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February 5, 2011

When does it make sense to work with a recruiter? When is that the best strategy for hiring new staff? It all depends on the circumstances.

While Steve Quinn (Quinn Automotive Group) has a firm policy of promoting from within, he uses a search firm when he’s making a key hire. “I want to know who’s out there who might be interested in coming to work here,” he says. “A good recruiter goes beyond our industry. He’ll bring me someone with a fresh approach. If I’m hiring a business manager, a good candidate might be someone in banking who’s exceptional. I can’t approach that person myself, so that’s when I turn to the experts.”

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Recruiters’ perspective

Chris MacMillan of AutoRecruit Inc. says clients expect a search firm to bring them people who aren’t necessarily looking for a job. “That’s the headhunting part,” he says. “We’ve known some candidates for years, and because they trust us, they listen to us when we tell them about a position of interest.”

According to MacMillan, the choice to use a recruiter depends on the state of mind and the approach the dealer principal has towards his company and employees. Dealers who use a search firm are truly seeking the best person for the position and they realize that they do not always have the resources to locate and identify that person, or the time required.

AutoRecruit Inc. is one of a handful of companies in southern Ontario that specialize in recruiting for the automotive retail sector. For some reason using a search firm hasn’t caught on in the west. I checked with a number of dealer groups and couldn’t find anyone using one.

AutoRecruit Inc. opened its doors in 1997. Partners Chris MacMillan and Steve Bell are “car guys who moved into the recruitment business.” Their number one goal is to place candidates with good dealerships. Says MacMillan, “Our philosophy is, if we wouldn’t work there, we won’t place people there.”

And it’s definitely not a volume business. MacMillan explains that one recruiter can work productively on three searches simultaneously, assuming they’re at different stages of completion. They are usually searching on behalf of five to ten clients and last year did business with 48 different dealerships.

Auto Careers Group Inc. is another recruitment firm, based in Richmond Hill, ON. While President Farid Ahmad has done major projects, like finding all the staff for Porsche’s new head office, 90 percent of his placements are in dealerships. Since 1995, he’s put 1153 people into jobs in dealerships. With that track record, new business comes largely from repeats and referrals. Currently he’s working with 20 different dealers, and has about a hundred on his books.

Anne Swanberg of Networks-HR is a new player in the recruiting business. The upheaval last year prompted her to launch her business in August 2009. Swanberg describes it as a “dating service” approach which is entirely Internet based. Swanberg says her business is growing faster than she expected with five to ten new candidates signing up every day.

At Networks-HR, both clients and candidates start with an online form. When a client has an opening, Swanberg searches her database and contacts appropriate candidates with enough information for them to arrange their own interview. Swanberg doesn’t screen candidates. She merely facilitates the introduction and she’s paid by the employer, once the match is made.

Dealers’ perspective

For dealers, working with a recruiter is all about trust and relationships. For Michael Croxon (NewRoads Automotive Group, Toronto) who works with both of these companies, there has to be a certain level of integrity. “They know my organization, they know my people, and they represent us well to potential candidates.” Croxon has been dealing with recruiters for more than 14 years to fill more than 30 positions, from administrative personnel to general managers, at his five dealerships.

Fred MacNeil is president of the Halifax-based Steele Automotive Group with thirteen dealerships. For ten years MacNeil worked with a local HR consultant who did background checks, provided orientation services, and advised on compensation packages. Six months ago the consultant expanded into recruiting and now has an annual contract with the group. “This is a person we know well,” says MacNeil. “He knows our business, and we trust his judgement. We know he has our best interests at heart.”

“It’s a great relief having him working for us,” MacNeil continues. “Sometimes we tended to move too quickly in taking on a new person, especially when it was a hot prospect coming from a competitor. I’d get excited and I didn’t always do my homework. Now every single resumé goes to our recruiter for screening. He makes a thorough check and picks two or three for us to interview.” Croxon agrees. Using a recruiter saves him the headache of the weeding out process.

Need to know dealerships

MacMillan and Bell’s background in the car business helps engender confidence. “You can’t do this without experience in the business,” says Chris MacMillan. “We do our homework before taking on a new client. We spend a lot of time in their dealerships and get to know the flavour of each. And in a way, we interview the dealer while he’s interviewing us.”

Steve Quinn was looking for someone who would understand the culture of the Quinn Group’s six dealerships. “I don’t want a recruiter who takes so much of my time learning my business that I might as well have done the search myself.”

According to Quinn a good recruiter builds on that relationship by dropping in from time to time, even if he’s not doing a specific search. “He’ll come by just to see what’s happening in the dealership. He needs to know the kind of people you keep, the kind you get rid of, the kind that excite you or bore you.”

And that works both ways. Macmillan and Bell visit their client dealerships regularly. “It always produces something,” says MacMillan, “It may be a manager who hasn’t been thinking about hiring, but he sees me and calls me in to chat. Or I’ll talk to someone we’ve placed, and he’ll tell me about a friend who’s looking for a change.”

Database of candidates

Maintaining a large data bank of candidates is a key asset for any search firm. Farid Ahmad has around 6500 names in his database. These days, new candidates usually come in as referrals from successful placements. Typically someone will get in touch saying, “You found my friend a great job, and I’d like to work with you too.”

Dealers need to know whether a recruiter works on a contingency basis or on retainer. Farid Ahmad only works on retainer and has a rate schedule ranging from $3500 to $12,500 depending on the position to be filled. “We don’t work on contingency”, says Ahmad, “because this is what can happen. A client needs a parts manager. He calls us and we start our search and spend two to three weeks on it. Then someone walks into his dealership who’s perfect for the job and he hires that person. We’ve spent all that time and we can’t collect a fee.”

The Internet has changed the way recruiters operate. Chris MacMillan tried Workopolis. “We have used them to access their resumé data base and to post positions. But we didn’t get much response from our ads, and when we looked at their database we realized we had all the good people with us anyway.”

Michael Croxon appreciates that both firms have a substantial library of people. He confirmed that these days, in the auto industry, when folks are on the market, they sign up with recruiters. And for job-seekers, the service is free. Croxon goes to industry websites for lower level workers, but for management positions, he uses the two recruiting firms.

Both companies publish an electronic newsletter which functions as a kind of passive prospecting. It lets potential clients and candidates get to know the company and the services. MacMillan and Bell e-mail weekly with new positions and a sample of new candidates – all anonymous – to their database of 6000 names.

The matter of ethics

The whole issue of ethics concerns everyone. Fred MacNeil’s contract with his consultant stipulates that the consultant may not work for the competition in the Halifax/Dartmouth area. AutoRecruit Inc. promises clients they will never approach their staff and typically they work with only two or three dealers of the same manufacturer in any one city.

Swanberg regularly defuses dealers’ fears about poaching and is quick to assure new clients that she’s not trying to take a happy employee away from a job.

Whether it’s match-making or head-hunting, there are times when a dealer needs help to find the perfect employee. As Steve Quinn puts it, “I want someone to find me a round peg for a round hole. I don’t want a square peg that I have to plane down, sand down. And square pegs never settle for long.”

square peg round hole
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