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Recruiting in Baja California is a Qualified Success

May 22, 2007
Related Topics: Expatriate Management, Managing International Operations, Candidate Sourcing, Featured Article
Much has changed since executive search professional Warren Carter began working around Tijuana, Mexico, as sales manager to a customs brokerage in the early 1990s.

    "In those days, you could drive up to a new plant that was under construction and you could literally park your car, get out, walk inside and introduce yourself," says Carter, the co-owner of Qualifind, a Chula Vista, California, firm specializing in recruiting executives for cross-border manufacturing operations.

    Security measures adopted by Mexico in the late 1990s now require obtaining official permits to visit the many "maquiladoras," or businesses with plants on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Yet despite the red tape, foreign capital—largely from the United States—again is pouring into to Mexico’s maquiladoras after a slump of several years.

    Tijuana is currently home to more than 600 maquiladoras that employ some 180,000 people, according to the Tijuana Economic Development Corp. And, notes Carter, those plants are on something of a recruiting spree.

    The burgeoning job market has Qualifind in a growth spurt as well. Carter expects to post $2.7 million in 2007, almost doubling last year’s $1.8 million in sales, earned mainly on commissions based on the salaries of the people it places. For Mexican placements, it works out to 25 percent of the first year’s salary, Carter says.

    To help find the best candidates, Qualifind has six offices, including four in Mexico—in Chihuahua, Guadalajara, Monterrey and Tijuana. It also has offices in El Paso, Texas, and its main office in Chula Vista, both of which are several miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.

    Qualifind’s reputation as a dependable recruiter of top managerial talent helped it secure a contract to find 300 engineers for a new maquiladora being built by Honeywell Aerospace in Mexicali in northern Baja. The contract turned out to be the firm’s most lucrative to date, with the majority of the engineers earning salaries ranging from $40,000 to $50,000 in U.S. currency.

    "Qualifind knows their market and their candidates. They work hard to provide us with talent that not only meets our qualifications, but more importantly, will fit within the Honeywell culture," said Anne Sims, staffing director for Honeywell Transportation Systems in Los Angeles.

    Virtually all the candidates for the Honeywell contract were Mexican and were trained in Mexican colleges.

    "The major universities down there are doing a good job for the most part in turning out engineers," Carter says.

    Carter started Qualifind in 1999 near the peak of the foreign investment in Baja. After leaving the brokerage firm, he worked as an executive search consultant with a regional accounting firm but found himself out of work following a restructuring.

    While interviewing at a couple of large executive search firms, Carter realized he was as capable, if not more so, than his eventual competition. Within six months of going solo, Carter was generating double his former job’s annual salary.

    During the first four years, Qualifind’s primary customers were large corporations seeking general managers and other management personnel for the plants. Today, Qualifind still has about 60 percent of its clients in that business, but he also works with many clients that aren’t operating plants in Mexico.

    Part of Qualifind’s success is its focus on the Mexican market. For a smaller search firm, concentrating on a particular industry or market is the way to go, says Judy Thompson, who owns Judy Thompson and Associates, a San Diego search firm specializing in accounting and finance.

    "In recruiting, when you’re handling positions [that pay] under $250,000, it’s better to specialize in either an occupation or industry. The goal is to get to know the universe of the people in that arena," Thompson says.

    Companies manufacturing auto parts, aerospace products, medical devices, packaging and electronics are on a growth tear in Mexico. The shifting seas of global trade have stripped away several industries that once were well-entrenched in Baja, including apparel and furniture manufacturing, Carter says.

    Before Toyota Motor Corp. opened a new truck manufacturing plant in Tijuana in 2004, Carter lobbied to get the contract to recruit management and engineering talent needed to run the operation.

    "It was the most difficult contract we ever had to get," he says. "From start to finish, the process took about six months."

    At one meeting with Toyota executives in Long Beach, California, the Japanese carmaker brought in an official from the home office to speak with Carter’s partner, who had said he could speak Japanese.

    When the Japanese executive began addressing Carter’s partner in slang, he realized he was being tested.

    "I just answered him in Japanese that he was talking in slang and that wasn’t appropriate for this business meeting," says Fernando Espinosa, who studied in Japan. The Mexican-born Espinosa also speaks fluent English, Spanish and French.

    "The guy was so embarrassed, he quickly ended the conversation, said a few words to the other managers and left the meeting," Espinosa says.

    Carter, 43, and Espinosa, 42, joined forces in 2000 after the search consultants kept running into each other while competing for the same executives. In fact, Carter’s first placement candidate accepted job offers from both men, unbeknownst to either recruiter at the time.

    "He [Espinosa] gave [the candidate] a job offer at the same time I did, and the guy accepted both offers at the same time," Carter says.

    The candidate ultimately accepted the offer from Carter’s client because it was a much larger company that paid a higher salary, Carter says.

    The first year following the partnership, the firm grossed $450,000 in commissions, double what Qualifind did the previous year.

    Although he doesn’t speak Spanish, Carter says it’s not an impediment to growing his business, because the language of commerce in Mexico is English.

    "When the Japanese set up operations in Mexico, they speak English and the Mexicans also speak English. It’s the common language," he says.

    Christina Montiel, a former human resources manager for several companies, including Sherwood Medical, Powerware and Lambda Electronics, which all have operations in Mexico, relied on Carter’s firm to find the right managers and other personnel.

    "I was filling jobs both on the U.S. side and in Mexico. He has a very good knowledge of the industries and the different functions."

    Qualifind finds its candidates for clients on both a contingency and retainer basis, but the latter makes up about a quarter of the business, Carter says.

    The specificity of the contracts, usually involving highly skilled professionals, often makes finding such candidates far more difficult, he says.

    Carter says one of his best investments was installing a customized applicant tracking software program to find the best people for his clients. The software and the service cost about $25,000, but it was worth it, Carter says.

    "Our productivity just skyrocketed over our competition both in America and Mexico," he says. "With the software we got even more efficient in what we were doing and started gaining even more market share."

    Today, Qualifind has 19 employees—11 in the United States and eight in Mexico. The company purchased its office in a recently developed business park in southeastern Chula Vista.

    A naturally gregarious person, the Georgia native says recruiting is something he finds himself doing nearly all the time.

    "If I’m in the airport, I can almost spot the guy who’s probably traveling for a job interview," he says. "I nearly always introduce myself. I have to meet him because he may be a client or candidate for me sometime down the road."

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