Fretful about the never-ending round of downsizings at your company? Feeling insecure about your job?

Then polish up the old resum , and set a date with the local headhunter. More than likely, it won't be a wasted appointment. Suddenly, the executive search business is having its biggest boom since the glory days of economic expansion in the 1970s and early '80s. It's perhaps the clearest sign yet that the executive job drought is over.

Just how fast are things churning? Several prominent search firms are so inundated with work that they're turning down assignments and sending business to competitors. Many of the leading firms are now reporting increases in billings of 25% to 35% for 1993. "It was a complete blowout year," says Ralph E. Dieckmann, president of Chicago-based Dieckmann & Associates, which saw 1993 billings explode by 213%, to $2.1 million (table).

And with ever more high-profile CEO searches for companies such as insurance broker Alexander & Alexander, Scott Paper, and Tambrands augmenting the boom, the trend is continuing so far this year. "In my 20 years in this business, I've never seen a more active CEO market," says Thomas J. Neff, the CEO searcher who is president of SpencerStuart. He helped install new chieftains at RJR Nabisco, Upjohn, and IBM last year.

FASTER, FASTER. One result of the boom: Even laid-off execs are suddenly finding it far easier to come up with an offer. Not much more than 10% of search assignments are usually filled by displaced executives, figures William J. Morin, chairman of Drake Beam Morin Inc. But a recent study by the outplacement firm of 4,500 middle-level executives who had lost their jobs found that it took only 3.8 months for them to find new positions last year--down from six months in 1991 and 1992. "It's the lowest average job-search time I've seen in our 25 years," says Morin. Most of the executives, moreover, are hiring on with small to midsize companies at salaries near what they made before.

Why such a sharp upturn in the market? Part of the reason is the depth of the last recession. Search firms have tended to ride out previous slumps relatively well. This time, "there was a paralysis," says Leon A. Farley, a consultant based in San Francisco, whose firm had a 64% rise in billings last year. "Many companies just waited and waited, so when the economy turned, there was a rush of hiring." Adding to the turmoil, the newly activist boards of other large companies, from IBM and Eastman Kodak to AT&T and the Baby Bells, have been scouting around for "change agents" to help the companies break free of bureaucratic cultures.

One of the biggest reasons for the boom, though, is that most companies that have downsized or restructured just don't have the management depth they need. One or two key executive departures, and they're suddenly scrambling for talent. IBM, still shedding managers and employees, also has recruited dozens of new executives in the past year. And as companies restructure, some executives that they would like to keep flee to more promising posts. In January, Katherine M. Hudson, a Kodak vice-president, lured by headhunter Egon Zehnder International, took the CEO job at Milwaukee manufacturer W.H. Brady Co. "I asked myself whether I wanted to stay and downsize or go to a company that would grow," she recalls.

WALL STREET FRENZY. Most of the churn isn't in CEO jobs, of course. It's in the senior management ranks. While few companies are searching for middle managers, some have begun recruiting group executives whose positions--paying from $150,000 to $250,000--had been wiped out in the massive downsizings of recent years. "I thought those jobs were gone forever," says Windle B. Priem, a managing director at Korn/Ferry International. "But firms are so lean and business is so good that companies are starting to hire back at that level."

Some companies, say headhunters, simply cut beyond the fat and into the muscle. They're now hiring talent to fill the gaps. In the past, companies were proud of their "bench strength," says Gary Knisely, a former Time Inc. manager who now heads New York's Johnson Smith & Knisely Accord. "If anyone left the company, there were five guys behind him, waiting to take the job. I don't know of any company today that has that luxury."

Some of the most frenzied hiring has broken out on Wall Street, where the job-hopping has become fast and furious as companies seek new geographic markets and launch new financial products. "Everyone is crazed and understaffed," says Linda Bialecki, who recruits Wall Street professionals. "For the past two years, hiring had been up but had been cautious. After the third good year, many of my clients said, 'We don't have enough people to get the business.'"

Lacking highly competent successors to their top executives, many companies are turning to outsiders instead. "We've become their management-development arm," says Knisely. "Instead of spending over $1 million to develop someone inside, companies would rather pay a $150,000 fee in order to recruit an outsider."

Heidrick & Struggles Inc., for one, is benefiting. Its worldwide revenues jumped by 36% last year, to $110 million. U.S. billings were up by 49%, and in its New York office, the domain of Chairman Gerard R. Roche-- headhunting's high priest--revenues shot up by 80%.

Roche racked up personal billings last year approaching $6 million, a record for a single headhunter. Then again, he directed or was heavily involved in CEO searches at IBM, Kodak, Westinghouse Electric, American Express, PPG Industries, and General Instrument. Roche is currently hunting for a CEO for Tambrands Inc.

Neff, his archrival in CEO searches, is also busy. In the past two months, Neff says he has been involved in seven chief executive and three chief operating officer searches--"every one of them a household name." One reason business is booming, Neff says, is that "boards are quicker to make changes in a company's leadership when the CEO is underperforming."

Some headhunters believe corporate America's love affair with reengineering--the process of weeding out people and work--will lead to even more double-digit growth in the years ahead. That's partly because the typical span of control--the number of managers who report to a single executive--has risen dramatically. Executives who don't know how to effectively manage two or three times as many people as before may have to be replaced, Dieckmann says.

The upswing in search activity shows little sign of ending. SpencerStuart, which is turning down some work, says its bookings are up 52% in the U.S. in the first four months of the 1994 fiscal year. "It's going to be a very strong year again," says John F. Johnson, president of Lamalie Amrop. His advice: Keep your resum updated and an open mind about the opportunities out there.

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