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Don't settle for less than the best when hiring

By SUSAN BOWLES

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2001


Hiring top employees is a challenge for any company, but perhaps most of all for a small, fast-growing enterprise.

Even with signs of an economic slowdown, unemployment remains at its lowest point in years. And competition for quality workers is stiff: A recent survey found that nearly half of managers older than 35 speak with headhunters quarterly.

"The reality is we're in a tight market for intellectual capital," says Abby Castellanos, a senior accounting and finance consultant with Tampa's eResourcing Group, a division of the global executive search provider TMP Worldwide.

That puts particular strain on the small businessman or woman. How do you attract the highest quality employees when you're just starting out and don't have the money or corporate track record your competitors do?

By looking for employees who want to have an impact on a company and a market, experts say. By offering creative compensation and benefits packages. And by refusing to settle for less than the best.

"Even in a small business, you set your bar high," says Walter Baker, head of the executive search company Meridian Partners in Tampa. "If you see you have the opportunity to get someone you might not have planned on and you can justify it, even if it's a stretch, do it."

Baker should know. He started Meridian Partners a little more than a year ago with three employees. Today, 17 people work for him.

Before approaching a potential employee, Baker and his partner assessed what they wanted in their hires. What job were they filling? What did they expect the employee to do? What tasks needed to be done? It's a first step any entrepreneur would be well advised to follow, Baker says. "It gets into establishing the real expectations for the candidate."

After defining what he was seeking, Baker looked at what Meridian Partners could offer that an older, more established company perhaps could not. Flex time -- the ability for employees to dictate their own schedules -- was the answer.

Because he sold it as a benefit, Baker was able to tap into talented people who might have been working from home but missed the office setting, tools and teamwork of a more traditional job. Flex time gives them those perks but with "the same freedom and flexibility that they had when they were on their own," he says.

Benefits such as flex time often help entrepreneurs make up for salaries that are lower than those offered by larger competitors. Other benefits that bridge the salary gap include signing bonuses, additional vacation time and telecommuting, Castellanos says. "People value time."

Kurt Long, chairman, president and chief executive of OpenNetwork Technologies in Clearwater, is another veteran of the small-business hiring fray. When OpenNetwork opened in 1995, it consisted of Long and a card table. Today, it has 115 employees and hopes to hire between 30 and 60 people each quarter.

Long had to build OpenNetwork, a provider of secure electronic business software, and land clients before he could successfully recruit employees. "Having one of those contracts, that put me in a position of being able to hire real people," he says.

Any successful business, Long says, has to have four elements: vision, a good business plan, good customers and a winning team. After he could prove his business was viable, Long says, recruits "saw an ability to make an impact on the business and the market. They saw we had a vision. They saw we had a real plan."

If your business is in order and you want to start ramping up, you probably don't want to just post a help wanted ad and hope for the best. To find the best employees, tap first into your network, particularly your accountant, lawyer or banker.

"It's the people you trust with your money and your business," Baker says.

And don't bypass your employees. Ask who they know, Castellanos says. "You never know whose uncle might be an IT professional."

While networking and word-of-mouth are crucial for any position, college placement offices and trade schools can help you find junior employees, Baker says. Internet search engines such as Monster.com are helpful when you're hiring for midlevel positions. Senior positions may be best served by an executive recruiter, although you'll pay for the service and expertise.

"At each level you try different avenues and find the one that works best for you," Baker says.

Know, too, that your hiring approach will change as you grow. In 1995, OpenNetwork found employees mainly through personal and professional relationships, Long says. Today, it has an advertising budget, an on-campus budget and eight full-time employees dedicated exclusively to finding the best candidates nationally.

Yet in your rush to attract talent, don't overlook the importance of chemistry. A first-class resume will never compensate for hiring a person who doesn't fit in with the culture you're trying to build or who doesn't have the flexibility required by a fast-growing business.

Max Linn, head of the financial advisory company Linn & Associates in St. Petersburg, uses personality testing to ensure that he hires not only the best people, but those best suited to his company.

"When hiring, you must hire someone who's suited to that position. And that cannot be done through resumes and interviews," he says. "You don't want someone in a service position whose personality fits sales."

While it's crucial to find the right hires, regardless if it's employee No. 2 or No. 200, it's also important for employers to live up to the promises made during hiring.

"As you recruit people into an entrepreneurial organization, it's a very personal decision that each employee is making," Long says. And breaching a promise made during recruiting will come back to harm you. "That's what's going to make hiring the next employee difficult."

- Have a comment about growing your business or a story idea? Susan Bowles can be reached at susanbowles@mindspring.com.

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