Tuesday, July 16, 2013


Help Wanted:  “How will you find us a brilliant Chemical Process Engineer to commission and run our anaerobic digestion power plant…in California?”

Company:                  Anaerobic Digestion/Alternative Energy Start Up
Position:                    Chemical Process Engineer with MBA
Search Start:             December 2011
Search End:               March 2012

The Challenge:  A four person start up based in Boston had just landed the next-to-impossible; a multi-billion dollar, multi-year contract with one of the nations largest grocery chains.  With the first pilot plant build out in progress and an enthusiastic client, the team had one critical problem they needed to solve immediately…find a multi-talented engineer to commission and run the plant in Southern California.  The problem wasn’t finding a chemical engineer, it was finding a licensed chemical engineer who also had an MBA, experience running or managing a plant, and an entrepreneurial mindset.  More important, this rare person had to quickly earn the trust of a team sitting 3,000 miles away.  This person would need to work independently on a new technology, trouble shoot any issues that arose during the commissioning process, act as the main point of contact for the client, and perform all this under a tight deadline.  In short, hold all the keys to the success of the entire project.  Everything this team had worked on for the past four years would be won or lost by this essential hire.  GAME ON!!

The Search:  Once we carved out a profile, discussions around geography began out of the gate.  While ideally this person would have a West Coast presence, the team preferred to hire an East Coast person thereby ensuring regular face-to-face meetings, and more opportunity to get to know them.  However, this would require more coast to coast flights, driving up the company’s operating costs, leaning on an already tight budget.  It didn’t make sense.  We would have to find a way to vet this person beyond shadows of doubt, and right size the ideals to the realities of the search.  Further, we would have less of a hill to climb if we hired a local presence who was already accustomed to living in Southern California and has an established network of professionals to call in when the time comes to grow the team.  Hiring a relo often means a flight risk if the individual becomes unhappy with the quality of their life.  If they have a family, you've just increased those odds by 50%. 

The complexities of a search like this are doubled when additional requirements such as a PE license and MBA are put on the list of “must have’s”.  And while experience with alternative energy technologies wasn’t a requirement, I felt this would be the game changer if I found a candidate with some exposure or interest in the green space.  I knew this was literally a needle in a haystack search.  So I focused on top-flight schools in California and targeted engineering associations, networks and other alumni programs. 

The first few candidates we talked to held 75% of the qualifications, but the chemistry (between the founders and the candidates) was lacking.  Some came across as purely academic, while others lacked the seriousness of personality we needed…especially as a client-facing representative.

The Solution:  A boat-load of focused research, multiple calls and many turned-over stones later, the answer came with an unexpected twist.  A potential candidate I had identified, and who took personal interest in the technology, mentioned a fellow classmate in his MBA program.  While he had already accepted a position for himself, he couldn’t help but think his colleague would be a very interesting match.  They were into the last few weeks of the program and the soon-to-be graduates were all seeking their next career move.  Needless to say we were on the phone the next day.

The referral turned out to be an exact match of my and the client’s ideals.   He is a Chemical Engineer, PE with an MBA and 10 years of professional experience, with almost four years of recent experience building out, commissioning and running a power plant…an alternative energy plant in Las Vegas. 

A few days after receipt of his CV we booked phone interviews.  About a week later we booked his flight to Boston and took the next steps to solidifying his candidacy.  Less than six weeks after we launched the search, we had all we needed to move forward on this stellar candidate.  The offer process was a bit rigorous…this was a candidate who was accustomed to earning almost $50K more than what my client budgeted for the position.  What we couldn’t pay him in salary, we had to make up for in equity.  And that, as it turns out, was the magic word for our new Director of Engineering.  The offer was tendered and accepted.

