Help Wanted: Plum Posts Open on K Street

Posted March 11, 2003 at 6:48pm

Times are tough all over, even for those who toil in Gucci Gulch. But if you’re a lawmaker or Congressional staffer and are thinking of leaving Capitol Hill soon, Nels Olson is probably someone you should get to know.

A managing director at Korn/Ferry International, the world’s largest executive recruitment firm, Olson and his colleagues Leslie Hortum and Beth Fowler are among the best “headhunters” for lobbyists and government affairs experts in Washington.

And despite the sluggish economy, Korn/Ferry is conducting a number of searches on behalf of blue-chip corporations and trade associations who are looking for high-powered players to run their Washington offices.

General Electric, the Recording Industry Association of America, Shell Corporation, Fluor Corporation, Dow Chemical, the National Association of Broadcasters and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers are all in the market for senior-level lobbyists.

GE, RIAA and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers will all shell out $750,000 or more annually to the successful candidate for those posts. K Street insiders claim that GE is down to less than a handful of candidates in that search, which has been going on for several months, and a winner is expected to be announced soon.

There are lower-profile positions in play as well, such as the new CEO for the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, which will fetch between $300,000 and $500,000 annually.

The National Association of Broadcasters will pay $350,000-plus to its newest executive vice president. Dow Chemical is looking for a vice president for government affairs and is willing to part with approximately $300,000 each year for that privilege.

Fluor, the California-based engineering and construction firm, is searching for a senior vice president for its lobbying shop. The base salary is $250,000.

AARP, the powerful senior citizens organization, is on the prowl for a “Director of Advocacy” — and will pay $225,000 or more for that person’s services. The American Chemistry Council is looking for a vice president for corporate communications, and that paycheck will be in the $200,000-plus range.

The Cellular Technology and Internet Association also needs a new CEO, salary unknown, while Honeywell International Inc. is looking for a No. 2 person for its government affairs shop. Honeywell officials declined to say how much they will pay that person. In order to balance out the office, the winner is likely to be someone with strong ties to the GOP since Timothy Keating, an ex-aide to former President Bill Clinton, was hired by the New Jersey company last November to head its government affairs shop.

Olson declined to comment about the specifics of any of these job openings, other than to say that “there are some good opportunities out there for the right people.”

Olson, who worked in the first Bush White House and did communications for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000, recently helped recruit Kerry Knott, a one-time chief of staff for then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), for the post of VP of government affairs for cable giant Comcast Corp.

Microsoft is now in the market for a replacement, and while the paycheck isn’t all that spectacular by K Street standards — between $150,000 and $175,000 annually, said knowledgeable sources — Microsoft will offer lots of stock options. With Wall Street in a bear market, however, options aren’t nearly as popular as cold, hard cash these days.

The services of Olson and other top headhunters are not cheap. Headhunters typically get paid an amount equal to one-third of the cash portion of an applicant’s first-year salary, excluding stock options, deferred compensation and other indirect payments — like new cars, country club memberships and other perks. The bill can run into the hundreds of thousand of dollars for some candidates and is paid by the corporation, nonprofit or trade association doing the hiring.

The list of the elite headhunters who handle such political work is very short, and includes several of the big national executive recruiting companies, although not all are major players here.

Along with Korn/Ferry, the other top firm in town is Russell Reynolds Associates, with Eric Vautour and Mary Tydings being two of the go-to people in that office.

The 41-year-old Vautour, a former Reagan aide who has been at Russell Reynolds since 1987, works closely with Tydings, a former Clinton administration official. Tydings focuses more on foundations and nonprofits, as well as corporations seeking someone with communications skills, while Vautour deals the corporate positions seeking straight political help.

Vautour will not talk about whom Russell Reynolds is doing searches for at the moment, although the firm recently helped place a top person at the American Medical Association and Marsha Johnson Evans as CEO at the American Red Cross. But Vautour isn’t seeing a whole lot of movement right now, despite all of the big job openings.

“It is about as quiet as I’ve ever seen it,” said Vautour, a Vermont native, when asked about the current market, although he still hopes for a turnaround soon.

“Part of it is psychological. People are tending to stick home more, stick to their knitting, and are adverse to change,” said Vautour, who is trying to be optimistic about the rest of 2003.

“I think you’ll see it start moving again in six to eight months,” predicted Vautour, pointing to the end of the first session of the 108th Congress and the beginning of re-election campaigns for major changes to start occurring in the employment market.

A serious challenge to the dominance of companies like Korn/Ferry and Russell Reynolds might come from Spencer Stuart & Associates, which is stepping up its presence inside the Beltway. Spencer Stuart hired Mike Kirkman, formerly Olson’s boss at Korn/Ferry, last October to run its D.C. office.

Since then, Spencer Stuart has helped find the new head of the Air Transport Association and is currently leading a search for a new head for the National Business Aviation Association, as well as seeking someone to oversee the government affairs office for nursing home operator Beverly Enterprises.

“Spencer Stuart has been active in this market for years, but they haven’t had a physical presence here,” said Kirkman. “We intend to have a robust practice in these areas,” he added, referring to the affairs and association markets.

Kirkman, though, acknowledges that the economic outlook is not great for his industry right now.

“Yeah, there have been some tough times, but Washington has been insulated,” said Kirkman, who pointed out that life inside the Beltway often runs counter-cyclical to other parts of the country.

Heidrick & Struggles International, which is big in the financial services world, had been a factor in the K Street battles in the past but does not have a D.C. office now.

Washington’s headhunters have also become caught up in the increasingly bitter partisan battles over who gets which K Street job and how that impacts some of big policy fights on Capitol Hill.

Several of the positions Olson is trying to fill have come under increased scrutiny as part of the “K Street Project,” an aggressive campaign run by influential GOP operatives to make sure that Republicans get some of the top lobbying jobs in town.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) holds a regular meeting with well-connected GOP lobbyists, and a list of the available lobbying and trade association jobs is circulated there, along with who is conducting the search. An effort is made to find candidates for those positions, and those who are interviewing get additional calls of support, a potentially important factor in a city dominated by Republicans at the moment.

Starting under then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), GOP Congressional leaders began to make a concerted effort to push Republican candidates for high-profile jobs, although Democrats and some corporate officials have complained that the campaign has sometimes violated ethics laws.

In 1998, then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and other GOP leaders threatened to hold up legislation supported by the Electronic Industries Alliance after the group hired former Democratic Rep. Dave McCurdy (Okla.) rather than a Republican candidate. DeLay was privately chided by the ethics committee for his actions.

Most recently, House Financial Services Chairman Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) and his top aides have been accused of leaning on a leading mutual-fund trade association to oust its head lobbyist, a Democrat, and replace her with a Republican.

Oxley has refused to comment on the controversy, and the Investment Company Institute, the organization in question, has also stayed silent, although outraged House Democrats may seek an ethics probe. ICI is now looking for a well-connected GOP lobbyist for its in-house operation.

Both Olson and Vautour insist that, despite their Republican backgrounds, they have no trouble finding jobs for GOP and Democratic candidates.

“I’d be remiss if I said that it didn’t happen at times,” said Vautour. “But I think the number of stories going around exacerbate and exaggerate the level of it. I think what you’re talking about is balance.”