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December 2013
In Search of the Best
By Barbara Fagan

A scan of business announcements of new presidents, chief executives, and appointments to boards of directors in industries as diverse as distribution, higher education, supermarket retail and health care will often turn up something in common—Coleman Lew + Associates were involved in the placement.


Charlotte-based Coleman Lew + Associates is a high-end, international, retained executive search and leadership development firm. “Our core competency is identifying, evaluating and recruiting leaders for our clients,” explains Kenneth D. Carrick Jr., president of Coleman Lew.


The firm’s mantra is “Opportunity is an open chair,” and they’ve taken advantage of quite a few as Charlotte’s largest placement firm. They are adept in executive search and leadership development, networking globally to scout and recruit the best hires. Serving a widely diverse roster of public, private, non-profit and international clients for over three decades, they’ve more than shown the complement of that mantra, “Nobody can fill our chair.”


A Generalist Approach


“We help our clients solve a leadership need,” explains Carrick. “For whatever reason, whether it be retirement, promotion, attrition, reorganization, termination or starting something new, our clients have a leadership need and we can think creatively and help them in recruiting and evaluating those leaders. We do it in a consultative capacity. We’re a partner to our clients.”


Carrick, who graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree from Catawba College and an MBA from Wake Forest University, has been with the firm for 28 years and has conducted over 200 executive searches, developing a strong client base in retail, manufacturing, education, non-profits, banking and energy.


Other focus industries for the firm include health care, distribution, construction, government and financial services but as founder and chairman Charles E. (Chuck) Lew states, “There are no limits as to what industry we can assist. As long as we understand the business or entity, we’re comfortable working with them.”


Because they serve a multitude of industries, Coleman Lew is considered a generalist firm but it began in 1979 specializing in searches for the food retail and food distribution industries.


Lew, who earned a bachelor’s degree from The Ohio State University and pursued graduate studies at Xavier University, served in Vietnam as a Marine and worked as a general manager of an office products company before starting his recruiting career in the Columbus, Ohio, office of a national firm.


When he decided to start his own firm, Lew looked at the Southeast and Southwest as potential locations. Tampa/St. Petersburg, Birmingham, Richmond, Nashville and New Orleans were all under consideration, but one visit to Charlotte made the decision.


“I came to Charlotte first,” says Lew. “I’d never been here before in my life but I drove here with my wife and her sister and it looked like a really nice place to live. We never even looked at another city.


“Charlotte also had the best statistics,” Lew continues. “Back in 1979, there were 5.2 million people within a 200-mile radius of Charlotte and cities like Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Columbia, Greenville or the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area preferred to do business in Charlotte over Atlanta or Philadelphia, so it was actually a large market.”


Coleman Lew’s transition to a generalist firm began 17 years ago, spawned from need, organic evolution and intentional design.


Lew explains, “We had clients all over the country in the food retail and food distribution industries but we had too many clients in certain sectors and the industry was consolidating. Since we don’t recruit from our clients, that shrunk our pool of candidates.”


Some diversification grew from existing business. “Our retail and food distribution business led us to other parts of distribution,” says Carrick, “and manufacturers who hired us for our expertise in distribution would then hire us for searches in manufacturing.”


The purchase of another search firm specializing in banking and nonprofit brought those industries on board and the move into higher education was strategic and purposeful.


Both Lew and Carrick agree there are distinct advantages to being a generalist firm. “For high level positions like the next CEO of a business, you not only want to look in that industry but you want to look at ‘out of the box’ candidates from an adjacent industry or even someone with an entirely different background,” Lew explains. “Some specialized firms act almost like clearing houses where they’re placing people that have the same set of experiences and there’s no value added.


“We’ve done some searches where there is no one logical place to source candidates and so our expertise is consulting with a company or a board and figuring out what they want and where that person might come from.”


“An example might be a search for a college president,” adds Carrick. “The traditional path to college president is through the academic ranks. That would be where a specialist firm would focus. But in searches that we’ve managed, we try to think as broadly as possible. For instance, one college hired a company CEO who had a Ph.D. and another hired a fundraiser from a major university.”


“This happens a fair amount of the time, especially at high level positions,” Lew adds.


Each Search is Unique


No matter the search, it all begins with the client. “We have to know the client, their culture, what they want in a leader,” Carrick says. “It’s much more than just getting a position description. The technical expertise of a person is only a small part of whether a person is successful in a new position. They have to be able to fit and work within the culture. You have to define all that up front. Our first step with any client is listening to them and understanding.”


After fully understanding the need, Coleman Lew uses a proactive approach to identify people to meet the client’s goal followed by a comprehensive evaluation phase before candidates are presented to a client.


“We conduct an historical interview where we walk somebody through their life,” explains Lew. “We find out where they’re from, how they grew up, why they decided to go to a particular college and if they’ve made position changes, why they occurred.”


“We deal with the most complex element in an organization—their people, so instead of just looking at a snapshot like a resume, we create a movie,” Carrick says. “When we present a candidate, we give the client an executive summary. We also provide a written evaluation of seven different areas of pertinent information that the client may not pick up from just reading the resume and we spend time verbally covering each candidate with a client. We can also offer personality profiles as additional information on candidates.


