Gary Burnison invested in executive search firm Korn/Ferry International during the tech boom earlier this decade, and shortly thereafter decided he wanted to be more than just a shareholder. The USC business graduate, then working at a consulting firm, loved the company's culture of entrepreneurship and innovation. So Burnison reached out to the L.A. firm for a job and was hired as chief financial officer in 2002 just in time to help direct a major downsizing prompted by Sept. 11 and the tech bust. Burnison survived that period and was promoted to chief executive in 2007 but, once again, not long before the decade's second crash prompted yet another downsizing. Burnison, 48, now oversees a company with 2,100 employees spread out in 90 offices worldwide. As might be expected, that keeps him busy traveling internationally, usually on red-eye flights. Burnison only spends about five or six workdays a month in Southern California, but he still finds time to relax on weekends with his wife and five children at their second home in Newport Beach, what he calls a sanctuary. The Business Journal sat down with Burnison in his Century City office, which is outfitted with an executive office putter, to talk about growing up in McPherson, Kan.; his whirlwind schedule; and the most challenging aspect of being an executive laying off employees.
Question: How hard has Korn/Ferry been hit by the downturn?
Answer: What we've seen is absolutely unprecedented. This was a company that was running at about $900 million of global revenue, and within 15 days that went to $400 million. It happened overnight because CEOs around the world horded cash and just focused internally.
Q: So what did you do?
A: We had to make some very tough decisions in terms of our cost structure, and we had to reduce it by over $300 million. And when you look at our costs, it's really people and real estate. We've reduced our work force, we've asked employees to take personal sacrifices days off unpaid, reduced salary levels and reduced benefits.
Q: How difficult is it for you to let people go?
A: It's the most challenging thing, and I've done it five different times in my different careers. Downsizing a work force, certainly for me, is not a good thing to do to tell somebody that has a family that they can't make their mortgage payment, that's very difficult. But as tough as those decisions are, you have to think about the other employees you have and trying to protect as many as possible.
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