CAREERS SPECIAL: Digging for talent

By Pete Young
Tuesday, 17 September, 2002



Australia's growing biotech industry has sparked recruitment sector interest. Pete Young surveys the scene

Biotech recruiting is starting to sizzle.

Best estimates are that as many as several dozen agencies are targeting biotech, but with uneven degrees of competency.

Some are generalists who are adding small biotech-specific divisions. Others are boutique agencies moving out of IT into biotech. Yet others are recruitment firms with track records of varying length in science, healthcare and executive search sectors.

At the high end of the industry are executive search firms like Brooker Consulting which deal with filling board member, non-executive directors and top managerial positions that have packages in the $100,000 to $500,000 bracket.

Another broad layer of the recruitment industry deals with middle management (second-tier managers, department heads, team leaders and lab managers) who edge into the six-figure salary league.

A third level, and probably the largest in terms of turnover, focuses on lab bench and support staff.

One player, Daryl Alexander and Associates, is a 20-year-old Australian business that recruits only for the healthcare sector. It spans the range from scientific lab staff, clinical, regulatory, sales and marketing to chief executives.

Traditionally, pharmaceutical companies have formed a large chunk of its client base but biotech is an emerging field of interest, says managing director and owner Dr Amanda Reid.

Almost by definition, Australian biotechs are mostly young companies who are still developing potential products. So, pharmas aside, few are looking for classes of employees such as sales and marketing professionals.

"What we are seeing as a trend is that biotech is recruiting at the CEO level or the lab bench level with little in between," says Reid.

That contrasts with the UK and US, where senior management team positions, marketing managers and sales teams are all part of the biotech recruiting mix.

Reid finds the UK a more fertile source of recruits than the US, mainly because the salary differential is not as marked for UK professionals looking at Australia as their next port of call.

However, Australia's lifestyle and climate also play a larger factor in the thinking of potential UK recruits than their US counterparts, she says.

The hope that pump-priming efforts by governments will induce Australian expats to return home to impart their years of offshore experience appears to be founded in fact, according to Reid: "I regularly interview candidates about six times a year in the UK and Aussies wanting to come home make up about 30 per cent of them."

She has a warning for expats, though. "They have to be careful not to leave it too late. Timing is important and they may become too overqualified, too experienced and too high up in larger organisations."

All those factors can price their skills out of what the Australian market is willing or able to pay. As well, those issues can work against them in a potential employer's mind because "people might think there is just not the challenge to keep them here," Reid says.

There is no magic formula or rule of thumb which recruitment agencies use to alert them that an expat has been away too long to make a return feasible. "It all depends on the person and the position," Reid says.

One tip for offshore recruits of other nationalities who want to maximise their chances of finding their way into an Australia biotech job is to obtain a visa first.

"Companies these days are more likely to sponsor (non-Australian) recruits but already having a visa goes a long way to making things easier because it shows a commitment."

With 15 consultants nationally, Daryl Alexander claims to be one of the largest agencies concentrating solely on the healthcare industry. It does not dabble in financial or IT professionals.

Biotech is still "very much the new kid on the block... very much in the foetal stage," as far as the recruitment industry is concerned, Reid says. Prospects for start-ups are risky, with their chance of failure perhaps four times or more the rate in more established sectors.

"But it is interesting that when I interview CEO candidates, a lot of them may have worked with a biotech that has failed but they are willing to come back and have another go. They have been challenged by the experience and want to come back for more."

When it comes to recruiting top-line executives, different trends are at work in the biotech as opposed to pharmaceutical sectors, according to Filomena Leonardi, principal of the healthcare and life sciences practice for the Australian arm of international executive search agency Heidrick and Struggles.

The pharmas, by and large, are skilled at internally managing the career progressions of their senior staff. In the past, they have moved head office executives being groomed for high duties into the top posts of foreign country subsidies to give them regional experience.

"I believe that is changing and that greater emphasis will be put on filling those [regional office senior roles] with local executives," says Leonardi.

