When Barry Hibbert abruptly resigned from Polestar last December, seven short months after his rapid promotion to director in charge of publications at the print giant, speculation was rife about his future. It soon emerged that Hibbert had jumped ship to pursue one of two "very lucrative" chief executive positions, which, according to his former boss Tony Rudston, matched Hibbert's "career aspiration of being "number one' in a substantial business " . Since then, however, the trail has gone cold. If Hibbert has achieved his ambition to front a substantial organisation, he is keeping remarkably quite about it.
However well you might research a new position and investigate the company offering it, joining a new organisation will always involve some degree of risk. The question, of course, is how best to minimise the chance of making a bad decision when the head-hunters come knocking at the door, a process made all the more difficult by the increasingly tempting packages which are now being bandied around.
In recent years the print industry has become enmeshed in an inflationary cycle which has seen the terms and conditions now being offered to executives at all levels rocketing through the ceiling. "It's really scary what people are being paid, and compared to other industries it's clearly out of kilter," says Martin Tamlyn, managing director of York Direct. At the heart of the issue is the problem of supply and demand, in uncertain times people are wary of moving. "Whenever anyone even smells a recession, they've got to be pretty excited about an opportunity to make the move, "says Tamlyn. As a result, those willing to up sticks in a resolutely stagnant personnel market are in a good position to command substantial rewards.
But word of the riches on offer appears to be falling on deaf ears, according to the ranks of increasingly frustrated head-hunters operating in the sector. "It's proving very hard to shift senior sales people, there have to be a lot of incentives to get people to move," says Anne Quinn, manager of printing graphic arts at search and selection specialist AMS. She reports that further down the chain at the middle levels the situation is more fluent, but executives taking on these positions are now demanding the sort of packages previously reserved for obvious high fliers. Incentives such as bonuses, company cars, health policies and other fringe benefits are now taken for granted at the middle levels. And some head-hunters believe it is only a matter of time before the promise of share options that last bastion of board level privilege is routinely offered as an enticement. Some in the industry believe that this situation has arisen because really good salespeople are still thin on the ground. "Customers have become so saturated with suppliers that the chances of opening doors in a blue-chip company are very slim," says Spectrum Flair managing director Gary Kiernan.
But this doesn't explain the exponential rise in inducements across the board. According to George Thompson, joint managing partner with head-hunters Harrison Scott, the shortage of sales executives within the M25 area is now so acute that the ratio of positions open to available candidates now stands at seven to one.
Thompson, in altruistic style, claims to be concerned about the worrying long-term effect this inflationary personnel market will have on the industry: "We're trying to encourage clients to focus on issues like training and career opportunities rather than resorting cash as a desperate means of attracting candidates."
Surprisingly perhaps, a straw poll of some recent movers and shakers in the industry suggests that the promise of a higher salary is of less importance than other factors. Security of position, freedom from the restrictions of larger holding companies, and even the (somewhat nebulous) promise of a happier and more productive corporate culture all proved key enticements. Most moved to companies already well-known to them, either as competitors or through supply chain links.
Kiernan at Spectrum Flair is a case in point. He quit Flair then owned by the Adscene Group in 1997, following an attempted MBO. He claims the primary attraction of Spectrum Press, the company he joined, was: "its independence and the lack of plc red-tape. When you're working for a company owned by a large non-printing company, it can be very frustrating. We were a non-core business and the interest wasn't as great as it could have been."
Cash was not an issue for Kiernan when making the switch. "Less was more in this instance," he says. In the longer term, however, he has had the satisfaction of regaining control of Flair, following Spectrum 's recent acquisition of the ailing company from Adscene for £34m. More importantly perhaps, he feels in control of his own destiny.
Problems with the holding company were also instrumental in sales executive David McCallum's move from Unique Digital back to Blantyre-based JR Reid Printing, where he had previously notched up 14 years experience The attraction of the familiar and the secure were key elements in his decision to return, he says. "The main problem at Unique was that its holding company seemed to be experiencing trouble. I knew the set-up at JR Reid, I knew the company, and I knew that financially it was very strong. Perhaps if I didn't have two children I might have been prepared to take greater risks."
McCallum believes he was fortunate in already possessing an in-depth knowledge of his chosen company's financial and commercial outlook. It can be difficult for any potential candidate to assess the health of a company from its published figures alone. However assiduously you, or your head-hunter, investigate the company in question, there is always the chance of missing something critical. "You have to look extremely carefully," he says. "Some look better than they are. For instance, Wace looked like a great job for a while, but within six months of them advertising a position they'd closed down the Scottish plant. The size of a company is no indication of security."
For Tim Thackeray, who joined Homer Brothers as sales director after leaving Moore Paragon, the issues were even more clear-cut. "I left because my life was getting too wrapped up in a business which was becoming increasingly difficult to manage. The business was losing money and bringing it round was hard work, which took a personal toll on myself and my family," he says. "I stuck it out for two years; throughout this period I put the business and the security of everyone in it first, and my family second."
Thackeray claims the chief attraction of working for Homer Brothers, a company with whom he had done business while at Moore Paragon, was its corporate philosophy: "This has allowed me to get the balance back into my life, and I am so much more productive as a result. Being free from ongoing day-to-day internal issues means being able to focus more on customers, where the real satisfaction is."
It is clear that what attracts an individual to a given position goes far beyond the type of inducements currently being proffered by the head-hunters. Nonetheless, according to Thompson at Harrison Scott, there is a particular type of corporate profile most likely to appeal to senior executives in the industry the key attribute they possess is opportunity. "The most tempting companies are typically private, doing £2m-3m and employ around 35 people. Most importantly, they will have a chairman who is looking to retire. Rather than selling up completely, he will consider putting in place a three year plan for an MBO and recruit accordingly."