The Rise And Fall Of A Corporate Headhunter
Few dot-com era headhunters labored more mightily to crack the Big Time than Jeffrey E. Christian. The tall, sharply dressed recruiter from Cleveland worked tirelessly to promote himself and his firm, Christian & Timbers. As he battled to beat out more established headhunters, Christian used a combination of doggedness, public-relations savvy, and salesmanship to sign up Silicon Valley's biggest players. He courted the national business media, often conducting phone interviews on a treadmill during marathon workouts. His name became a fixture on The Midas List, Forbes' ranking of best dealmakers. And in 1999 his position as one of the Valley's most celebrated headhunters seemed all but assured when he vanquished the acknowledged powerhouses of his industry to place Carleton S. "Carly" Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard Co (HPQ ). Jeff Christian, it seemed, had finally arrived.
Then the boom ended. And Christian returned to his hometown of Cleveland. In the Valley, he was largely forgotten, just another gold-rush striver who briefly cashed in and then faded away. So the surprise was palpable in executive recruiting circles when word came that Christian had been charged with reckless homicide and involuntary manslaughter in the overdose death of another executive recruiter, 31-year-old Thomas J. Wasil. As if that were not enough, Christian, who was indicted in December, was also charged with corrupting a juvenile and inducing others to take drugs following the nonlethal overdose of a 17-year-old in his home a month after Wasil's death. And the Wasil family plans to file a lawsuit against Christian. "Holy sh-t," said one major headhunter when BusinessWeek contacted him. "I had no idea," said another. "I'm shocked."
Today, Christian, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges, is out on $150,000 bail. His first wife has taken him in at the sprawling wooded property she won in their 1996 divorce in Moreland Hills, Ohio, an upscale suburb of manicured lawns and private country clubs. Christian's two Mercedes and black Hummer H2 are often parked out front. His trial is set for Aug. 22 in Portage County, Ohio. Ever one to advocate hiring the best talent, Christian recently added to his four-member legal team famed defense attorney Thomas A. Mesereau Jr., who successfully defended Michael Jackson and actor Robert Blake. The defense, says one of Christian's attorneys, Gerald S. Gold, plans to argue that Tom Wasil was a drug abuser, a charge the Wasil family denies, and that Christian, 51, is not culpable for Wasil's death. Reached on his cell phone on Mar. 21, Christian told BusinessWeek: "Hopefully, when the real facts come out, they will vindicate me. I was there and know what happened and didn't happen."
Jeff Christian's rise and fall mirrors the dot-com boom and bust. His story is emblematic of what can happen when someone, through a combination of circumstance and ambition, breaks out, only to see that success evaporate. Despite spending years in Silicon Valley, Christian remained something of a nose-to-the-glass outsider. When the boom ended, his firm shriveled and he went back to the anonymity of Ohio. That's where the real trouble began. "Jeff Christian was clearly the poster boy for what occurred in the search industry from 1995 to 2000, from its magnificent rise to its enormous crash," says Scott A. Scanlon, chairman and chief executive of Hunt-Scanlon Advisors, a market research outfit specializing in recruiting. "No one firm or person epitomized this more than Jeff and Christian & Timbers."
GROWING UP IN CLEVELAND, Christian seemed destined for smaller things. The college dropout spent his early years trying to find himself: giving up meat, learning Tai Chi, meditating. He toyed with becoming an actor. It was only on the eve of his first marriage, according to his own account, that he decided to get serious. His dad owned an employment agency. And at the age of 23, Christian joined another Cleveland placement firm, R.F. Timbers & Co. They gave him the Yellow Pages and told him to get to work.
Christian had an easy chemistry with people and was great on the phone. He was also prescient, spotting a gaping opportunity that most headhunters were ignoring: technology. Within eight months of his arrival, Christian bought out Timbers and in 1980 founded Christian & Timbers. His contacts in the technology sector soon turned him on to the action in Silicon Valley. Before long, Christian was spending most of his time in California.
Breaking in wasn't easy, even for a young man with considerable charm and drive. But Christian hustled hard. Once, in the late 1980s, he persuaded venture capitalist Joe Schoendorf to consider choosing him to do an executive search for a new software company. Schoendorf told Christian the board wanted to work with a recruiter with offices in the Valley. "Give me a couple of hours," Christian told him. Two hours later, he called Schoendorf. "I now have a California office," he said, having rented one and printed up business cards. Christian then drove to Schoendorf's house with a big chocolate apple and a bottle of Dom Perignon. He didn't land that search, but Schoendorf was impressed, and he eventually introduced him to HP's future CEO, Lewis E. "Lew" Platt. The door had swung open.