The pharmas also take the long view when it comes to career progressions so "it is not unusual to see someone running a pharmaceutical company who has gone overseas and come back through the same company."

The executive placement story is quite different among emergent life science companies such as biotechs, she says.

Their task is to identify where the company sits in its life-cycle and then synchronise its choice of top executive with that knowledge.

An early-stage company with a strong science-oriented team might require a CEO able to drive funding, for example.

"A lot of our work is about understanding what the sweet spot or profile is for a specific company."

Another trend among emergent life science companies is an awareness of the importance of having strong management competencies on their boards.

Several years ago, biotech boards were typically heavy with individuals drawn from academia. "For a lot of people who came out of true R&D, the world of commercial enterprise is new and different," says Leonardi.

"These days there is increased appreciation that a number of different competencies are needed [at board level] to fuel success for a company."

Heidrick and Struggles, which has been in Australia for 12 years, operates its search service at a discreet person-to-person level with Leonardi as match-maker in the biotech sector.

"We never advertise. With advertising, you have to hope the right person picks up the paper. I ring up people who I know are good and are appropriate and tell them I have a client who has an opportunity they might be interested in. It is very personalised."

She agrees churn rates in Australia's nascent biotech industry probably create the need to fill only 30 CEO positions annually. However, she also works with research institutes, pharmas, and universities, as well as filling positions on biotech boards.

Her advice to professional executives looking for another position is to "pick a couple of search firms who know the industry, who have high reputations, who will understand your career motivations and can give you realistic advice, and who will use your information appropriately and discreetly."

The growth in biotech activity "has everyone in the recruitment industry jumping on the bandwagon, whether or not they have any track record," says Jeremy Wurm, managing director of Brooker Consulting.

A five-person executive search company based in Melbourne, Brooker has an relationship with international agency Ruston Poole that extends its reach to the UK, France, Germany and the US.

Biotech is only one of the strings to its business bow and Wurm recruits for top level positions across a broad spectrum of health, human services, not-for-profit (research institutes and medical associations) and academic institutions.

Part of Wurm's earlier career was spent in business development with the European pharmaceutical industry and his recruitment company also focuses on matching business development vice-presidents to biotech start-ups.

Brooker is one of the better known recruitment firms for top echelon biotech executives, and after 15 years in the industry, Wurm is scathing about the boutique agencies, some of them survivors of the IT downturn who have decided to diversify into biotech because they see it becoming a hotbed of activity.

"They have been around the recruitment industry but they have no idea about biotech and no track record," he claims. "There are any number out there who don't even know what DNA stands for."

Wurm concedes that some former IT specialists who are targeting bioinformatics companies have a legitimate claim to expertise in that crossover zone between biotechnology and information technology. But overall he claims there are fewer than six recruitment agencies who can claim to be competent in the biotech area.

For job seekers or companies trying to pick the bad from the good, his advice is to look in trade and industry association newspapers and pick out the names of agencies who are advertising actual jobs.

Greg McKenzie, of Human Capital Partners, is a specialist who helps the venture capital community fill out the management teams of their portfolio companies.

Based on figures suggesting there 150 to 200 core biotech firms in Australia and factoring in typical churn rates of 10 to 20 per cent, there are only 30 to 40 biotech chief executives being headhunted annually, he says.

McKenzie sees the growth in his end of the recruitment market as being more gradual than exponential. "The type I recruit tend to be more the commercial and entrepreneurial people who bring management, strategic planning and budgeting skills," he says. "I don't recruit research scientists or chief scientists, but rather CEOs with a strong business development focus."

Stephen Muller, a consultant with Sci Med Resources, a division of recruitment firm Staff and Executive Resources, by contrast spends 85 per cent of his time working with biotech recruitment.

The main reason for that is a strong relationship with biosensor developer Ambri. Ambri's demand has been at the lab bench and technician level but its needs will be moving to embrace staff in the quality assurance and regulatory affairs arena.

Muller, who has spent 20 years in the science industry, says biotech recruitment has "really started to kick ahead in the past 18 months" with most demand at the lab bench and research scientist level.

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