It’s 898 miles from Filer, Idaho (population 2,508), where Gary Saenger was born and raised, to Santa Clarita, his hometown since 1987.
Saenger, founder and president of Saenger Associates, an executive search firm, brings the values he learned growing up to his business and his life.
Gary’s grandfather, Henry Saenger, had ten children. When he died in a railroad accident, his son Paul (Gary’s father) was just six years old.
Paul never got past the eighth grade. He was the second-youngest child, with eight older sisters and one little brother. To help provide for his mother and siblings, Paul worked as a day laborer on local farms.
Those who lived through the 1930s will tell you that they were particularly hard years.
Every parent hopes and dreams that their children will do better, and Paul’s goal was that Gary and Loyd would graduate from college.
After the Great Depression, a college degree was determined to be the best path to security, stability and success.
Despite having college scholarship offers, instead, a week after high school graduation, Gary opted to join the U.S. Air Force, learning Russian (being a spy in the sky).
Twenty months into his service, Gary received an honorable medical discharge due to an eye issue. He headed to college, with the goal to join the CIA, using his language skills.
After graduation, the CIA withdrew its job offer, so he became a high school teacher, coaching basketball, football and track for two years. He soon realized he wouldn’t be making enough to support himself and a family in Southern Idaho, and went back to college at Idaho State University, earning a master’s degree in Personnel.
The bright lights of Los Angeles beckoned, and over the course of the next two decades, Gary found himself working for larger, growing companies in the human resources department.
Initially going to work at American Hospital Supply Corp., he eventually was promoted to be the youngest VP of Human Resources of a major division. He stayed for ten years; the company is now Cardinal Healthcare.
What followed were two one-year jobs in the medical device and hospital management industries.
These were interesting times, personally and professionally for Gary. One of the companies went into bankruptcy, so he moved on. His next employer expanded rapidly, with operations in 70 countries.
After three years in senior HR roles at Citibank, he moved to Los Angeles-based Security Pacific Bank. In 1992, he and 15,000 colleagues were laid off in the run-up to the bank’s acquisition by San Francisco-based BankAmerica (now Bank of America, based in Charlotte).
Putting that life-changing experience to good use, Gary moved into a leadership role at Right Management Consulting, a public company, where over seven years he helped the company to expand from two offices to 20 across the West.
In 1997, he launched his executive recruiting company with a partner. The partnership didn’t last but the business did. This year, Saenger Associates celebrates its 18th anniversary.
These days, the company takes full advantage of a growing global economy, and business is good. Still, memories remain fresh of the carnage of the Great Recession of 2008-2011. The burst of the dot-com bubble in 2001-2003 also took a toll on the company.
So, for Gary and his team, it has been a roller coaster ride as the economy expands and contracts.
Some industries are tied directly to the overall health of the national and world economies; others are less sensitive to broader business cycles.
Hiring is a lagging economic indicator, and as a result, there has been severe volatility at times.
That means the valleys are deeper and the peaks are higher in executive search than in other service companies that serve middle and large companies.
Practice areas for Saenger Associates include consumer and industrial products, technology, healthcare and non-profits. Median job offers are in the $250,000 range.
As an example of a recent assignment, the firm placed Craig Clark as Vice President, Logistics and Distribution for Gerber Childrenswear LLC in Greenville, S.C.
Just 56 days from the official start of the search, Clark accepted Gerber’s job offer. Gerber Childrenswear is a $305 million revenue, middle-market division of Intradeco, a $4 billion privately held company in Miami.
Clark worked for two and a half years as Senior Director of Distribution at Nike, and has more than 18 years of experience leading distribution, logistics and supply chains for large global companies.
He was selected over other candidates because he’s a collaborative leader with the proven ability to drive cultural change, establish an organizational roadmap, and roll up his sleeves to get the job done.
In this search assignment and in all others, the ultimate goal of Saenger Associates is to exceed, not merely meet, expectations.
Gary, who minored in math in college, believes that a successful search obeys the “law of big numbers.” The firm make certain that the “must haves” of a position are realistic and that there is a large enough population of candidates to draw from.
For Gerber, Saenger searched its proprietary 45,000-name database as well as LinkedIn, and conducted further research to identify a first cut of 303 candidates.
Saenger and his team interviewed 23 candidates, of whom Gerber then interviewed five, before offering the position to Clark.
Saenger shared five hard-won lessons he’s picked up along his journey for his fellow SCV business owners.
Lesson 1. Prepare for the next downturn now. Like many owners, Gary knew the economy was overdue for a crash by 2008 , and he made some plans for when it came.
But when the Great Recession hit, his planning proved insufficient, and the business fell off a cliff. Revenue dropped 80 percent from the go-go years between the two recessions, 2004-2007.
No one was fully prepared for what turned out to be a Black Swan event, when worst case scenarios turned out to be overly optimistic.
Closing the doors and going out of business was not an option. With his entire team’s support, Saenger decided to ride out the economic storm.
The company instituted a flexible work schedule for all employees. Those not actively working on searches stayed home.
A key decision was made to stay with what the company did best: retained executive search. They had built their reputation on being among the best and they opted to avoid changing to contingency search or going into the temporary or contract employee business.
What they did do was become more flexible on the searches they were willing to undertake and became flexible with the terms with their clients.
Through all this, not one employee left the company.
Lesson 2: Networking is essential . During the Great Recession, the company became much more aggressive in its networking efforts.
The investment that Gary has made each year to be part of Provisors (previously PNG), a California-based professional networking organization, has earned an outstanding return. In 2004, Gary founded the Provisors Santa Clarita group, which he facilitated until 2013.
Lesson 3: Opportunities arise when least expected. In 2011, in the middle of the trough, Gary was approached to join an invitation-only association of executive recruiters, IRC Global Executive Search Partners. This organization has affiliate offices in 80 cities in 45 countries on six continents.
Being part of something bigger gave Saenger Associates capacity to conduct searches on a local, regional, national and global basis. Soon after joining IRC, he was able to tap into the network and fill a position for a company in Brazil.
Lesson 4: Use your skills to pay it forward. For 25 years, Saenger served on the board of the SCV Boys and Girls Club. Later he served on the board of Single Mother’s Outreach, and now is a member of the College of the Canyons Foundation and the SCV Economic Development Corporation. Gary serves on the board of directors of Bethlehem Lutheran Church.
Lesson 5: Treat people with dignity. Gary and his team treat people well. “I was raised to treat the janitor with the same respect as the CEO.”
Gary Saenger has built a company that is reputable and successful. Surrounded by a hardworking, dedicated and loyal team, the future remains bright.
Ken Keller, owner of Strategic Advisory Boards, periodically interviews Santa Clarita Valley CEOs, business owners, and entrepreneurs. His goal: to learn more about the underlying factors underlying the growth and success of locally-based enterprises. He can be reached at [email protected].