Today:  Upon hire, my candidate exceeded the Founder’s expectations and expertly executed the commissioning process, passing with flying colors.  The plant has been running under his capable hands for the past 13 months.  He still loves his job and is enjoying the day-to-day challenges that come with working on a new green technology.  After flying under the radar for the past six years, my client was finally “forced” into the spotlight by their client in California.  News of the Company, and the anaerobic digester plant, has recently reached the eyes and ears of green technology enthusiasts and professionals from the left coast to the right coast.  To read more about their success, refer to my prior blog below; “Waste Not, Want Not”


Help Wanted:           A VC-Backed Start-Up in Water Technology Needs a CEO

Company:                  Start-Up Water Technology out of MIT
Position:                    CEO with capital raise and technology experience
Search Start:             August 2009
Search End:               October 2009

The Challenge:  A new membrane technology developed in an MIT lab by two distinguished PhD’s had surfaced as a potential solution for commercial, municipal and industrial applications.  The unique properties of this membrane offered an easy-to-clean, reusable filter capable of capturing microscopic particles needed to clean industrial waste water, and did not require frequent and costly replacement   With only IP and a small amount of starting capital in hand, the founders had no network to support the build out of an Executive Team, and they had few resources in order to attract the right people.  But the formation of a company was there, and the first order of business; hire a CEO.

The Search:  Meeting with the Co-founder in August of 2009, it was clear the team needed someone who could meet three basic needs; 1) A background in water technology and preferably a focus on membranes development.  2) Leadership of a small, growing company with few resources and limited budget.  3) Experience in raising capital and influencing the investment community. 

Targeting the local water industry experts would not be too difficult.  There are a limited number of companies focused on membrane development, however, simply because membrane’s are considered a commodity and are more popular overseas than in the US for industrial application.  Finding an expert CEO-level person may mean a national or international search.

Using my own network as a strategic first strike and seeking referrals would only get me so far.  I knew I needed to approach this search with more than a few phone calls.  I had to get out into the expat community and find a water expert who could introduce me to more water experts.  Coupled with a target list of local water technology companies with advanced product lines for commercial and industrial applications, I was fairly confident I would find this person here in the Northeast.  The uphill battle would be identifying a credible and effective CEO who would also be willing and able to take on the high risk of a start up.

The Solution:  Several candidates were surfaced within the first few weeks of the search.  Two were Senior Level group leaders from companies such as GE Water and Koch Membrane.  I knew I was on the right track, and both were capable of leading a technical team as well as running the operations.   Both had experience working on start up technologies.  But neither had capital raise experience.  Regardless, my client was thrilled with the progress and met these two experts while I continued my pursuit for the “grail” of a water industry CEO.

A call came from a friend suggesting I attend a networking event for expats in the Boston area.  This was a tight knit group of C-Level foreign nationals working and living the Boston area and they met once a month to network and collaborate on a variety of professional and personal projects.  I was seated next to a French CEO who was not only affable but very forthcoming about his job search.  He had recently left Millipore and had two spinouts of the parent company under his belt where he served as COO and CEO.  He was looking for a start up. 

The conversation lasted through dinner and dessert.  In the process of getting to know him, I had interviewed and vetted him for the role.  In the morning I drafted my presentation to the client.  They met later that week.  As I closed the double doors to the conference room that morning, watching them lean forward simultaneously over coffee cups, their body language said all I needed to know about the search process.  It was over. 

Interestingly, one of the other two candidates was so technically advanced and enthusiastic about the technology, the Founder decided to retain her as well to round out the team and apply her advanced knowledge to develop the product.

Today:  Within months of the CEO taking over the reins of the organization, he had achieved a $3M round of capital with the option of another $5M upon meeting milestones.  It was a joyful yet very challenging period in the development of the company as it was during the height of the recession and green technology in every corner of the industry was struggling to survive.  The CEO is still advancing the technology and company’s position.  With two successful projects (one completed with the US Navy, and one near completion), they are seeking additional capital and potential acquisition.  The Senior technologist also remains on the company’s payroll and is enjoying her role as both technical strategist and entrepreneur.



Help Wanted:  “Our Principle Engineer is very sick, we have no internal replacement and we can not be successful without him.”

Company:                  Engineering Firm/Industrial
Position:                    Senior Mechanical Engineer
Search Start:             December 2010
Search End:               March 2011

The Challenge:  The company had a sudden and significant problem requiring a delicate but fast solution.  Their Principle Mechanical Engineer, a person who had been with them from the day they launched, had fallen gravely ill.  There was no time frame for how long he would be out of commission, and no guarantee that he would come back in a full-time capacity. 

The company had also recently won a bid for a large and very complicated project that meant months of complex engineering work and a significant amount of revenue for the firm.  A much needed infusion of cash during the height of the economic crisis.

