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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Former CEOs Join Ranks of Unemployed

The Wall Street Journal

Anne Stevens is among a growing number of job-hunting former CEOs.
Nowadays, former chief executive Anne Stevens spends time job hunting and making créme caramel in the kitchen of her 13,400-square-foot home in this Philadelphia suburb.

Nine months after leaving the highest job at Carpenter Technology Corp., she typically devotes at least three hours a day making calls to company executives, recruiters and professional contacts. A board member at Lockheed Martin Corp. and one-time Ford Motor Co. executive, Ms. Stevens faces a job market unusual in the exclusive ranks of top executives—but not unfamiliar to many Americans.

"There just aren't a lot of [CEO] searches out there," she says.

No one knows how many out-of-work CEOs are looking for corner office suites, but recruiters say their numbers are growing. Fewer big businesses are switching bosses these days and mergers and bankruptcies have further reduced their job prospects. Only 48 companies in the S&P 500 index changed leaders last year, the lowest level since recruiters Spencer Stuart began tracking it in 2004.

Replacement of big-business CEOs picked up in the second quarter, according to Spencer Stuart. But it will take more than a slight gain to find good homes for every unemployed chief. Just two of 13 major corporations switching leaders in the latest quarter chose an outsider.

Some boards are loath to change chiefs during economic turbulence, and the choppy recovery so far hasn't sufficiently heartened boards, recruiters say.

Big-company mergers have eliminated dozens of senior management jobs, too. Jonathan Schwartz, the former chief at Sun Microsystems, now owned by Oracle Corp., and Todd Stitzer at Cadbury, now owned by Kraft Foods Inc. are among those hoping to be CEOs elsewhere. Mr. Stitzer says he has flirted with several mid-sized U.S. concerns about taking their helm.

"We have a much higher flow of former CEOs than we have seen in many years looking for a position again at the CEO level," says James G. Aslaksen, a senior client partner for recruiters Korn/Ferry International. He finds these job hunts can now last 18 months, up from no more than a year in 2005. Among major corporations, however, "the [CEO] opportunity pool is fairly small," adds Dennis Carey, also of Korn/Ferry.

Smaller companies have started to look for new CEOs again, recruiters report. But many former corporate chiefs want another big-company post.

Carlos Gutierrez, a former Kellogg Co. CEO who resigned as U.S. Commerce secretary early last year, desires to run a public company with at least $14 billion in annual revenue. He says he's spurned feelers about running concerns that he felt were too small, headquartered abroad or privately owned.

Chiefs with controversies on their resumes face high hurdles. Mike Zafirovski left Nortel Networks Corp. last August amid a dismantling of the fallen technology giant following a bankruptcy-court filing. He prefers to lead another large business and has prepared a detailed, two-page chart of his career financial-feats, according to someone familiar with the matter.

Mr. Zafirovski spent more than three years trying to turn Nortel around, but critics say he didn't move fast enough. Its bankruptcy hurts his job hunt, according to recruiters.

Ms. Stevens, now 61, was a first-time CEO when Carpenter, a developer and maker of specialty alloys, hired her in November 2006. The nursing-school dropout had received her engineering degree at age 30. She spent a decade working for Exxon Corp., then joined Ford as a business planner in 1990.

She eventually advanced to chief operating officer for the Americas, overseeing more than $75 billion in annual revenue. That made Ms. Stevens the highest ranked woman in the U.S. automotive industry.

She managed the Detroit auto maker's tricky vehicle recalls and plant shutdowns following the turmoil after September 11, 2001. Bill Ford Jr., Ford's executive chairman and previous CEO, says Ms. Stevens played a key role in crafting a North American turnaround plan.

Ms. Stevens even aspired to run Ford. Once she turned 57, however, "age was running against me," she recalls. "To go for my dream, I had to leave."

So eager was she to be a CEO that she took the first helm offered—at Carpenter. Its headquarters in her hometown of Reading, Pa., made the job even more appealing. As a result, she says, she "didn't probe deep enough" into its boardroom personalities, customers, products and operations.

"I didn't realize how much [Carpenter] lacked structure and systems," Ms. Stevens says. "If I knew then what I know now, I would have never taken the job."

Carpenter achieved record results during her first two years, as Ms. Stevens sold assets, enlarged melting facilities and shook up senior management. But profits and sales slipped in the fiscal year ended June 2009.

Ms. Stevens says she "found it difficult to build a close relationship" with fellow directors. The stressful situation often woke her up at night. Board members opposed her strategy to expand the company during the downturn, she remembers. In summer 2009, the board stripped her of the chairman's title. She soon quit.

Splitting the top roles "was an emerging practice," says Gregory Pratt, an outside director who now is chairman. Board members appreciate "the improvements she made in Carpenter's business" and she "was an excellent CEO," Mr. Pratt adds. He says Ms. Stevens never told him she had significant concerns about board communications.

As she seeks work in the U.S. or abroad, Ms. Stevens is getting assistance from Mr. Aslaksen and his colleagues. Boards needing a new chief often value a battle-tested executive like Ms. Stevens, suggests Mr. Carey, a Korn/Ferry vice chairman.

Ms. Stevens has also approached private-equity firms about leading a small portfolio company.

Despite her search, Ms. Stevens has yet to score any face-to-face interviews. "It is going to be a challenge" for Ms. Stevens to find another CEO post because the huge supply of potential chiefs enables boards to overlook "anyone who has any taint of controversy," says Judith von Seldeneck, head of Diversified Search Odgers Berndtson.

The unemployed chief executive keeps busy serving on the Lockheed Martin board, caring for a sick friend – and knitting afghans.

Yet Ms. Stevens was so sure her next corner office would require relocation that she put her French country-style home up for sale in November."I don't need a house that big," she observes. "I used the house a lot for entertaining while I was CEO."