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Celebrate Good Times (it’s not just headhunting…)

Guinness is 250 years old and Marks and Spencer is 125. ExecutiveSurf cannot cure depression or sell you pants, but it is ten years old and is definitely a company of its time.

ExecutiveSurf was founded a decade ago, by Italian Alessandro Tosi, current director of strategy and was joined 4 years later by Rod Bailey, current CEO.

Bailey has 22 years experience in the executive search sector, initially with Rochester Partnership and subsequently co-founding Nicholson International. Tosi worked at Andersen Consulting before spells at Bossard, JMAC and AT Kearney. He founded ExecutiveSurf in 2000.

Alessandro Tosi

ExecutiveSurf works in a world where candidates have access to limitless numbers of jobs and companies to limitless pools of talent. It tries to break down the barriers that frequently prevent the two parties from meeting.

With its push/pull search model, ExecutiveSurf harnesses the power and the reach of the internet to communicate opportunities to as wide an audience as possible, while using traditional, targeted research techniques carried out by selection consultants. The result is a talent gateway, which spreads its net to all relevant channels in order to find the correct candidate and select a manageable shortlist, combined with good old-fashioned experience.

To mark their ten years of internet recruitment, I interviewed Tosi and Bailey to see what they thought about the last decade and how they saw the future.

Tosi says: “There was an internet frenzy in 2000 and everyone was thinking of a way to leverage the net for traditional businesses. Many weird business models were conceived, but in our case it was clear that ‘matching’ and ‘community’ were the keywords, and therefore the web was the perfect environment.

“Moreover, I always thought that research was ‘value for money’, far more so than selection interviews.”

Bailey says: “I came across ExecutiveSurf not long after Alessandro Tosi had founded it. My perspective was from the critical eye of a client. I was an HR director with an ‘incubator’; one of those firms that enjoyed a meteoric rise during the internet boom years of ‘99 and ‘00 – and a similarly rapid decline in the bust of 2001. I believed, and still believe that the idea of incubation is a good one.”

“The concept was to take a technological innovation in its infancy, fund its technical development, structure and write its business plan, recruit its talent where there were gaps and develop its management where there was potential, refine the revenue model, write the marketing plan, launch, watch its success, list and exit in double quick time. We were particularly good at all but the last two elements.”

Bailey used ExecutiveSurf as his talent supplier and found it to be very efficient, but he then saw the internet bubble burst and believes most people lost their appetite for this new and untried model.

He says: “The internet was meant to be the new Industrial Revolution, it would change lives. Strength would be given to the individual and they could access an unprecedented buying-power. This has happened, but it took ten years. It didn’t happen overnight and investors’ patience ran out in a matter of weeks, plugs were pulled, incubators closed, the party was over and the revellers were sent home.”

That was his cue to join another party. He says: “ExecutiveSurf suffered along with many other pioneers and I headed a consortium to acquire it. ExecutiveSurf’s model was as visionary as it was solid. That hasn’t changed. If anything, a refinement has taken place. The internet took on and conquered the world of product. Almost anything is now traded seamlessly online. The battleground has shifted, as acceptance has deepened in the realms of services. This is where recruitment sits – right in the eye of the storm.”

Brave words and Tosi agrees. The past ten years have not been plain-sailing. Tosi had to cope with a hostile shareholder, who had provided the initial funding for the company and decided not to back it financially through the 2001 crisis. “You only get to know people when things go wrong”, he says.

Everyone breathes the current economic meltdown, but Tosi is positive about the business; “We like this crisis: it fosters innovation and people are more inclined to embrace radical changes. In bull-markets head hunters make money, hiring managers nurturing the relationships by giving away huge fees, and nothing changes. Plus, we have reached the climax of information overflow: too many candidates, too many sourcing channels and no one to run the ‘last mile’ like we do.”

Bailey and Tosi make an unlikely couple, but form a good team. Tosi says of Welshman Bailey; “Rod’s Italian is much, much better than my English… We have no choice and always speak Italian.”

They are both family men and when asked about hobbies, Tosi says: “I like to wrestle with my son or watch a movie with my wife. Eating and drinking, of course. I am an extraordinarily poor amateur in almost every sport: golf, tennis, skiing, etc. My favourite film is Lost in Translation and my book would be Answered Prayers, by Truman Capote.”

Business has moved on rapidly in the past decade, and Tosi’s most embarrassing scenario strikes a chord. “My worst business situation was a corporate global meeting with a multinational I simply did not feel part of: lots of drinking and congratulations around a business model which was already dead.”

He says: “ExecutiveSurf competes with retained search firms, contingency firms, freelance selection professionals and do-it-yourself hiring managers. We are better because we leverage our platform, have the courage to be modular and transparent, and are less expensive.”

Bailey considers the current situation and says: “The paradigm is shifting, although it is unclear yet what it will look like when the dust settles. ExecutiveSurf is attempting to stimulate the debate. There are two opposite, but not necessarily mutually exclusive forces at play; the desire to access a new universe of information and the desire for a personal and discreet service. Somewhere between the two, there is a balance to be found. That is no mean feat and is multiplied exponentially by the fact that it’s an entirely subjective balance – everyone is different.”

The internet has revolutionised business over the past ten years, but how do these two see things changing in the next decade?

Bailey says: “Providing a modular service to all our users will set us up for the next wave in the evolution of the internet. From product to service, now, we believe the next ten years will see the rise of the trade in knowledge and we aim to position ourselves at the heart of this new and totally de-structured market. There have been highs and lows and now back to highs in our first ten years. The next ten years? Well let’s just say it’s an exciting time.”

Crikey; so what do you do to relax?

“Well I walk the dog, like my Guinness and tinker with my 1977 VW Westfalia .”

Tosi thinks that business, like everything else, has changed dramatically in the past ten years and technology is the reason, but he strongly believes in the supremacy of individuals over organizations, a sort of controlled anarchy where self-employment will become more common.

He says: “Over the past six years, Rod has revolutionised the company by developing its international presence. I left one multi-national and now I’m part of another. And I can’t hide at meetings.”

Bailey and Tosi agree that the internet is theoretically the answer, but believe it has become a victim of its own success, providing candidates with access to limitless number of jobs. Tosi says: “There’s too much choice and to think the answer is to be found in slick and advanced technology is naïve.”

ExecutiveSurf’s solution is transparency; a client can see how a search is progressing. They can comment in real time on each profile proposed, making the process interactive, so that the researcher’s approach may be honed along the way.

Candidates can follow the process as well.

The internet has changed how we live and work, but has thrown up some timely companies and ExecutiveSurf is one of them.

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