In Memoriam – Roberta Gilna Merkel

Executive search is a lot like the real estate business. Headhunters, with very few exceptions, like realtors, are getting paid by the seller or the company that is selling the job that you, as a candidate, are buying. The best ones manage this ethical dilemma well, especially when the compensation package, like the purchase price of the house, enters into the negotiations.

You can make money on transactions, but you can’t make a living over time without repeat business and referrals. You don’t get either repeat business or referrals by screwing people.

Roberta Gilna, a friend of mine for more than twenty years, died after a short illness on September 11, 2011. She was one of the best ones.

Roberta was a candidate’s advocate. She was always straight with you, told you where you stood in the competition, and tried to give you as much information as possible when it came to making decisions about salary and benefits.

I worked with Roberta on both sides of the executive search transaction. She was the one who got me the job at Jefferson Wells as Regional Vice President of the Midwest Region.  The job did not yet exist when she pitched the idea to the CEO to split the country into three instead of two and give me the middle.

I had been working in Latin America for BearingPoint the successor firm of KPMG Consulting. I came home to visit that Labor Day weekend and got stuck, unable to fly back to South America, when the planes hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

I sat and watched the buildings burn. I contemplated the impact on everyone in the days and weeks afterward, and I wondered how I would ever be able to continue to do what I had been doing. I was gone 100% of the time, flying constantly between Chicago, Miami, Mexico City, Caracas, Bogota, Buenos Aires, and Sao Paulo leading the Industrial, Automotive, and Transportation Practice for BearingPoint in Latin America.

I could not get back to Brazil from Chicago and so I started to think about  alternatives. I tried to negotiate a permanent move to Mexico. When that seemed to hit a brick wall – they wanted me to move to Detroit instead and take responsibility for developing business with some Tier 2 automotive suppliers – I called Roberta.

Within a few weeks I had an offer from Jefferson Wells. A good offer. I was responsible for ten offices in the Midwest and Canada, more than 500 people, and millions in revenue.

Roberta focused on internal audit, accounting, and finance. She knew the market. She’d been doing it for years. We first met in 1988 when I joined Newark Electronics, a division of Premier Industrial, now Premier Farnell. I was recruited from Continental Bank to take a job as the financial reporting manager. Eventually I was responsible for all of Newark’s general ledger staff and payroll.

When Roberta passed away on Sunday, September 11th, we had known each other, been friends, helped each other, worked together, ate and drank together, and listened to each others stories for twenty-three years. Roberta had many of those kinds of relationships. I saw some old friends from Newark at the funeral. One of them had been working with her on a client request when she got sick.

Roberta was sixty-two when she died. She worked her ass off the whole time I knew her. She’ll never collect a dime of Social Security. The search business, like the real estate business, is cyclical. But like the real estate bubble, there were periods when Roberta’s business was booming. The post- Sarbanes-Oxley period was especially busy.

Roberta taught me the terms “active” versus “passive” candidate. That’s recruiter-speak for unemployed versus employed candidates, although an employed person could be more active than passive if they were anxious to find a new job and putting feelers out. But employers, and therefore recruiters, prefer to work with employed versus unemployed candidates and passive versus active candidates. That’s just natural risk aversion and human nature.

During the Sarbanes-Oxley boom, all that pretty much went out the window. If you could walk and chew gum at the same time – and had any accounting or audit experience – you had no trouble entertaining competing offers at all times.

The last few years were tough for Roberta. Automation in the search business, company cutbacks in outside recruiting and paid search, and an almost total pull back on retained search versus contingency at all levels meant Roberta had to work very hard for any money she and her small dedicated team earned.

“Retained” search is when a company agrees to pay a contracted fee whether or not the firm finds any candidates. It’s a guarantee of sorts for the work that goes into sourcing candidates and managing the process for companies, some of whom can be a pain in the ass and take forever to make a decision.

“Contingency” search is agreeing to be paid a percentage of the starting salary and bonus guarantee of a candidate once hired. In some cases, a search firm does not have a contract with a company but sources candidates based on public information about hiring. They hope that if they present a viable candidate the company will honor the effort and pay up. Most companies nowadays discourage that and insist all vendors are approved and all amounts agreed to before any candidates are presented.  That also prevents dealings with unscrupulous recruiters who try to take credit and claim payment for candidates who have been presented previously by someone else.

That avoids messy situations but does not leave much room for the small or one-person shop without corporate connections. It takes time and money to sell your firm and yourself before doing anything and then more time and money to source candidates and wait for a company to make a decision.

It’s also common in a recession or in companies that are going through financial stress to cancel a search in the middle or after candidates have been presented because of budget constraints or organizational changes. A contingency search firm loses money on that deal and loses credibility with candidates if not handled well.

Roberta dealt with these industry changes by  branching out a bit into the software side of candidate search and by working, sometimes as a volunteer, with professionals who had been outplaced or layed off.

She was an executive search professional at heart and loved nothing more than finding friends better and better places to pursue their life’s work. Because of her efforts and loyalty, she was rewarded with placing many people more than once and with seeing careers progress over the years. I’m only one example of many that worked with her firm as both a candidate and a hiring manager .

I will miss her. I can still hear her voice on the other end of the phone, “Fraaaaaaaancine!  What are you doing? I have a great opportunity for the right person. Do you have a minute? Maybe you know someone?”

She really did good phone.

2 replies
  1. Jerry Merkel
    Jerry Merkel says:


    I am sitting in my hotel room in Kansas City crying my eyes out.

    I must have been loud because one of the staff members from the hotel knocked on the door to see what was wrong. I explained my situation and she looked at me reached out and said that I , Roberta’s family and friends were in her prayers.

    I have heard all of the consoling term. “She is at peace” — “No more pain” — “She’s in a better place.” etc All well meaning and true. BUT How do i fill this hole left inside me with her passing. She was my best friend.

    Your Blog is “right on” Roberta and i talked about many of the situations that she delt with on a daily basis.

    One thing is for sure if you were her friend it was uncondictional and it was forever. She would drop everything to help one of her friends.

    Thank You again for your “from the heart” words about Roberta.

    Lets get togeather for a pop


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