How Technology Changed Executive Recruiting In The Chemical Space With Patrick Ropella

Updated: Jun 2

TCSP Patrick | Executive Recruiting

From running newspaper ads to clicking LinkedIn profiles, Patrick Ropella has witnessed first-hand how much executive recruiting in the chemical industry has changed over time. Patrick is the chairman of the Ropella Group, whose mission is to grow great companies by sourcing, recruiting, and training top talents. Patrick discusses with Victoria Meyer how recruiting is a relationship business. Modern tools like Monster and LinkedIn only help quicken the process, but in the end, it's about establishing personal connections with transformational leaders. Patrick also dives into challenges the chemical industries face at present, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of talent. If you want to learn more about recruiting and training, then this episode is for you!


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How Technology Changed Executive Recruiting In The Chemical Space With Patrick Ropella

I am delighted to be talking to Patrick Ropella. Pat is the Chairman and CEO of the Ropella Group, one of the premier recruitment companies in the chemical industry. He has started this company years ago, has grown and evolved this business through the years. He is an expert in talent in the chemical market. I'm delighted to have Pat to talk to us, share some insights on his work in the market, and how he sees it. Welcome to the show, Pat.

Thank you, Victoria. I appreciate you having me here.

I’m interested in your origin story. How did you get started in the recruiting space and talent space? It's not always a typical career path, yet you've launched in. You started your own company and been successful for years.

It's not like you can go to college and get a degree in headhunting. Most people don't have a clue that headhunting is a career path until they trip into it the way I did. This is a pretty common story. I went to a recruiting firm in Downtown Milwaukee indicating that I was interested in making a change. I owned a couple of health clubs at that time. I was selling business equipment. I was doing both, working myself to death, and decided I needed one focus. I sold the health clubs and I went to the search firm saying, “what can you do to help me find something else, a next step?” While I was there, they said, “You’d really be a good headhunter.” I said, “What's a headhunter? I don't have a clue.” They explained it to me and convinced me that I should give it a shot.

Six months later, I went back and said, “I haven't found anything that you've sent me out to interview that's got me as interested or intrigued as headhunting. I've done a lot of homework and I've decided I'm in.” They made me an offer and I joined them. The first day I arrived, they said, “What are you going to focus on?” I said, “What are you talking about?” “What desk are you going to specialize in?” I said, “Why didn't you tell me that was necessary? I have no clue. I hadn't even thought about that.” They said, “Everybody needs to be a specialist. If you want to dominate your space, pick a lane, and stay in it.” While I was thinking about it, I was having a complete brain fart because I had no clue what made sense for me at that point.

They said, “How about taking over the chemical desks? We've got a guy here that's going to be retiring in two years, he'll be your mentor, and he's moving over into packaging right now. He wants to semi-retire. It's easy for him to do that, focusing on a new desk, and you'll take over the chemical desk.” I said, “I know nothing about chemistry, nothing about chemicals. I've never had a Chemistry class.” They said, “That’s perfect. The less you know, the more questions you'll ask,” and that's the secret. If you've ever read How to Win Friends and Influence People, it's all about asking them what they're interested in talking about. Years later, here we are. I now run the world's largest chemical industry search firm.

Many people that get into the chemical space don't necessarily know chemicals and they certainly don't know recruiting, so that's good. What has changed from where you started versus where you guys are now?

If you look at what’s changed from an industry perspective, that’s one line of questions. What’s change for us as a firm is another whole topic. Which one would you prefer to focus on?

How about from the industry perspective? I think that’s what people will be interested in.

From the industry perspective point of view when I first got into the business, there were very few headhunters that were doing anything but entry-level contingency type of search work so placing sales reps, chemists, engineers and the like, unless you're with one of the big firms like Korn Ferry, Heidrick & Struggles, and Russell Reynolds. At that time, there were only a handful of those big firms. Now, there are 10 to 15 of what you described the big dogs, another 200 or 300 large boutique firms like us and thousands of other people working from their home using an extra bedroom to do recruiting.

