When Mark Winkler decided last month that he wanted a new job, he made a couple of telephone calls. Within 48 hours, the 41-year-old executive had more than 700 e-mails from headhunters representing everything from "dot-com" start-ups to Fortune 100 corporations.
Some asked for a resume. Others invited him to interview, and one offered a job--sight unseen. Within two weeks, 15 job offers had been express-mailed to Winkler's home.
By the third week, Winkler was at his new job as chief technology officer for Nethesive Inc., a Torrance-based Web software start-up, where, he said, "I'm still getting e-mails today. I can't respond to them all."
Amid the skirmishes in corporate America's raging war for talent, the campaign for Winkler is not extraordinary.
The record nine-year economic expansion has led to an unprecedented thirst for executives. The recent meltdown in the dot-com sector is expected to accelerate the demand, as founders of start-ups are being replaced by more experienced businesspeople who can steer the firms through tougher times.
Talented senior executives are at such a premium that companies are coming to them. Six-figure jobs are going begging. Recruiters are turning down searches they believe would find no interest. And some candidates are even given the chance to name their title.
"We've never seen anything like this in the history of search," said Bob Damon, who heads West Coast operations for SpencerStuart, a San Francisco-based executive search firm. "People are being deluged with opportunities."
At the same time, a series of trends--a population dip in the prime executive age group, wealth-inspired early retirements and companies' knee-jerk financial performance expectations--are draining the pool of people capable of leading corporations.
Corporate recruiters look more and more as though they work for the job candidates, lavishing attention, career counseling and gentle nudging on executives over months and years in hopes of one day having the chance to present them to client corporations.
"All these headhunters have almost turned into Hollywood agents. They have their superstar players, and they are only going to show them the best deals," said Nethesive Chief Executive Karl Brensike, who dedicated his four-member sales staff to pitching the company to chief technology officer candidates for more than a month and had 60 recruiters in the hunt.
"It's unbelievable how difficult it is to find people these days," Brensike said.
Demand for executives hit an all-time high in 1999, growing 14% over the previous year, according to a survey by the New York-based Assn. of Executive Search Consultants Inc., or AESC, which represents 160 firms employing 3,000 recruiters.
Searches accelerated in the first three months of this year, growing 17% over the same period last year. Requests for chief executives were up 47% in the first three months of the year, and demand for chief operating officers rose almost 62%. Demand for executives overall rose 25% in the second quarter compared with the same period last year.
The dot-com failures were reflected in a second-quarter decline of 12.5% in searches in the sector compared with the first three months of the year, according to the AESC. Despite that drop-off, enough dot-coms sought new leadership during the second quarter that the demand was still 90% higher than the same period last year.
That demand is fueling the extraordinary increases in executive compensation. Though the average American worker's pay rose 4.2% last year, CEOs of the nation's 800 biggest companies took home $5.8 billion, 12.8% more than the year before, according to Forbes.
"Everybody's become a negotiator, a mercenary, a soldier of fortune," said Gary Kaplan, founder of a Pasadena-based search firm that bears his name. "Today the standard package doesn't do the trick. You've got fair numbers of people who think that making the next move is going to be their grand wealth accumulation."
Richard A. Spitz, managing director of Korn/Ferry International's advanced technology search efforts, said he makes 300 to 400 telephone calls to fill each of the more than 30 executive searches he completes a year.
"I spend most of my time on the phone," said Spitz, who works 12-hour days and flies once or twice a week to Silicon Valley in pursuit of candidates.
Recruiters are not the only ones racking up frequent-flier miles chasing executive candidates. Even corporate search committee members are traveling across the country to persuade talented executives to join them--a far cry from the days when candidates were summoned to corporate headquarters, put up in hotels and made to wait their turn to interview.
"The shelf life of the candidate these days is shorter. If you get somebody who's world-class, you need to move quickly before things change," said Michael J. Flagg, a partner with Heidrick & Struggles, an international executive search firm.