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Headhunter Coup in The Magic Kingdom

November 29, 2004
The search for a new Walt Disney Co. CEO was one of the most coveted assignments in the extremely competitive executive search firm industry. And Chicago-based Heidrick & Struggles emerged as the winner over Russell Reynolds Associates and Spencer Stuart due in part to Gerry Roche.

Insiders say Roche, senior chairman of the $318 million firm, snatched the assignment away from front-runner Charles Tribbett III, head of the diversity practice at Russell Reynolds.

“I heard that the (Disney) board offered Gerry 45 minutes to do a presentation, and supposedly he said he only needed 15,” says Scott Scanlon, chairman and CEO of Hunt-Scanlon, an industry market research firm.

Roche won’t discuss the Disney assignment, but his past work might point to how he intends to find candidates to succeed Michael Eisner, who plans to step down when his contract expires in September 2006.

In what Scanlon called a “brilliant headhunter move,” Roche deftly orchestrated the placement of two big-company CEOs in 2000.

His clients: Home Depot and 3M. The candidates: two of the three men who were being groomed to succeed Jack Welch at General Electric. Roche says he was in touch with the GE candidates, and all he had to do was wait for GE to tap Welch’s successor. As soon as it did, choosing Jeffrey Immelt as GE’s chairman and CEO, Roche swooped in and plucked Robert Nardelli to become Home Depot’s president and CEO and W. James McNerney Jr. to be CEO at 3M.

Perhaps Roche’s pick will be a cross-industry or cross-functional placement such as these. It is a style Roche has mastered, experts say, pointing to his placement of Pepsico president and marketing guru John Sculley at Apple Computer in 1983.

Roche, who has been in the recruiting business for more than 40 years and whose peers named him “Headhunter of the Century” in a 2000 poll conducted by Hunt-Scanlon, is said to have placed more CEOs than any other recruiter.

“Heidrick delivers quality candidates,” says recruiter Kevin Berchelmann of Triangle Performance in Bellaire, Texas. “You could mix (the candidate names) all up in a bucket and pick any of them. They are going to be dead-on.”

Roche, who has personally placed CEOs at the Gap, IBM and PricewaterhouseCoopers, discloses his technique for finding the best candidate: “The secret is putting the client, the candidate and the whole process ahead of yourself.”

How well Roche does will be determined in part by the change in Disney’s stock price the day a successor is named, which should be by June, Disney reports.

--Sheree R. Curry