very, very creative types who are not anchored are over.” Todd Oldham, whose humorous design sense is equally matched by his promotional savvy, was recently put into place at Escada by Maher.
One New York-based recruiter has found, however, that the best resumes crossing his desk want nothing to do with fashion positions. He announces point blank that while the fashion retail sector is fairly mired in competent executives, the talent pool in the manufacturing and marketing side of the industry is simply “not progressive, not compared to the rest of the world.” The problem, he says, is that fashion products are not given the same weight by most senior-level executives outside the business. Though the dollar incentives, profitability and exposure may be there, “a certain bias still exists — sweaters versus, say, telecommunications. It’s not a ‘destination’ career like retailing is.” “I’m not sure it’s true, but maybe it’s because manufacturing has a lower profile. It’s like the engine room — it’s not sexy,” proposes David S. Daniel, director, Spencer Stuart & Associates, New York. “Retail is what the consumer and the media see since it’s the end of the distribution system. There’s more glamour there.”
Robert Kerson of Levy & Kerson Associates, New York, does not necessarily agree that there is a bias, but does acknowledge an imbalance of talent. “I’ve done searches for both communities [retail and manufacturing],” he says, noting that the manufacturing sector has required “significant managerial talent” from other industries, particularly retail.
Manufacturers always started out with engineering degrees, typically from Southern universities, says Ron Brockett, a partner with Korn/Ferry International, New York, and ended up with a manufacturing plant. There generally was not that much movement after that.
But Brockett vociferously disagrees about the existing talent today: “People in [apparel] manufacturing are some of the most sophisticated manufacturing executives I’ve seen in the last 30 years.” He cites aptitude for technology and importing knowledge as elements of manufacturers’ wider fields of vision.
Where will tomorrow’s fashion executives rise up from? Responses range from consumer products to retail to entrepreneurs to the factory floor, but the common thread is that executives who view their companies as brands or “as a portfolio of products,” as Spencer Stuart’s Daniel suggests, will be the ones to take the helm.
How to land on top
In any single industry, the world gets smaller at the top. To avoid inbred mediocrity, executive search firms must look outside for diversity of talent.
Leadership/management ability. A team player with the chutzpah to lead the team.
Creativity. Finding uncommon solutions to common problems.
Curiosity. Wanting to know how and why.
Organization. Knowing exactly what’s projected for the season and also where the paperclips are.
Realism. Making sure the bottom line doesn’t play second fiddle to lofty ambitions.
Optimism. Making sure lofty ambitions are there to drive the bottom line.