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During the Buyout, HR Leaders Get Back to Basics

HR executives often talk about the need to be strategic business partners within their organizations, but Linda Burkhart found it was her background as an HR generalist that helped get her company through a private equity buyout.

October 4, 2007
HR executives often talk about the need to be strategic business partners within their organizations, but Linda Burkhart found it was her background as an HR generalist that helped get her company through a private equity buyout.

    Burkhart, a senior HR manager for Agilent Technologies' semiconductor products group, discovered in August 2005 that the Palo Alto, California-based company was selling the division to two private equity buyers: Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts & Co. and Silver Lake Partners.

    Suddenly, Burkhart and her team could no longer rely on Agilent's corporate HR division to handle the fundamental HR processes, like benefits and immigration issues, for its 7,000 employees.

   "The division didn't have its own HR infrastructure, which meant we were going to have to build it ourselves,'' she says. Investors set an October 31 deadline to close the deal, which was just two and a half months away.

    Until then, Burkhart and her HR colleagues had primarily acted as consultants to the line managers within the division. But now they were going to have to act as generalists.

   "You had about 12 people who were all business partners that had to do the nuts and bolts of benefits, compensation, payroll, staffing, immigration and other administrative processes,'' she says.

    Burkhart and her team quickly divided the responsibilities. Because she had some past experience as a generalist, Burkhart took charge of HR services, which included staffing, training, affirmative action, relocation and immigration.

    During the next several weeks, Burkhart and her colleagues reviewed Agilent's HR vendor relationships to decide which ones to keep.


"No matter what your background, HR needs to be flexible."
—Linda Burkhart, formerly of
Agilent Technologies

"We had to figure out everything—which relocation services company would we use; what kind of law firm would we contract for immigration; what application tracking systems would we use?'' she recalls. "And then we had to figure out what pricing we would agree to.''

    After working nights and weekends for several weeks, Burkhart and her team felt they might come close to making the deadline. But a day before the deadline, KKR and Silver Lake announced they were selling the storage business subdivision of Agilent's semiconductor products group to PMC-Sierra, a Santa Clara, California-based provider of high-speed broadband communications and storage semiconductors.

    It meant the 200 employees in that division would change owners for the third time in three months, adding more uncertainty as well as changes in compensation and benefits.

    Within days of the announcement, Burkhart switched roles again, working with PMC's HR team on business decisions like how to handle the employee transition and implementing a communications strategy.

   "I had to go back to being a business partner, which I welcomed,'' she says. Burkhart left PMC in November 2006 and now is director of staffing at CV Therapeutics, a Palo Alto-based biopharmaceutical company. She says her experience during the buyout helped her appreciate being both a generalist and a strategic partner.

   "It shows that no matter what your background, HR needs to be flexible.''

Workforce Management, September 24, 2007, p. 21 -- Subscribe Now!