When Kurt Vandemotter and Paula Calise met in the summer of 2008, they both had stepped away from their respective careers in corporate America and were romancing the idea of forging what was recognized earlier this year by Forbes as one of the top 20 executive recruiting firms in the country–and No. 1 in Texas. At the time, they had no experience, other than previously working as hiring managers (VanderMotter at Cadbury Schweppes and Jobster and Calise at Viscern and TXU Energy), no success stories to sell to new clients, and were up against headhunting Goliaths like Korn/Ferry International in the dawning of a financial crisis where more people were being laid off than hired.
“I did 40 informational interviews during early 2008 with all the big firms that are on the list above us–39 of 40 told me not to do it,” Calise says. “They said, ‘It’s a bad economy. No one is hiring. You don’t have a book of business. You’ll starve.’ I simply chose not to heed that warning. I thought I could do it.”
Within weeks of meeting, the partners launched Linked Executive Search, a Dallas-based boutique firm that prides itself on being a differentiator in the industry. And then came Sept. 15, 2008–the day Lehman Brothers collapsed. “All of that activity Kurt and I had up to that point came to a screeching halt,” Calise says. At the time, Lehman’s bankruptcy filing was the largest in history, surpassing WorldCom and Enron, and corporate America was laying off thousands upon thousands.
That September, Linked had no business. And, the partners remained without clients through January, until their phone rang. The vice president of a well-known Dallas company was calling to offer them a minor job. During the next two years, that same company hired them 30 different times. “They put us on the map,” VandeMotter says. “It allowed us to build credibility in the marketplace really quickly. We had success stories that we could take to the marketplace and get past the fact that we hadn’t had any recruiting experience. We had a success rate.”
Since then, Linked has stuck with its boutique branding and pushes its ability to put the right person in hard-to-fill jobs. They company boasts of a 90 percent client return rate.
VandeMotter and Calise say they use their small size to their advantage. Because it’s just the two of them, they have no choice but to provide hands-on service. They are the ones who personally build relationships with clients, ask tough questions about the business, and who use that information when discerning which candidates to put forward.
And, at the end of the day, they get on the sidelines to cheer on their clients. “It’s not a falsity. It’s not a mirage,” VandeMotter says. “We’re very sincere. We get to know their families. We get to know their organizations. We get to know the problems they’re trying to overcome.”