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July 2009
When The Headcount Counts
By Ellison Clary

     Is the recession a blessing in disguise? A business person looking at the economy as Michael Steinitz does might answer, “Yes.”

     “It’s actually a good time to look closely at your organization and determine ways to ensure you’re retaining your best people,” says Steinitz, president of the Southern Mid-Atlantic District for Robert Half International. If those top people aren’t happy now, reasons Steinitz, they are likely to leave for another job once the economy improves.

     Furthermore, as businesses seek ways to save money, it’s a good time to assess the existing talent pool and be sure the skill sets of employees match current business needs.

     Finally, why not take some time to examine the way the business runs? “It’s a great time to maximize your productivity, get rid of inefficiencies and streamline your processes,” says Steinitz.

     Backing up his logic, Steinitz has impressive resources. Robert Half International bills itself as the world’s largest specialized staffing company and is a member of Standard & Poor’s S&P 500 Index.  A leader in professional services, it also is the parent company of Protiviti, a global consulting and internal audit firm that specializes in risk and advisory services.

     Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half International has more than 400 consulting and staffing locations worldwide. From his 22nd floor office in the Charlotte Plaza building, Steinitz presides over operations in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

     The 30 employees in Charlotte match the Raleigh work force, but Steinitz oversees smaller offices in Greensboro, Chapel Hill, Charleston, Columbia, Greenville-Spartanburg, Richmond and Norfolk.

     Steinitz points out that his company operates seven specialized staffing divisions, each serving a distinct market.

     There’s Accountemps, Robert Half Finance & Accounting and Robert Half Management Resources for temporary, full-time and senior-level project professionals, respectively. They serve the accounting and finance fields.

     Then there’s OfficeTeam for highly skilled temporary office and administrative personnel. Robert Half Technology places information technology professionals on both a contract and full-time basis. Robert Half Legal is a source for project and full-time staffing of attorneys, paralegals and legal support personnel. Finally, there’s The Creative Group for creative, advertising, marketing and Web design professionals, both freelance and full-time.


Number One Provider

     “We’re the largest specialized recruitment firm,” Steinitz boasts. “We have multiple specialized divisions catering to specific industries or specific focus areas. There are some national competitors, but none that have the footprint we do.”

     Steinitz, who grew up in Washington, D.C., was a Phi Beta Kappa scholar in history at the University of Wisconsin. After three years in sales and service, he joined Robert Half International in 1996. He worked his way up from division director to branch manager to regional vice president to senior vice president, toiling in New York and then Massachusetts.

     As senior regional manager in Metro Boston, he hiked revenue by 35 percent. He came to Charlotte in October 2007.

     “The company has grown so much, and it has allowed me to grow with it,” Steinitz says. “For anyone who works hard and likes what they do, there are tremendous opportunities with Robert Half.”

     Steinitz easily lists what he likes about his job: “It’s an industry that’s growing rapidly, and most likely will continue to grow with the baby boomer generation coming up on retirement. We serve high-demand fields, accounting and finance and technology. And being able to help people get jobs is certainly rewarding. We really strive to develop mutually beneficial relationships with clients in an effort to help them find talent. The relationships make it a gratifying thing.”

     When he arrived in Charlotte with his wife and two children, Steinitz found a family-friendly city with pleasant weather, a relatively low cost of living and far fewer traffic woes. He also discovered an area that continues to grow.

     The region’s volume of financial services companies stands out, and many are doing well in mortgage-related pursuits. But Steinitz says other areas also are strong, including health care and education.

     “In Charlotte, really there’s not an industry we don’t service,” Steinitz adds. “Every company has accounting and finance folks, so we cover every industry.”

     The company serves both businesses and individuals. “Within the accounting and finance space, we cover all areas up to chief financial officer,” Steinitz says. “Many of our best clients, at times, have been people we’ve placed. So it comes full circle.”

     Though a global giant, Robert Half International can and will serve the smallest businesses, Steinitz says. “It could be a shop on the corner looking for a bookkeeper,” he says. “We’ll help them out.”

     But why wouldn’t a smaller firm be better served by a similar-sized staffing company?

“No one has a deeper candidate pool than we do,” Steinitz quickly answers. “No one spends more money on advertising than we do. No one has the footprint in the marketplace that we do. We’ve been around for 60 years. We’re the number one provider in our space.”

     Founded in 1948, the company operated through franchises until 1986, when its current management team reacquired the offices, added new locations and started new divisions. All the firm’s offices are now company-owned and operated.


