Members of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority heard proposals from two executive consulting firms and recommended selecting Russell Reynolds Associates to help find a chief executive officer for Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport.
The personnel committee, which comprises of members of the board, made the recommendation Wednesday (Nov. 29). On Dec. 13, the airport board is expected to vote on whether it will hire the firm to find the airport’s next CEO.
Recently, Jamie Hechinger of Russell Reynolds recruited chief executive officers for Northwest Arkansas Council and Walton Family Foundation. She has led executive searches for the nonprofit sector, focusing on CEO recruitment, according to her profile on the Russell Reynolds website. Scott Van Laningham, CEO of Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, said XNA had received proposals from four firms to help find the next CEO, but narrowed it down to two: Russell Reynolds and ADK Consulting & Executive Search.
The latter exclusively works on airport industry searches and does about 45 annually, said Doug Kuelpman, president and CEO for ADK. Recently, ADK worked to find the airport director for Fort Smith.
After listening to the proposals from the consulting firms, board members had mixed opinions on which firm to select. But the majority of board members at the meeting preferred Russell Reynolds. Some liked that it was more familiar with the area and had a broader range of experience than ADK. But other members, some of whom were not members of airport’s personnel committee, which recommended Russell Reynolds, liked ADK for its airport expertise.
“We know how airports operate,” said Gale LaRoche, vice president and chief human resources officer for ADK. “We know what the challenges are.”
Kuelpman’s preference would be to select someone with airport experience. Few people have reached the CEO position in the airport industry who don’t have airport experience, he said. Kuelpman said ADK doesn’t recruit from airports for which it has found a candidate.
“Every airport has an operations person but not every airport has a good leader.”
In the proposals, the consultants didn’t discuss fees, but Van Laningham estimated Russell Reynolds would cost between $30,000 and $40,000 more than ADK for the CEO search. Russell Reynolds’ CEO search for Northwest Arkansas Council was a flat fee of $100,000, he said. The fees for XNA’s CEO search are expected to be presented to the board at the Dec. 13 meeting.
Board members also discussed whether the consultants would assist with the airport’s administrative hierarchy and whether the airport’s organizational structure needed to be changed, but Van Laningham said the scope of work for the consultant initially is expected to focus on searching for a CEO. In 2016, the board established the hierarchy chart that would include, along with the CEO, a chief financial and administration officer, chief operating officer and chief business and development officer.
Hechinger said “a good CEO search done right” takes between four and six months. Consultants for Russell Reynolds explained the search as a process and shouldn’t be rushed. After the meeting, Van Laningham said he’s not set a date for his retirement, but it would depend on the timeline for the search for his replacement. His hope is that a consultant is selected at the December meeting and work to find a CEO starts in January, setting him on a timeline to retire in fall 2018.
While one consultant offered its proposal to the board, the other was asked to wait outside the boardroom. Also, airport director Kelly Johnson was asked to wait outside the boardroom during the meeting because she’s considered a strong candidate for the CEO position. Kuelpman said less than 20% of internal candidates are selected by ADK, but it doesn’t treat internal candidates differently than external candidates.
Johnson said she’s interested in the position “because I have had a wonderful opportunity to be a part of XNA almost from the beginning. I can’t imagine anything more exciting than being part of the team that will take our region and our airport to that next level.”
Amy Hayes of Russell Reynolds said the process should feel the same for internal candidates as it does for external ones. Both consulting firms interview the candidates and check references. And if the internal candidate isn’t selected, Hayes said the candidate would receive feedback on the gaps to be a successful candidate.
Van Laningham said prospective candidates might be narrowed to five to eight people before being presented to the board.