Before long, the Valley was growing desperate for talent. Eventually the scarcity would become so acute that companies began throwing in free Mercedes and six-figure signing bonuses to get bodies in the door. It was, in other words, a time when anyone with energy and moxie could make a good living. Christian worked as hard as or harder than anyone, carrying multiple mobile phones long before double-fisting cells became common. He would call potential clients anytime, anywhere. Legendary venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers once got a call from Christian as he was walking into church on Sunday morning. Christian chased headlines and TV coverage relentlessly.
As the dot-com boom took off, Christian was in his early 40s and remarried with young kids. Domestic life didn't change him much. He practically lived at the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton or the Marriott in Silicon Valley, making weekend trips to Cleveland to visit his family and the firm with his name on the door.
Yet Christian still felt like an outsider, say people who worked with him. The college dropout was mingling with Stanford MBAs, these people say, and he never felt accepted by his colleagues, who saw him as a Midwestern interloper, a bluff showman. A former Christian & Timbers partner says Christian was "always the underdog, always having to work twice as hard. The chip was there." Christian, it seemed, hankered after membership in the gilded club of Silicon Valley kingmakers.
The opportunity to get there arrived in 1999 when HP started looking for a new CEO to replace Lew Platt. Platt, who died in 2005, liked Christian from day one. "He's hungry and passionate," Platt told BusinessWeek in 2002. "As a committee we were very impressed with his energy compared to some of the others in the business." Christian got the job.
His selection stunned many Valley and HP insiders. "I think they made a huge mistake," one major headhunter said at the time. "It's like giving an intern permission to do triple-bypass surgery." Many who considered the HP job were also unimpressed. Four candidates complained that Christian didn't return their phone calls. One of those was Edward J. Zander, now CEO of Motorola Inc. (MOT ), who was Sun Microsystems Inc.'s (SUNW ) president at the time. Zander took himself out of the running when Christian, at the HP board's behest, asked him to take a lengthy psychological test, though people familiar with the situation say Zander also was angry because he suspected Christian may have leaked his name to the press--a taboo in the recruiting world.
The sniping from Christian's peers didn't seem to deter him. "Have I ever done a search for a CEO of a $39 billion company?" he asked a BusinessWeek reporter at the time. "No. But only eight people have done a search that size. John Thompson [of Heidrick & Struggles International Inc. (HSII )] hasn't." In July, 1999, HP hired Carly Fiorina--a choice that turned out to be even more controversial than Platt's hiring of Christian.
Regardless, the Fiorina coup put Christian & Timbers over the top. In 2000 the firm posted $60.7 Million in revenues, triple what it had generated three years earlier. Christian & Timbers was now the 7th-largest search outfit in the country, up from 14th in 1997. The phones were ringing nonstop. "Working there was like riding the most exciting bronco in the corral," recalls Marc Lewis, a former partner who is now the CEO of search firm leadership capital group in Westport, Conn.
But trouble was brewing. Cracks were appearing in the economy. And the dot-com boom seemed to be losing momentum. People working with Christian, who says he is a member of alcoholics anonymous, say the pressure was getting to him, and there were persistent rumors about whether he had fallen off the wagon. His work habits also became an issue again. Ray Lane, a former Oracle Corp. (ORCL ) executive who had by then joined Kleiner Perkins, hired Christian to recruit a CEO for one of his startups. It wasn't long before lane was regretting his choice. "I think you delegated this and did not do a good job," Lane recalls telling Christian, after firing his firm. Lane says he "kissed and made up" with Christian but notes bemusedly that Christian "became a brand at the end of the bubble."
The crash hit everyone hard, including Christian & Timbers. By 2002 revenues had shrunk by 55% from the 2000 peak. People working there at the time say Christian, who had returned to Cleveland, was becoming increasingly erratic. One former partner says that in the summer of 2002, Siebel Systems Inc. (ORCL ), now part of Oracle, hired the firm to find a head of worldwide sales. Christian was jubilant at winning the new business but soon disappeared. Months later he resurfaced, the former partner says, and took credit for the successful placement. Zack Simon, another partner at the time, also recalls long absences that clients were totally unaware of. "It was easy to cover up," Simon recalls. "You just said: 'He's not here,' or that he was traveling."