Effects of Recession

     Like most entities, Robert Half International has not escaped the recession. For 2008, the company reported net income of $250.2 million, compared to $296.2 million for 2007. For first quarter 2009, net income was $8.8 million, down from $70.8 million for first quarter 2008.

     Harold M. Messmer Jr., chairman and chief executive, says labor markets in the United States and around the world were “extremely weak” during the first quarter. Messmer praises field and corporate management teams for “aggressively managing costs,” and adds the firm has virtually no debt.

     “We believe the company is in a good position to grow market share as some of our competitors contract their operations,” Messmer adds.

     Steinitz seizes opportunities as companies get leaner. His firm helps as clients churn through layoffs, offering workshops to those being let go, helping them create resumes and hone interview techniques.

     “There is a tremendous talent pool that exists right now,” he says. “So companies can say, ‘Do we have the best people? Do we have the greatest bench strength? Do we have people who can move us to the next level?’ As the economy shifts and changes for the better, it’s about ‘Where are we positioned for tomorrow?’ And I think companies can take a really close look at that right now. And they have the advantage of a really good talent pool.”

Steinitz believes he sees signs the economy is improving. Unemployment numbers remain high, but the number of job losses is down dramatically.

     So, if you’re out of work, how can you turn yourself into an attractive job candidate? Steinitz starts out generally, then gets more specific.

     “Companies want people that have positive attitudes and have skills that can be used in almost a cross-reference scale, not narrowly focused,” he says. “They want people who work hard and people who are able to do more than just one thing. Those people are incredibly valuable.”

     It’s fine to be a specialist, he adds, but specialize in more than one area.

     Be optimistic, Steinitz admonishes, even though it may be difficult. Understand, he says, that even though they may be seeing evidence of economic recovery, businesses are reluctant to hire too soon.

     “They’re making sure that every dollar spent is really the wise one,” Steinitz says of employers in general.

     “Hiring is certainly the indicator,” he adds. “If companies are hiring, all of a sudden the confidence comes back, the money’s out there and everything goes well from there.”


Generational Attitudes

     For employers, being aware of differences in generational attitudes is a big plus. Younger workers tend to be more focused on their future and how to fund their retirement than are baby boomers.

     Those boomers are fast approaching retirement, Steinitz says, and many might have left the work force already were it not for the tough economy.

     Their impending departure is why the U.S. Department of Labor predicts the staffing industry will be a huge growth area.

     “This office will expand,” Steinitz says as he gazes at the Charlotte skyline. “As a matter of fact, I can’t recall a time in our company’s history when we haven’t been expanding.”

     What frustrates Steinitz most is that he and his cohorts can’t post a perfect success rate. Sometimes, even with a top job candidate, things just don’t work out.

     “So having that person be disappointed in us because we haven’t found them a position can be difficult,” he sighs. “Even though we may have done everything we possibly could have.”

     The equivalent can happen with business clients. “We can come up dry looking for the right person,” Steinitz admits. “Every company has not just the technical skills that are necessary but their own idiosyncrasies for what is the proper fit. We’re the best in our business, but no one bats 1,000.”

     To get as close to perfect as possible, Steinitz has strict hiring criteria.

     “Personality-wise, I’m honest, genuine and hard working,” he says. “I don’t ask people to do anything that I wouldn’t do. I’m driven, but I care. I look for people that are honest, intelligent, driven, customer-service oriented, people who can move really quickly, but be very detail-oriented.”

     He also seeks those with technical skills that match the division in which they will work, rarely hiring anyone straight out of college.

     “In our accounting and finance group, the vast majority of those folks are ex-accountants, CPAs, etc.,” he explains. “They understand what it’s like to work in that field. They understand what clients are looking for and they can talk to candidates about what they have done and what they have accomplished.”

     Steinitz wants those he brings on board to grow and improve their performance as they learn the ropes. Now 39, he says he realizes he is a much different person than the 26-year-old who started with Robert Half in 1996.

     “I needed help along the way,” he says. “There definitely were individuals who taught me not just Robert Half lessons or lessons about the industry, but business lessons of how to just get through. I’ve matured over the years.”

     He’s quick to praise the Robert Half International values and ethics and what he sees as the company’s steadfast adherence to them.

     “We’ve lived through 10 recessions as an organization,” he says.

     “It’s not about ‘How much money can you possibly make?’” he says. “It’s about doing it the right way.”



Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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