“Our disciplined, thorough process allows the client to make a more informed and better choice to meet their objective than they would have been able to do on their own.


“If we do our job correctly, by the time our clients get to their finalists, all of them will have the skills to do the job. It’s then a matter of who they think fits best in their organization.”


After completing the initial vetting, Coleman Lew presents a select group of candidates who meet as closely as possible the client’s objectives and then moves into an advisory role to help clients in their own evaluation process, checking backgrounds and references and assisting in crafting the offer.


Coleman Lew is proud of their success rate. Industry-wide, only about 60 to 65 percent of searches are ever completed. Coleman Lew greatly exceeds that with completed searches at 92 to 93 percent. Lew credits their success to “people and process.”


“What we sell is our service and our judgment,” adds Carrick. “We have always been a ‘high touch’ organization. Our focus has always, unwaveringly, been on quality and that’s reflected in our business.”


Coleman Lew’s focus on quality is reflected in their involvement in The Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC). In 2010, Carrick was selected to be director of the Americas for the elite association that represents the top 250 search firms in the world.


“We adhere to the highest standards in the industry,” Carrick continues. “That is one of the reasons about 85 percent of our business is either repeat or referrals from an existing client. We have longstanding relationships with our clients.”


Coleman Lew’s longest current client relationship dates back over 30 years. Boyd L. George is the third generation and chairman and CEO of Alex Lee Inc., the largest privately-owned food services company in the Southeast. Alex Lee subsidiaries include Merchants Distributors Inc. and the retail supermarket chain, Lowes Food Stores.


George remembers his relationship with Coleman Lew began with a cold call from Lew in 1979. “Our first search with the company was for an industrial engineer,” George recalls. “We’ve been very pleased with their service over the years. That’s why we use them today and will continue to use them. It’s been a good association for us.”


Positioning for the Future


While Coleman Lew’s core business is executive search, they understand that hiring the right person for a position is only part of the challenge facing companies. This prompted them to expand into leadership development to foster the vitality and long term success of an organization.


Coleman Lew provides new leader integration, team development and executive coaching services to maximize employees’ potential, and executive assessment to identify and develop leaders within an organization.


Their planning services help companies refine goals, strengthen their brand and strategically position themselves for the future.


Coleman Lew also offers succession planning services assisting companies to successfully navigate leadership transitions. In this case, Coleman Lew not only offers this service but is actively using it themselves as they prepare for what Lew calls the “third generation” of the company.


“A big part of our business is helping clients move into the future,” says Lew. “It’s important for us too. We’re currently in the process of succession planning and we’ve brought in some very high-powered, very competent young people to take us into the future.”


Shana Plott, Laura C. Thomas and Danielle F. (Dany) Williams are Coleman Lew’s third generation. While the search business has traditionally been male-dominated, Coleman Lew is in the forefront of the trend toward women in industry leadership roles.


“We’ve seen a greater focus on recruiting women as board members and top executives,” says Plott, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill whose background includes 20 years in the search industry and non-profit sector.


“More clients are specifically requesting a diverse slate of candidates,” adds Williams who joined the firm seven years ago as a researcher. Williams graduated Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Carolina Honors College. Her J.D. from the University of South Carolina Law School and experience as a litigation attorney has translated well to interviewing and assessing candidates.


“Digital media is another new trend for our clients,” says Thomas, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who assisted in founding a charter school and worked as a top sales representative in the manufacturing industry before joining Coleman Lew.


“Not only is technology changing the world of search, it’s also changing what companies need to compete. Our clients have to reach their customers in a different way now. They need people that understand ‘big data’. It’s an example of how we can help our clients by articulating and designing what this talent looks like and how to find it,” adds Thomas.


Plott, Thomas and Williams all acknowledge that as their clients’ business has grown more global, executive search has become an international endeavor.


“Many would describe us as a boutique firm and that sounds as if we’re just local and limited,” says Williams. “But that isn’t the case. In a recent search we had a $4 billion European company looking for a person to run their facility that produced wire and cable for nuclear submarines.


“Through Skype I interviewed people in Belgium, Australia, India and many other places around the world. Few people had the expertise for the position. It was a challenge but also fun to be able to put that puzzle together.”


To assist in international searches, Coleman Lew has partnered with Penrhyn International. Penrhyn is a global consortium of premier retained executive search firms that can cooperate on international assignments.


Thomas is finishing up a search in which she assisted a Penrhyn associate firm in Amsterdam to fill a U.S. position for a company headquartered in Brussels. Soon she’ll request the assistance of their Penrhyn contact in China to find someone to oversee manufacturing and suppliers in China for a Carolinas-based apparel company.


Coleman Lew’s third generation feels well-prepared for whatever the future holds. “Chuck and Ken and others have built a phenomenal firm,” Plott says. “The onus is on us to ensure that their standards of excellence continue. The bar is set very high but we will make sure that our commitment to quality and client service continues.”

Barbara Fagan is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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