The type of engineer my client needed does not grow on trees.  They needed a Senior Mechanical Engineer, with a Professional Engineering (PE) license, and significant industrial engineering experience.  Further complicating the situation is the type of engineering the company specializes in; process engineering, design/build of power plants, facilities and complex chemical processes.  They needed someone who could spec out, draft, design, and project manage.  Sounds like a typical engineering role, but in actuality, most of the engineers with the experience they needed (15+ years under their belt) haven’t touched AutoCAD in years.  They usually have an internal resource drafting/editing designs as needed. 

I’ll add one small wrinkle to this situation. They had tried working with recruiters in the past but with no success.  They stated there was no one out there who truly understood what they did or was willing to invest a great deal of time in figuring it out.   Hiring into their unique culture and high standards would be a considerable challenge. This would be my first time working with the firm.  I knew when I left the meeting this was a perfect fit for me.

The Search:  Networking into the chemical process design engineering world is extremely difficult.  Most of the really talented people know each other, or know of each other, and they are typically gainfully employed or gleefully self employed.  They have little to no interest in entertaining a move unless they have to.  They are also not overtly public about their profiles.  You won’t find them on LinkedIn or any of the resume sourcing boards.  Getting an introduction is only successful if the engineer candidate knows the person and is a trusted resource. 

The first two weeks of the search brought a few decent but less experienced candidates.  People definitely worth talking to, but no one who really matched my expectations relative to the complexity of the projects they worked on, nor the hands-on design experience my client desired.  As we continued to work together, educating each other on both their perception of the candidate market, and my knowledge of what the market would bear, further culling out the must haves from the plusses, I realized that the search parameters and the geography would have to expand in order for us to find this rare talent.

Through multiple connections and conversations with other principal level engineers and hiring managers who also sought these skill sets, I learned that there were only about five truly dynamic, incredibly talented and potentially available candidates who would be an ideal match.  The tentative position my client was in, coupled with the possibility the tenured Mechanical Engineer may recover and return made the position less attractive.  What if they hired someone but didn’t have enough work to keep both busy?  Or worse, would there be a power struggle between the two putting them at odds with each other and the other partners? 

The feedback I received once candidates reviewed the position summary (‘You’re never going to find someone like this, they just don’t exist.’) or as I discussed the specifics of the situation was somewhat negative.  Why would anyone leave a full-time position where they are well paid and work is plentiful for a situation where they may end up back on the street within the year?  Oh, and by the way, have you heard the latest unemployment numbers?

As the odds got lower, my persistence increased.  I continued to drill, discover and identify candidates through extensive networking, and this included leveraging my many wonderful contacts turning their network upside down to identify one or two potentials.  A timely conversation with a local Senior Engineer who had someone in mind recommended I call him immediately.  The candidate lived in Connecticut and would require relocation, but he was the single most talented Senior Mechanical Engineer he’d ever worked with, and I would be impressed with the depth and breadth of his experience. 

The Solution:  He had 25+ years of industrial and commercial mechanical engineering experience, on both domestic and international projects, developing and designing custom solutions for extremely complex, next-to-impossible, chemical process challenges for demanding multi-national clients.  But this was not the only area he had expertise in…he was also extremely diverse.  In addition to many other areas of industrial design experience, he had deep experience in consulting on industrial HVAC solutions, a much-needed skill set for the firm.   

Within the first hour of the interview, the match seemed ideal.  My client was also incredibly impressed with the energy and enthusiasm the candidate demonstrated, and the willingness he expressed to take on the opportunity.  The candidate would not only need to relocate, but he would also need to shut down his consulting firm which included breaking a lease and a physical move of both office and residence.  It was a very unusual situation but both client and candidate seemed satisfied that this was necessary and each required a time-sensitive response.  Within three weeks of the first meeting, an offer was drafted and accepted.  The candidate began his assignment in the spring of 2010. 

Today:  The candidate remained with the firm through late Spring of 2013.  An unfortunate family circumstance forced his resignation to care for his family.  As an expat, he was happy to return home but sad to leave behind a tremendous career opportunity.

Having a window of three months to prepare for this transition, I went back out to the market with a new vigor to identify and hire his replacement.  I knew exactly what we needed and though it would still be a tall order, it was a familiar one.  Within a few weeks of launching the search, a strong local candidate was identified with extensive lead-time.   In June 2013, the baton was passed from the retiring ME to the newly hired ME who was again a unique find in a very limited field of experts.  The feedback so far has been exceedingly positive and both candidate and client are extremely happy with the match.