A Flamboyant Soloist for an Executive Suite
German Headhunter ignores industry rules while wooing CEOs

In the low-key ensemble of German executive-search consultants, Dieter Rickert blows the headhunter's trumpet. "Other firms have waged this crusade against the term headhunter," he says. "I really don't know what's supposed to be so terrible about it. What others call executive search, I just call headhunting." Frequent appearances in the German media are also part of the tune: "It makes life easier. When I have to place a cold call to a candidate, I normally say: 'Hello, my name is Rickert. Do you know who I am?' And in nine of 10 cases, he immediately says: 'One minute, let me just close the door.'"

Here's another fanfare: "I've never had a paying client who came back to me and said: 'That was a flop.'" Brassy and outspoken, the 59-year-old head of Rickert & Co. cultivates and exploits the differences to the buttoned-down image of the search consultant. Unlike other top-drawer firms, he sometimes works on the basis of contingency fees. Occasionally, he irks colleagues by interfering with their searches and offering his own candidate to their exclusive clients. And in a profession that is striving to adjust to globalization, Mr. Rickert remains true to an advertisement that he and his former partner Hubert Johannsmann ran in 1990: "No offices in London, Paris, New York, Tokyo or Sydney."

Which is not to say that the Munich based consultant is less successful on his own territory. Building on an assertive personality, clever marketing and excellent contacts with German business leaders, Mr. Rickert runs a one-man show that has long been competing with the likes of Egon Zehnder International, and Spencer Stuart for the high end of the German market. Mr. Rickert's clients include such high-powered executives as Deutsche Bank AG's Rolf Breuer and Deutsche Boerse AG's Werner Seifert.

True, some of these clients may draw on bigger, more international firms when they're hiring for operations abroad or bringing in foreign executives. Competitors may consider the one-man operation a dying breed. But, at least for now, this dinosaur is alive and kicking. Here's one theory: In an increasingly global business community, crossborder searches require an international network of consultants who share contacts and feed an ever-growing database. Drawing on these assets, firms agree with companies to strike preferred-supplier agreements for searches ranging from the lower ends of middle management to the chief executive level.

And here's why it isn't quite that simple: A search firm normally agrees not to poach managers from clients for at least one or two years, thus limiting the number of potential candidates for other searches. The bigger the firm, the more likely it's going to run into the off-limits problem.

What's more, the high end of the search business is still based on personal relationships rather than staff and databases - especially in the clubby boardrooms of corporate Germany. Yes, management and supervisory boards are getting more international, transparent and open to outsiders, but it's an exceedingly slow process. "In Anglo-Saxon countries, the name of the firm opens the door," says Edgar Kaufmann, a Munich-based consultant with Spencer Stuart, "but in Germany, individual personalities are still more important."

Enter Mr. Rickert: tall, with horn-rimmed glasses, a resonant bass voice and a somewhat arguable, but straightforward message: "All business is local - and that's especially true for the top level. I make a living knowing my way around Germany."
The headhunter's resume matches the profile: Mr. Rickert joined the international search firm TASA Worldwide in 1977 after writing speeches for the head of Thyssen, the German steel giant, and lobbying for the employers association BDI. "I knew all of corporate Germany's leaders, but I didn't want to be a Iobbyist anymore," he says about his departure from BDI.
Then, in 1982, Mr. Rickert left Tasa with another partner, James Fulghum, to build a two-man office in Zurich. When, Mr. Fulghum retired seven years later, Mr. Rickert set up shop in Gruenwald, a Munich residential suburb where beeches, BMWs and big gardens line the quiet streets.

To be sure, there are others who have swapped big-name letterheads and large offices for smaller digs. Heiner Thorborg, a former Zehnder partner, is often named alongside Mr. Rickert as another successful German one-man business. Eric Salmon left Zehnder in 1990 to build the Paris-based Eric Salmon & Partners, a 13-consultant operation.

'Brush the Wrong Way'

But no one has embraced the individualist image as wholeheartedly as Mr. Rickert, who says he likes to "brush the wrong way." Indeed, if there's anything like a gospel of executive-search consultancy, then this headhunter is a nonbeliever. Standard procedure, as outlined on the Web site of the German Association of Executive Search Consultants, is that a company appoints one firm exclusively for a specific search. The two parties agree on the payment ahead of time. Managers and consultants then put their heads together to establish a profile of the ideal candidate. Based on numerous calls and interviews, the consultants select, say, three to 10 candidates, set up appointments with company officials and, eventually, check the candidate's references.

