Insiders’ view of the world of headhunting

‘Excerpts from the life of a head-hunter’ working in the leisure/hospitality/retail sectors.

[Unfortunately such is the sensitivity of the head-hunting profession that it is rarely possible that the names of the Insiders’ clients can be divulged]

12:30pm Tuesday Feb 4 – Private equity for lunch?

As described in my previous column, the owner of the innovative food business I know had lunch with a partner at the private equity firm and the conversation was fast and furious as well as involving the sampling of some of their products. The meeting focused heavily on the future and whether the business had room for, or needed, cash and experience from the private equity firm.


Need money to grow?

9:30am Thursday Feb 6 – Check how it went

After leaving both parties for a couple of days to mull over their conversation I put in calls to both to see if there are any next steps – but I failed to get hold of them.


Arrive at the head office of a nationally recognised fish business for a quick catch-up chat over coffee with its CEO. Unknown to me two days before he’d signed two major franchise deals so our meeting turned into a celebration. He ran me through how he’d regenerated the brand, grown it, and identified new routes to market.

I told him about the food business that had grown to a point where it needed a third-party to help and guide it onto the next level and also gain a listing for its products in a major grocery chain.  And I asked if he’d like an introduction to the business with a view to him joining as a non-executive.

At this point he grinned and told me he’d just listed his own products in Tesco and that he’d love to help somebody do the same.


I put a call into the food company to discuss the feedback from their private equity meeting. They felt it would be a very good cultural fit and they got on well with the guy but they came away wondering if it was the right timing for their business to bring in such a backer. Typically when these firms get involved it is not to put money into building a brand, it is more about buying tangible assets.

I mentioned the conversation with the fish man and that he’d just gained a Tesco listing. It turns out they knew the owners of that business and were keen to meet the fish man. March proved to be a busy month for them so we agreed to have a meeting in early April.

3:30am Tuesday Mar 11 – Whitbread calls

The phone rings and it’s an HR director from Whitbread who is planning a piece of recruitment after one of his senior team has decided to leave for an exciting new role. We discuss the vacant role and, most critically, my knowledge and capability to complete the assignment. The reality is that over the last 12 months we have successfully recruited two people into very similar roles. I could tell he was short of time and so we agreed to talk in a week’s time.


I don’t like Mondays…at Whitbread

10:00am Monday Mar 17 – Tell me why I don’t call on Mondays

To ring somebody at Whitbread on a Monday is hopeless as the whole business holds meetings and the day revolves largely around the trading events from the previous week. I therefore email the HR director instead.

We’d done the background preparation on the vacant role and come up with numerous leads from which we’d developed a credible ‘call list’ that typically contains 50-60 people to contact and sound-out about the role. From these responses the ‘long list’ is created.

8:30am Wednesday Mar 19 – Whitbread does not call

There is no news from Whitbread so I text the HR director to ask if they’ve received my email and if we could discuss it today?


A return text suggests we talk on Thursday at 1:30pm.

1:30pm Thursday Mar 20 – Still no call

I do not receive a call.

9:00am Friday Mar 21 – Nor texts either

I text again and ask if everything is okay and whether today is a better time to talk?

12:30pm Saturday Mar 22 – Not on a Monday

I receive a text saying he is very sorry for not calling and suggests we speak at 8:30am on Monday morning. Warning signs ring and I raise the point that this must be done before the trading meetings otherwise we’ll never speak!

8:30am Monday Mar 24 – Time to commit

After 15 minutes on the phone the HR director says he remains keen to understand what is happening in the marketplace and who might be interested in joining the company but – frustratingly – he still won’t commit to initiating a formal search.

…To be continued…

Sponsored column by Nigel Sapsed, director of executive search specialist Sapsed Stevens