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U.S. executives like Canada as alternative to Bush's America

Political polarization in the U.S. drives talent north, providing business for B.C. headhunters.

Brian Morton
Vancouver Sun
April 30, 2005

A growing number of U.S.-based business executives who want to escape the America of George W. Bush are heading north to Canada.

That's the word from a major B.C. executive headhunting firm that's tapping into a market that didn't exist a few years ago.

"We've seen a tremendous increase in the number of Americans who cold-call us and say they'd love to know what's going on in the Canadian marketplace," said Catherine Van Alstine, a partner in Ray & Berndtson/Tanton Mitchell, which has seen the demand for quality executives grow considerably in B.C. over the last few years.

"In November, right after the election, [we] talked to [an executive] who lives in the northeastern U.S. who said he doesn't support the direction of his country [and] was keen to take a post as an executive vice-president of a large manufacturing company [in B.C.].

"There's definitely more people interested since the election."

Ray & Berndtson managing partner Kyle Mitchell said in an interview at his Vancouver office that it's difficult to determine how many American executives are coming north specifically because of the country's direction under Bush, only that the political "polarization" of the United States is increasingly cited as a factor.

He said his company, which normally recruits three or four American executives to B.C. each year, recruited about 12 Americans in the past year.

"We've recruited a lot more Americans in the last 12 months than we have in the [previous] three years combined," said Mitchell.

"Also, there are more Canadians who want to come back from the States. It's almost a reverse of the brain drain. I'm sure our competitors have noticed the same thing too."

He said U.S. clients and returning Canadians also consistently note that Vancouver is a very attractive place to live.

When it comes to matching companies to executives, Ray & Berndtson has been recruiting executives for B.C.'s public and private sector for a long time: the company is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.

Mitchell said that while his company has a huge database of executives looking for work, most of their business comes from companies asking them to find a CEO with the right fit.

"We are retained by organizations to identify talent for their companies or leadership teams, either private or public," said Mitchell, whose company searches out executives from the vice-president to CEO levels, as well as board members.

He said they're called headhunters for a good reason -- 85 per cent of the executives they successfully match with a company were working with another company at the time they were recruited.

Many of the executives they find are also out of work, a situation that matters far less today for the company doing the hiring.

"Fifteen years ago, there was a stigma about executives being out of work," said Mitchell. "Today, it's hardly a factor.

"Changes take place and there's downsizing of companies. It doesn't relate to the performance of the individual."

Mitchell said there have been many changes in how companies recruit executives over the years, but chief among them is the realization that the best managers don't micromanage.

"Leadership skills are very important [and] it's all about engaging people throughout an organization.

"Top-down management no longer applies. They have to know how to free up the creative energies of their employees. No question, that's the biggest change over the last 15 years.

"If they don't do that, their bottom line will be affected."

Mitchell said demand for quality executives has risen considerably in recent years.

"There's more turnover now, which is good for us."

He said the stronger North American economy is the main reason for the rise in demand, along with the fact that good corporate governance is much more important these days.

"We do about 150 searches a year, and nearly all are successful. We've had organizations come to us three different times over 15 years to recruit a CEO."

Mitchell said his company typically charges a company a fee equivalent to one-third of the executive's first-year salary.

The first-year salary is usually in the range of $100,000 to $300,000 per year, he said.

One executive who found work through Ray & Berndtson is Michael McKnight, the chief executive officer of United Way of the Lower Mainland.

McKnight originally applied for the CEO position with BC Children's Hospital Foundation, but came second to the foundation's current president and CEO Sue Carruthers -- also recruited by Ray & Berndtson.

"I was involved in two searches, one successful, one not," said McKnight in an interview.

"I had contacted [Ray & Berndtson] for the Children's Hospital search and I got to meet [Mitchell] and some of the others. When this job [United Way] came up, they felt I was a good candidate and they contacted me."

McKnight said he was very impressed with Ray & Berndtson.

"The information they provided me with on the position and the organization was some of the best I've ever seen. It was really thorough."

A Canadian recruited to B.C. from his former job as president of a Tennessee logistics company is Brent Sugden, who is now president and CEO of Versacold Group, also a logistics company.

Sugden said in an interview that one big reason he returned to Canada was because "Vancouver is a very appealing part of the country."

Sugden said that he was recruited in late 2000 and that his decision had nothing to do with the political climate in the U.S.

"I wasn't looking [to move]. I became accustomed to the U.S. tax man, a much more friendly beast than the Canadian one. [But] I looked at the risk/reward equation and felt it was something I would like to do."

Sugden, who was recruited by Ray & Berndtson managing partner John Tanton, also praised the process. "He was very professional, very thorough. It was a positive experience for me."

Besides Sugden, McKnight and Carruthers, CEOs recruited by Ray & Berndtson include Pat Jacobsen, CEO of Translink; David Hahn, president & CEO of BC Ferries; and John Nightingale, president of the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre.

The Vancouver Sun 2005

© 2005 Ray & Berndtson



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