By Lisa Bergson "If this job is about running around Europe trying to make sales happen, then I'm not the right person," proclaims the candidate for MEECO's European regional sales manager -- a tall and lanky Brit I interview in our headhunter's airy Belgian office. That's pretty much the general position. It seems I'm on an unpopular, perhaps futile, mission.
Up until now, we've "managed" Europe from the U.S., with the office-support staff and me handling the territory for the past two years. At first, I made an earnest effort, with quarterly visits and weekly phone or e-mail contact with our key independent sales representatives. Sales rose 50% year-to-year as a result. But later, distracted by the launch of our new business, Tiger Optics, I began to neglect Europe. Sales responded in kind. You have to work it.
The answer, I concluded, was to hire a Euro-based national, someone who speaks a couple of languages and is familiar with the various cultures. So last fall, when the semiconductor industry was still booming, I hired one of the world's leading executive-search firms, TMP Worldwide. I had never used a high-end headhunter, but it looked like the best and quickest way to find the right person for a new position on a distant continent.
"ON THE DEFENSIVE." Now, some six months and $30,000 later, I'm in Brussels to interview three finalists, whose disappointing resumes I received and reviewed with my sales leaders less than a week ago. Only one, a Dutchman with a strong technical background, looks promising. Still, Jim Turner, our executive vice-president responsible for new business development, wondered: "It looks like he's used to a lot of support. How would he do working on his own?"
I soon find out. Over here, by the way, recruiters delve into candidates' personal lives to an extent that would be illegal in the U.S. Trim and, I'm told, divorced, with no children, the Dutchman sports the bold color combinations popular among European businessmen. How would he do working on his own? "But I have two secretaries!" He corrects himself: "Well, O.K., a secretary and an assistant." Avowedly not detail oriented, he rejects the use of sales-management software as "too much work". The word "spoiled" comes to mind.
The third candidate, a Belgian, has a confusing, jumbled resume with limited sales-management experience. Worse, his dossier states that he "can explode." It's tough enough dealing with the large, temperamental egos of our independent sales reps without having to pander to my own employees. "For what you're paying them, you would think the recruiters would do a better job," grumbled Tom Mallon, our vice-president in charge of sales and marketing, as he paces around my cramped office. "Why can't they find more qualified people?"
"Their cover note implies that it's difficult, since we're such a small company and unknown in Europe," I told him, as I gathered my papers to go.
"I saw that. It's like they're trying to put you on the defensive!"
DROPPING NAMES. Before the interviews, I have lunch at a nice restaurant on posh Avenue Louise with Guido Vissers, the partner in charge of our search, along with Eva Gregor, my contact from the start. It was my first meeting with Guido, which may be part of the reason why things have run amuck. (Lesson: Meet all involved parties beforehand.)
I'm determined to make a favorable impression, warding off any further concerns about MEECO's intentions. Besides donning my most elegant business attire, I take a step that runs counter to my upbringing. (Unlike New York, in Philadelphia money is quiet and name-dropping gauche.) I let Guido know what a "wonderful coincidence" it is that my husband, who runs a division of a $10-billion-plus financial-services business, is also using TMP to find sales executives. He carefully writes down the name of my husband's high-level TMP contact in Manhattan.
Back at the office, Guido sends a secretary to my favorite Belgian chocolatier, Pierre Marcolini, to pick up a surprise gift. Later, he dashes out on his own to fetch me two Brussels guidebooks when I ask where I might buy one. Best of all, he assures me that TMP will continue the search if needed -- even though they have effectively met their quota by producing the three lackluster contenders.
IS IT WORTH IT? Then again, I'm not at all sure whether to continue this quest. Over the phone, Tom argues that, given the recent sharp downturn in the semiconductor market, the timing is bad. "We're taking austerity measures throughout the company," he points out. "The sales department should be no exception." The question is: Do we hire now, in the face of rapidly declining orders, or hold off and watch our position in Europe continue to erode?
Moreover, Tom contends that we don't have enough products approved for sale in Europe to justify installing a full-time person here. (The European Community imposes strict safety standards, not in effect elsewhere, that require costly, time-consuming tests to win approval. All our new products are designed to qualify, but we don't have the resources to go back and redesign the old ones.)
Nonetheless, I'm convinced that the right hire will quickly pay for himself, including the recruitment fees. What I can't afford is to make a mistake. MEECO can hardly sustain the potential loss of time and money, not to mention goodwill among our existing customers and sales reps. Pressure, compounded by jet lag, has me staying up until 2 a.m. or later just about every night. I just wish this old town were the only thing about which I need guidance.
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Be sure to e-mail me with your thoughts. I promise a prompt reply. I'll be back in two weeks to talk more about our quest to conquer Europe. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. She received a Masters in Journalism from New York University and received Columbia University's Walter Bagehot Fellowship for economics and business journalism. You can visit her company's web site at www.meeco.com, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.