The industry has exploded from the internal talent management side of the fence as well. It used to be that there was no internal recruiting to speak of other than placing an ad in the newspaper. Do you guys remember what the newspapers like? That's where you did your recruiting. You'd post an ad and you'd wait for resumes to come pouring in from all sorts of people that were totally unqualified for the role. came along and said, “We've got a better way. We can help you get the right resumes.” I remember once being at a convention, and the founder of Monster was saying, “We're going to put all headhunters out of business. You'll never need them again.” We're like, “No, you won’t. This is a relationship business. It's not about getting resume flow. It's about identifying which resumes and people are the right people for these roles.”

What happened very quickly as tools like Monster, LinkedIn, Zoom and all these other tools made it easier for the internal talent management teams to build their own in-house recruiting capacity. That's been a dramatic change on our industry. It's driven down the fees. It's made it easier for them to do the low-hanging fruit. The searches are a needle in a haystack. They are more challenging whether there are less competitors in the space, the skillsets are specialized, the types of educational requirements and the nature of the chemical industry. It means there's not a lot of good in-house recruiting that takes place for the real challenging roles, especially on the high-level R&D assignments or the high-level manufacturing ones. We get a lot of that work still. Those are some of the changes.

Everybody needs to be a specialist. If you want to dominate your space, pick a lane and stay in it.

One of the things people are always interested in, and I certainly was when I was looking for corporate job is, how do people find you? How do you find talent? How does talent find you in order to create this matchmaking that you do?

Here's another major change to answer that question. There was no such thing as the internet when I first got into the business. I got into this business before there were desktop computers and even fax machines. I used to have a phone that you'd spin the dial and we used to call that spinning the dial, “Don't go crank out phone calls, get in there and spin the dial.” Things have changed a lot because of technology. The only way people would find me was because I would go find them by picking up a directory at a library, looking up the names of the chemical companies, calling their corporate headquarters and asking the receptionist, “Who is your salesperson in Chicago? Who's your director of R&D at the R&D facility in Michigan?” That's how we find people.

It was called rusing. You have to be creative to get the secretary to drop her resistance and give you the information you needed. All of that is available on the internet in a wide variety of forums, whether it be through using Google or LinkedIn, which is an incredibly powerful tool for this now as well as trade show and conference directories. Over time, there's a bunch of databases out there like PitchBook that are like LinkedIn that give you very specific information about the people and what they do at the companies, etc. We have a lot of tools so you'd think, “Why would companies need headhunters?” It's because it’s a relationship business.

You still find it's the relationships that you had with individuals and with the companies themselves that helped make the difference.

Most of our clients come to us and tried to fill a search on their own already. The great majority of our clients will have run it through their internal recruiting team. If that doesn't work, then they'll run it through their whole organization and begged everybody, “Help us with networking referrals. Who do you know?” When that doesn't work, then they will pick up the phone and start calling recruiters. They'll either give it to a bunch of contingency recruiters and hope that they can horse race setting, chase down the candidates or they'll decide, for specific reasons, that it requires a specialist or an expert. That's what we are. We are not a contingency firm. We don't compete with other firms on any searches. We're always working exclusively on searches. We're not competing with the internal talent management teams. When they retain us, after they sign our agreement, everybody is processed through us. It's a much higher-level relationship and more focused approach to recruiting success.

A lot has changed obviously since you've been doing this and the biggest change certainly across the industry was COVID. What happened in the world of recruiting, more specifically, with chemicals in 2020 and into 2021 as it relates to COVID? Has it made things easier? Has it made things more challenging? Does it change what people are looking for?

A little of both. I'll give you an example without naming names, but it is a big company in the chemical industry in Texas, not one of the ones you used to work for us. We're not going there. We've been working with masses of strategic talent partner, helping them with some significant expansion that they've got going on in the specialty niche where they're a dominant leader now. As a result, they're growing like crazy. Even during the COVID, they'd never slowed down. They were looking for quite a few people for very high-level business development roles, high-level technology, R&D type of roles, and even senior executive roles.