Before long, Christian was having problems with his partners, who, after trying to get him help, began agitating for his departure. The partners, who include Christian's half-brother, Adam P. Kohn, wanted to bring in Brian Sullivan, a well-regarded recruiter, as CEO. Sullivan had earlier sold his firm to Heidrick & Struggles. "The partners gave him the benefit of the doubt a number of times," Sullivan told BusinessWeek. "[But] Christian wasn't working, and the partners said: 'Enough is enough. We're sorry. No más.'" Christian, who sold his stake in 2003, says he wasn't forced out but left to care for his dying mother.
It was about this time that a young Cleveland headhunter named Tom Wasil met Jeff Christian in a bar called Paws, just down the road from both of their houses. All Wasil had heard about Christian was that he was a recruiting legend who had recently published a book called The Headhunter's Edge, a manifesto on getting and keeping top talent. By all accounts, the two men hit it off right away. Here were two guys who could chat up anybody. Christian offered to be Wasil's mentor. Wasil was thrilled. In Christian, he saw who he wanted to be: a major leaguer with big houses, luxury cars, and an outsize reputation. For Christian, Wasil was in many ways a reminder of his younger self.
Around this time, Christian seemed to have been thinking a lot about youth. He fell in love with an attractive 18-year-old who waitressed at a well-known local bar. He dyed his white hair auburn. People who hung out with him at the time say he routinely had limos idling in front of his house--a rental in the exclusive, gated golf community Barrington Estates--just in case there were parties to hit. Neighbors started to complain about his own gatherings. He would leave slurred voice mails for friends, telling them about the latest after-parties following Cleveland Cavaliers games or inviting them to come over. He was generous, lending his Hummer to whoever needed it.
The day before he died, Wasil borrowed the Hummer to tow his ski boat. On Apr. 11, 2006, Wasil and his girlfriend, Lauren Swanson, drove to Christian's house around midnight to return the vehicle. According to court documents, the state alleges Wasil, Swanson, and Christian drank alcohol and took cocaine and that Wasil and Swanson used a hot tub. The state also alleges that Christian produced a brown powder that was described as opium and that Wasil used the substance. Before he left Christian's house early that morning, Wasil is alleged to have done one more line of drugs and then driven home.
When Swanson found Wasil later that day in their Reminderville (Ohio) home, he looked like he was sleeping. He was lying on his right side, his sheets tucked crisply into the sides of his bed. Wasil's fists were curled under his chin, his knees pulled into a semi-fetal position.
The sirens that soon blared through Wasil's neighborhood sent a sickening pang through the lakeside enclave, a place filled with ambitious young professionals and their families. A crowd of friends and neighbors gathered outside Wasil's 1,200-square-foot bungalow. By the time the medical examiner arrived, blood-tinged foam was oozing from Wasil's mouth and nose. He had been dead several hours, and it looked like a drug overdose.
Yet from the beginning, police suspected that nothing about Wasil's death was routine. Then, almost a month later, the 17-year-old brother of Christian's girlfriend, who was 18 at the time, overdosed in Christian's house, watching a Cavs game. An ambulance took him away, and he later recovered. By then Portage County investigators were taking a hard look at Christian.
Today Christian is awaiting trial. His legal team is planning his defense and has dispatched private investigators to dig up information about witnesses. In the meantime, Christian says, he has raised a $44 million fund with top-shelf VCs. Otherwise, he keeps a low profile, taking his three sons, 5, 7, and 10, to "Ninja Night" at the local school and on court-sanctioned holidays in Florida, where they were vacationing as BusinessWeek went to press.
At his old firm, Christian & Timbers, business is good. CEO Sullivan says revenues have zoomed past the boom-time peak to $77 million, thanks in large part to a concerted push into the blazing financial-services industry. "I still support Christian & Timbers," says Christian. "This is a hard thing for them to weather. If I were them I'd get as far away from me as possible."
As he wrote in The Headhunter's Edge: "Nothing will derail a career faster than the whiff of scandal."
By Michelle Conlin, Tom Lowry, and Peter Burrows