Mr. Rickert, on the other hand, says he spends half of his time seeking jobs for top managers who are ready for a change. Sometimes that means placing cold calls to companies that have already retained the services of another search firm. "Rickert hardly does searches, he brings people into jobs," says one consultant with a major firm, adding that "we don't like him because he doesn't give a damn about the ethical standards of the profession." "Occasionally, he annoys us terribly," says Bernd Wieczorek, a BerIin-based Egon Zehnder partner. "We've got the job to find someone and he comes and, well, fiddles around. LuckiIy, he's not often successful with this unprofessional behavior."
One of Mr. Rickert's success stories is Mr. Seifert, the chief executive of Deutsche Boerse, the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. In December 1991, Mr. Seifert, then a top executive at the Zurich-based reinsurance group Swiss Re, met Mr. Rickert to review the performances of recent hires. When Mr. Seifert said he was happy with them, the headhunter asked slyly: "But are you happy yourself?" Says Mr. Seifert in retrospect: "I wasn't conscious of it yet, but I had this gut feeling (that I wanted a change). He really has a seventh sense."

A year later, when Mr. Rickert got wind that Deutsche Bank's Mr. Breuer, the director of Deutsche Boerse's board, was looking for someone to run the stock exchange, he started working the phones even though Egon Zehnder had been appointed to do the search. Mr. Seifert got the job.

Mr. Rickert's working relationship with Deutsche Bank didn't end there. Most recently, he was brought in to recruit two management-board members, Tilman Lauk and Axel Pfeil, who joined the bank in October 1997 and January 1998. "He has these brilliant ideas," says Mr. Breuer, adding that Mr. Rickert's reputation in corporate Germany is that he sometimes "loses interest when it comes to long, drawn-out searches."
Indeed, Mr. Rickert wavers when asked whether his approach is as thorough and time-intensive as that of his competitors. "I do the whole brouhaha as well when a company appoints me for a search," he says. But he concedes that he checks candidates' references only when he knows them personally. He sometimes presents just one candidate for a job. Then, he says, he comes up with names spontaneousiy, in which case he works on the basis of contingency fees - another breach of search etiquette.
"I win beauty contests that way. I talk about Adam and Eve and do the whole show," he says, moving his arms to play an imaginary violin, "and then I tell the company: 'By the way, you don't even have to search for the man. I already know him.' It gets me in business with them."

Flip Manner

Mr. Rickert is also known for his flip way of talking about his calling, as in December 1997 when Thyssen head Dieter Vogel and Krupp's Gerhard Cromme were battling for the top job at the merged company. "Let Cromme and Vogel throw a coin," he told Wirtschaftwoche magazine. "Then you have one lucky winner and no one is losing out. And I'll find a new job for the other one." Mr. Rickert says he only meant to express how equally well-qualified the two executives were. But it's the kind of statement that other consultants say gives people the wrong impression of how the business works.

"This is a very serious business in the best sense of the word," says Willhelm F. Boyens, Zehnder's managing partner in Germany. "We do, after all, change people's lives. And when you talk about it too flippantly, it sounds like it's no more than a game. It doesn't help a profession that has only gradually established itself as a serious calling."
Mr. Rickert's knack for soundbites has given him a steady flow of publicity - ranging from interviews in the German edition of Esquire to citations in women's magazines to profiles in in-flight journals. It's all part of the strategy, says his ex-partner Mr. Johannsmann, who split up with Mr. Rickert in July 1998. "Mr. Rickert has built this reputation through the media," Mr. Johannsmann says. "So when people want to swap jobs, they come and look at him with big eyes and he makes a few calls and squeezes them in."

Mr. Rickert certainly puts on a good show. During an interview, he walks over to the computer to demonstrate how his database of clients and candidates works: "This is Helmut Wemer (the former Mercedes-Benz chairman). I took that picture myself." He produces a January-August 1999 balance sheet that shows 4.9 million marks (Euro 2.5 million) in revenue: "I just got it today; haven't even looked at it." (For the record, Heidrick & Struggles led the German sector with 1998 revenue of 75 million marks, ahead of Ray & Berndtson, Egon Zehnder and Spencer Stuart.)

Junior Partners

Still, the gradual globalization of corporate boardrooms raises the question whether Mr. Rickert's business model will be as viable in years to come. He brought in two junior partners in January, 37year-old Peter Bachsleitner* and Rick Fulghum, the 35year-old son of Mr. Rickert's former partner, to take care of the succession issue. But observers wonder how the two are going to carry the torch in a changing environment. "The pressure on people like Rickert is rising," says Gert Stuerzebecher, the head of human resources for media company Bertelsmann AG, adding, "It's quite an achievement that he knows a major share of German chief executives. But that won't work for the whole globe." For now, Mr. Rickert plans another two years of going full speed ahead, working the phones and getting in the way of others. Says Zehnder's Mr. Boyens: "Companies don't need us around all the time. They need us for quick, efficient solutions. And when a bird of paradise like Mr. Rickert comes along - flippant, a little sang-froid, invited or uninvited, but sometimes with a great idea - they say: 'Well, why not?'"