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30 Years On: Lessons Learned on the Entrepreneurial Trail

This month marks our 30th year in business. Over the past three decades we’ve transformed from an entrepreneurial vision to a multi-generational firm. Today, our founder Jim Stranberg reflects on the founding of the business and how we have evolved to stay relevant and successful in the face of rapid change.


My wife, Anne, and I had known for a long time that we would, eventually start our own executive search firm, but it took the shove out the door to launch in earnest. 

I began my career in a cigarette smoke filled back office in the Sears Tower in 1979.  Coincidentally, this is also where I met Anne.  As I began making placements and then booking searches, my career grew from contingent to retained search and from small ‘boutique’ firms to the ‘Big 8’ firms: Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC) and Arthur Young (now EY).

Suddenly, in the summer of 1989, I found myself without a job, a casualty of the merger of Arthur Young and Ernst & Whinney.  With two young kids at home, the future was scary and uncertain but, with Anne’s encouragement and partnership, we leapt and started our own firm.  Of course, we knew there would be challenges, but there would be thrills right behind them.  Mostly, we believed that if we did quality work, held course by listening, observing, and adjusting, we would succeed.

The single major capital investment to launch our firm was $7,500 for a new computer – a Dell 386, Microsoft Word, and a lightning fast Hewlett-Packard 2 page per minute laser printer. Our basement became our office. There was plenty of space for a phone, filing cabinet, fax machine, printer and (of course) my ‘race-horse’ of a computer. 

The world of search has changed a lot since the days of waiting for the US Mail or faxing resumes. What was largely an industry built on work ethic and instinct is now driven by data and proprietary algorithms. Finding high caliber executives is easier and there is a larger focus on “Last Mile” activities – assessment, courtship, candidate in-boarding, client on-boarding, seamless communications, and ever greater attention to the nuance and detail of bridging great people to great organizations.

It can be a frustratingly unpredictable business – as all “people” businesses are – but one that is incredibly rewarding for us.  Our work directly impacts the futures of individuals, families, and businesses alike and that is an ethical responsibility that has remained at the heart of our organization, unchanged by 30 years of technological advancements.

As we head into our fourth decade, it is incredible to think of the crowded basement where we started and that those two young kids are part of what is now a family-owned executive search and advisory firm.  

In reflecting on those years, there are a few clear things that helped us make it to 30 years.

We are great at what we do and what we do fits who we are.

Executive search is a people business and requires clear communication skills, judgment, discretion, perseverance, and patience with individuals on both sides of the table.  We describe it as having a high boiling point – the ability to keep a cool head under pressure.

We have been fortunate in having excellent mentors and advisors

From our Aunt, who graciously provided the $7,500 needed to acquire our Dell 386, Microsoft Word, and an HP 2 page per minute laser printer. To our accountant whose faith in us never wavered, and from the great advice from trusted mentors with decades in the search industry – the right people have always been there for us when we needed them most.

We have had some good luck and built on that through hard work

There have been many times when the fates aligned with our wishes.  But, and I thank Anne for this, we never took those good luck instances for granted.

We stick to what we know best but are constantly pushing the boundary of our expertise

Each project and each placement is a case study that allows us to reflect and improve on our work. And we invest our time and capital in the continuous improvement of our people, our organization and our services. 

We never forget the parable of the goose and the golden egg

We recognize the trust our clients put in us and that they have many options for finding talent.  We go the extra mile and keep our promises.  We work to over-serve our clients and we always keep our commitments.

We have combined grace under pressure with tough mindedness.

On the darkest of days, we never let the problems disrupt our resolve.  Our basic rule is to fix what is wrong before assigning blame or responsibility.  Then be brutally honest about what happened and what needs to change

We are excited by learning and change.

It’s an exciting time to be in business! There are opportunities to learn and grow everywhere

We believe that people are greater than technology.

We have evolved to incorporate numerous technologies and tools to increase efficiencies, but never to a point where people and candidates become statistics. Our tools work for us, just as we work for our clients. 

There have been many sleepless nights over the last 30 years – but that’s part of being an entrepreneur, you cope with the lack of security because you believe in what you are doing. 

We plan to keep at it for many more years.  


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