Interview with an Executive Search Firm Partner and Manufacturing Industry Expert, Keith Syberg


The BlueSteps Edge: Manufacturing, Keith Syberg
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BlueSteps talks to Keith Syberg, a Partner of retained search firm Smith and Syberg, to gain his insights into the current developments within the search industry.

BlueSteps: These are very tough times in manufacturing. What can you tell me about what’s happening today?

Keith: Our client base is 80-90% manufacturing. Our firm typically conducts 18 searches at a time. About 50% of our clients are involved in automotive chain. We are at a big transitional point. Just now the auto industry is reaching the boiling point, undoubtedly brought on in part by economic issues. But truthfully, the economic situation probably only accelerated the process of directly confronting the problems facing the industry by a quarter or two. There are very real concerns about the automotive sector specifically, and about the manufacturing sector in general. But interestingly, there is not as much concern about the manufacturing sector now as there would have been had this recession hit 3-5 years ago.

The manufacturing sector has been taking a pretty hard look at itself for the past few years, in terms of costs, supply chains and sourcing to low cost countries around the world. Manufacturing employees are hunkering down right now, waiting to see what happens with Congress’s decision whether to help the automotive sector. If they do decide to provide support, it may only delay some of the pain, but if we can make some of the pain happen after a year or so from now, once the economy is more settled, it will help the industry.

I’m not sure if this infusion will really solve anything but it may delay it. These folks will have to reorganize or file bankruptcy without the intent of going out of business.

Outside of automotive, our firm hires for industrial sectors including: consumer durable goods, industrial plastic products, the housing industry, the cutting tool industry, and either private or public equity models where an organization may own manufacturing companies from a wide variety of sectors. We also have a couple of financial or service organizations as clients.

BlueSteps: Are any of your clients in the environmental area?

Keith: Some of our clients are in ecologically correct areas, as part of their business; it just makes good sense as a citizen of the planet, but also makes them more attractive as an employer. Many of them look at it as a fundamental part of the value chain and have made incremental changes in terms of a green approach.

BlueSteps: What is happening in manufacturing right now in terms of hiring?

Keith: Overall it is stable to down in terms of hiring due to the economic situation, plus things do tend to slow down in December anyway. I would say that in both automotive and the industrial sectors, there are a few bright spots in each. There are some companies that have figured out the silver lining inside the cloud. The companies that planned well, stuck to their knitting, use good metrics, are not over-leveraged, and refused to take on business they couldn’t make money on, are prepared to weather the storm. They may be able to take advantage of opportunities to take over businesses that aren’t doing well.

BlueSteps: And how about companies that haven’t been as prescient?

Keith: They are seeing a few projects informally delayed or outright cancelled, or put off until first quarter of next year. There’s nobody out there in manufacturing not thinking “what if”.

In general, companies that are highly levered are in a bad spot right now. They may have wonderful operating income, and business going okay, but if they’re having to pay down significant debt or the bank is very nervous, or they’re not able to meet certain covenants associated with that debt, that is problematic.

I am actually the Chairman of the Association of Manufacturing Excellence (ame.org). We operate in North America mostly; we are 5,000 mid- to senior-level executives focused on lean, world class manufacturing. These are folks who have been disciplined, trying to manufacture when a customer orders it instead of having it sit on a shelf.  These companies have pledged to do better in this economy.

BlueSteps: How can a candidate best present him/herself to get noticed in a marketplace that is becoming saturated with talented people?

Keith: There is a lot of negativity right now, and it’s easy to get caught up in it if you’re not careful. For candidates who are actively looking, let a growth skill set show. This might be fundamental crisis management: we can get better at what we’re doing and there are opportunities. It’s a good time to show customers how we’re a bit better, different, more partnership oriented. Try to project a positive attitude, a can-do problem solving attitude. You will attract people to you; you will encourage them just by the force of that approach.
If that’s part of your DNA as a senior leader, this is the time to really shine and prove yourself. There are always opportunities in a downturn.

BlueSteps: Are your searches taking longer now?

Keith: Yes, a bit longer. Companies are going a bit slower, but also candidates are starting to be a little less open to a recruiting call to make a change right now.

BlueSteps: Are you more or less receptive to candidates who are “on the beach”? And are clients more willing to look at candidates who have been laid off?

Keith: I would say yes to both, but I would say that’s never been a huge problem. It clearly depends on how long they’ve been out. Being out a year is a bit of a problem. An important question is: were they the only one let go or were they part of a cut of 50 people?

My advice is get right back on the horse. It’s a 7-10 month process, so it’s not wise to delay. My clients have either gone through it themselves or have inflicted it on other people, so they are understanding, for the most part.

BlueSteps: What do you think is on the horizon for 2009? Predictions?

Keith: Hopefully stable but probably down. We’re in kind of a perfect storm right now where over the next 60-90 days with a new president and bailout packages on the table, there could be some dramatic decisions made.

Many of the fundamentals in the manufacturing world are still fairly solid. Many companies still have demand for their products, and are effective at selling. In the past, the US economy was bolstered by other countries. So my hope is that they’re going to be positioned to get cranked up again fairly quickly and will be in reasonable shape going into it.

One of the things that is dicier right now is relocation because of housing. It used to be somewhat minor but it is now a major issue. When people have lost 20% of the value of their homes, it’s an issue for both individuals and companies.

About Mr Syberg

Keith Syberg has a BA in communications and a MA in Educational Administration. While using his talents as an university administrator he was Vice President of Student Services. Keith joined a large Indianapolis search firm in 1984 and became the Director over the Retained Search Division. His leadership roles have included: Association for Manufacturing Excellence, Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, United Way, National Personnel Associates, Archdiocese of Indianapolis, and a member of the ASQ Service and Human Resources Division. To read more about Keith and his firm, visit www.smithandsyberg.com.


Interview conducted for BlueSteps by Allison Cheston, December 2008. Allison is a marketer, career advisor, and expert in executive search marketing. For more information go to www.allisoncheston.com.

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