Hiring freeze

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When R. Blane Walter persuades out-of-state executives to join his company, he knows he’s won only half the battle.

Sure, the candidates might be as gung-ho to join Gerbig Snell/Weisheimer & Associates Inc. as Walter is to bring them there, but they’ve also got to feel comfortable in Columbus.

The move, after all, might be a lifestyle change compared to Chicago or the East or West coasts, places Walter finds many recruits for his Polaris-based health care marketing company.

Walter, GSW’s chairman and CEO, says such recruitment efforts are no different than any of the other marketing challenge his company handles every day.

“These interview processes are as much about selling,” Walter says, “as they are about interviewing.”

He ought to know. Last year alone his company hired 270 people — 20 to 25 percent of them from out of state — bringing GSW’s employee count to about 530.

“There was a time when four days a week I was having dinner with different families,” he says of the company’s fast growth. During one 120-day period in 1998, he notes, GSW hired 120 people.

In the past two years, the company’s retention rate for executives at the vice president level and above has been better than 90 percent. Of those, more than 75 percent were recruited from out of state.

Walter says he’d much prefer to hire candidates from Columbus, but his company’s fast growth in such a specialized niche forces him to look elsewhere.

What he’s learned in the process is that the best way to do out-of-state recruiting is to give candidates as much information as possible and answer their questions not only about the company but about Columbus — then step aside and let them mull it over.

“We understand it’s a big decision,” he says.

Get their foot in the door

Three years ago, Mark Frank, now an executive vice president and general manager at GSW, received a call from a recruiter who wanted to talk to him about GSW. Frank was happy in his position as a marketing director at a New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company called Novartis, but the recruiter piqued his interest by describing GSW’s rise in the industry and philosophy of building the company with employees who have client-side expertise.

“He just described an organization that had a particular personality, a particular style, a particular aggressiveness that really appealed to me,” Frank says.

GSW enlists Taylor Search Partners LLC, based in Columbus north of Worthington, to help in recruiting.

Bill Taylor, the recruiting firm’s president, says wooing a potential employee depends heavily upon how the company presents the open position.

“Focus as much attention as you can on the position you’re trying to fill and create as much attraction or sizzle to that to make it more of a dream or an opportunity and not just a job,” he says.

Once a candidate shows interest, it’s time to start selling Columbus.

“I would say half the people said, ‘I don’t even want to consider Columbus, Ohio. I have an aunt who lives there. I got stuck in the airport once. But beyond that I’m not really interested,'” Walter says.

For the other half, who do express an interest, Walter has got his work cut out for him.

First, he invites candidates in for a Columbus interview, during which he tries to arrange meetings with as many people as possible, including employees, executives and clients.

“It’s all hands on deck,” Walter says.

Once Walter knows he’d like to make an offer and sees the candidate is interested, he’s likely to put the brakes on the process.

“We often give them offers contingent upon their having spent a weekend in Columbus,” he says, adding that the visit should include the candidate’s family.

Tell it like it is

Frank was one of those candidates whom Walter insisted visit Columbus with his wife before a job offer was made.

The couple had a nonwork-related dinner out with GSW executives and was introduced to a real-estate agent who took them around the city. The agent told them about areas to live in, school districts where they could send their two children, then ages 2 and 5, and where Frank’s wife might consider continuing her teaching career.

“You know there’s a big sell going on, but it was a take-a-look-and-ask-questions (situation),” Frank remembers.

He and his wife certainly weren’t sold on the weather — they visited on rainy days in March when the temperature dropped low enough for a little snow.

“We were really turned on by just the way people were open and really honest and forthright,” Frank says. “I was really convinced by getting to know the people out here.”

That’s exactly why Taylor’s company arranges community tours through Elizabeth Ortlip & Associates Inc.

“We really are their first nonbusiness contact,” Ortlip says. “It’s more of a peer-on-peer kind of thing. It creates an element of trust and comfort. They feel free to ask questions that they might not want to ask a company they’re interviewing with.”

Another participant in GSW’s recruitment efforts is Charlotte Van Steyn, president and broker of the Re/Max Premier Choice franchise.

She uses a software system that compares the school system candidates are leaving with that in Columbus and sends them a relocation packet which includes a breakdown of all Central Ohio communities and their amenities, cultural aspects, economics and tax information.

Columbus is a real easy city to sell,” Van Steyn says. “You know why? Because of the relationships here. People in Columbus are very receptive to new relationships, and I think that’s a key factor when people are moving into a new area with their families.”

When candidates visit Columbus, she spends three to six hours showing them various communities and available real estate.

While the practical side to recruitment is essential, Taylor points out the success of the effort depends greatly on the company seeking the new employee.

“In my mind, you can provide all these services,” Taylor says, “but if these people do not feel the connectivity or they don’t feel wanted, they’re not going to be interested.”

In fact, Walter says, a candidate’s likelihood of accepting a position at GSW is in direct proportion to the amount of time and senior executive attention that go into the recruitment effort. The candidate perceives such attention as an indicator of what he or she might expect once hired, he says.

“In our business, we believe people decide to buy on the emotional reasons and then kind of put them in check with the rational reasons,” Walter says.

Don’t drop the ball

Once an out-of-town candidate accepts a job offer in Columbus, Taylor suggests helping ease the transition by providing information about services, such as banks, insurance companies and utilities.

GSW’s recruitment efforts have been very successful — 90 to 95 percent of those offered positions accept. Part of that is due to the wealth of information provided to candidates, Walter says.

“They’ve already figured out most of what they’ll encounter before they’ve joined us,” he says.

Frank agrees.

“The nice thing was I think that expectations were managed very well,” Frank says of his recruitment experience. “There’s no disappointment: ‘Gee, I thought this.’ This isn’t New York City. If you’re looking for a New York City style here, it isn’t here.”

Although Frank quips that he’d like to see in Columbus a 24-hour diner, an outlet for Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and some hills — “Columbus is really flat. I’m trying to arrange to have some mountains put in” — Frank says he had no regrets after he moved here.

The other big factor in GSW’s recruiting success is the recent growth of Columbus. In the last five years, Columbus has had more to offer, for example, in the way of entertainment. GSW has also grown tremendously and had noted success and recognition in the industry. In addition, as the company grows, there’s more of an opportunity for candidates to get input from GSW employees who already have moved to the area.

Remembering his own recruitment to GSW as an example, Frank says he now uses the same strategies when he’s filling positions for his own team at GSW: be open and honest about what’s here and what’s not.

“If you’re hiring a really good person and they’re smart, they’re going to figure it out anyway,” he says. “It’s nothing to be afraid of with what we can sell from the Columbus area. There’s no reason to be embarrassed — there is a ton here to do.” How to reach: R. Blane Walter, Gerbig Snell/Weisheimer & Associates Inc., 543-6418 or [email protected]; Mark Frank, Gerbig Snell/Weisheimer & Associates Inc., 543-6280 or [email protected]; Bill Taylor, Taylor Search Partners, 436-6650; Elizabeth “Betsy” Ortlip, Elizabeth Ortlip & Associates, 899-6386; Charlotte Van Steyn, Re/Max Premier Choice, 436-0330

Joan Slattery Wall ([email protected]) is associate editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.