Before COVID, we want everybody in our headquarters. Everybody got to be willing to relocate here. I'm not going to tell you which major city in Texas it was because that will attend to tip this up. The problem was it wasn't a location that a lot of executives from the chemical industry or a lot of these types of people were for this particular niche based in. They were mostly based in New Jersey, New York, PA. Getting them to come here was proven to be a major challenge.

One of their main R&D in manufacturing facilities which is very common was in the middle of nowhere in a rural setting in Central US. Again, it’s a major location challenge. We were running into problems where they were excited about candidates because the candidates wouldn't relocate. Those candidates were falling away right and left. Post-COVID, you can work from home. Before that, no matter what we said, even though some of these candidates were working from home successfully in the same role, we couldn't get them to budge. Now, they're more than willing to say, “Everybody else is doing it, so will we.” That's been a major improvement. You would think, how can you do an R&D job working from home? Senior leadership R&D jobs aren't on the bench that much so the person flies in occasionally, do special bench work, and then goes home or uses a lab resource that's there in their area, goes in and does the work at the lab, and then goes home.

Do you see that work from home lasting for long-term? When you start negotiating on the company's behalf or the individual's behalf, is it for a twelve-month period with an expectation that they moved to the location? From what you see, do you see this work from home being a long-term trend?

In some cases, yes. In some cases, it's a novelty and people are getting tired of it very fast. We are wired by God as relationship beings. We are not robots. Working from home creates a lot of disconnect and even depression for people. They get bored. When they get bored, they get frustrated. When they get frustrated, the next thing is depression. For certain people who are hyper-type-A personalities, working from home is never a problem because they get out and make their relationships in the community happen. They're better at reaching out and dealing with the loneliness most others would get from working at home.

For everyone else, 80% of the population does not want to work at home. They prefer to be in an office setting. They want to separate the personal life from your home life. They're not good at doing it. It makes it more challenging working from home, having to deal with the kids, the wife, the spouse, or whatever. We've learned from experience that even in sales range, you take 100 salespeople and the client says, “All 100 of you can work at home.” Only twenty of them are going to be effective working from home. The other 80% won’t, no matter what, even though it's a sales role. It's normal that these people can work from home. It may be normal, but it doesn't always work. A lot of our clients will set up sales offices for the person to work outside their home because they know that person doesn't work well from home. It's a forced trend right now that in time will fade away. A lot of these people that are working from home, I hear it every day, “I can't stand it anymore. I'm tired of it. I want to go back to the office.”

TCSP Patrick | Executive Recruiting
Executive Recruiting: We are wired by God as relational beings. We are not robots. Working from home creates a lot of disconnect and even depression for people.

I can understand it. Even with my clients when I talk to them, people miss the water cooler conversations. They miss the ability to walk three doors down, ask a question, have it answered and resolved at that moment, versus having to wait to see if they're available, sending an email, sending an IM, etc. There are a lot of benefits to working from home and people have certainly appreciated that flexibility. There's a lot of benefits to being in person with your teams, with your people, with your peers and your friends. You started by saying people are intended to be socialized, and I would agree with that.

We've got almost 50 total employees at any one point, and when the COVID hit hard, we shut down because everyone else was. Three weeks later, we opened back up. We're in Florida so we have a lot less restraints than other states. That’s what is part of it. At the same token, most of our employees said, “Please, at least open the office up and let us come in and social distance. Let us decide how much time we want to spend in the office versus home. Don't make me work from home full-time. I'll go crazy.” When we opened up the office, it was a matter of two weeks and 80% of our people were back in full-time because they wanted to be there. The other 20% are still working mostly from home because they have issues with kids and spouses where they can't find childcare. They can't deal with the difficulties that all of this COVID is creating.

It's been a real challenge, that's for sure. There are a few trends in the chemical industry if we look at 2020 and 2021. Sustainability and digitalization seem to be two that are high on everybody's radar. How has that affected your recruiting? Are people looking for more chief sustainability officers or chief scientists that support that sustainability trend? Is that something that you see in your practice?

It's interesting you bring up those two topics because one is much further along than the other in the chemical industry especially. Years ago, when Europe established REACH, it made it clear to the worldwid