Al Katz and the Never-Changing Key to TE Success
Not many recruiters can say they’ve pushed Top Echelon Network co-founder Mike Kappel into a swimming pool. Twice.
Not many recruiters can say that they’ve billed $1 million through Top Echelon Network and $1 million through Top Echelon Contracting. (Now known as Foxhire.)
And not many recruiters can say that they’ve attended the majority of Top Echelon conferences and conventions . . . ever.
But Al Katz of First Search can lay claim to all three, and he, perhaps more than anyone, can appreciate the gravity of Top Echelon Network’s 35th birthday. After all, Al was almost there from the very beginning. (Although he joined the Network a bit too late to be considered a Charter Member.)
Al also appreciates the fact that what was the key to Network success in 1990 is the same thing that’s the key in 2023: relationships.
“The key is forming relationships and trusting each other,” said Al, who started recruiting in 1976 and says he has no intention of retiring in the near future. “When I joined the Network, I realized that you had to talk to people. You weren’t going to know about the job until you asked them what they were looking for. People don’t realize that we dealt with paper in the beginning. That’s all we had.”
There was no Internet when Al joined the Network. There was no social media. There were no smartphones. There were fax machines, if you were lucky. In the early days, Top Echelon (then known as Nationwide Interchange Service) racked up an annual million dollar bill with the United States Postal Service because it mailed resumes to recruiters all over the country. Because . . . how else were Network members going to see them?
“Basically, we used to run ads in newspapers and search through our own database [to find candidates],” said Al.
Top Echelon’s ATS did not exist, either. By the time that TE did produce a software for Network recruiters, it was a desktop version. You know . . . the kind that you download from a disk, floppy or otherwise.
“At the time, headhunters didn’t even know how to use computers,” said Al. “Top Echelon had to fly two people (Jim Kohan and Paul Bailey) to a conference to show us how to use it. There was no technology at the time. This is all stuff we had to learn as we went.”
According to Al, the annual conferences and conventions that Top Echelon held in the early days was critical to its success—and the success of its recruiters.
“Headhunters are stubborn and set in their ways,” he said. “We’re rebellious and we don’t like listening. It’s difficult to convince us to do things and we can be difficult to work with, which is why going to the events was so important. You had to meet people, hang out with them, and really get to know them. I called that the ‘Kappel Glue,’ because that’s the glue that kept us together. That’s how you find out who you’re going to work with.”
Al’s daughter, Sarah, also works at First Search and is also a Preferred Member recruiter in Top Echelon Network. During Top Echelon Connect 2022 in Las Vegas, Al, Sarah, and First Search Chief Career Accelerator Bill Griffis were spending time with another Network member, Michael Stuck of Gables Search Group.
“We went out to dinner and then went to a comedy club,” said Al. “Michael told Sarah that he didn’t need her for a search at the moment, but when he did, he would call her. And that’s what happened. He called her, they collaborated on a search, and made a split. That wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t attended that event and spent time together.”
The connections that recruiters make in Top Echelon Network aren’t just relationships; they’re friendships, and some of them last the rest of their lives.
“Cathy George [of C.G. & Company] called me on my birthday,” said Al. “She sang happy birthday to me while I was driving in my car with my wife. We still have a friendship after all these years because of meeting at Top Echelon events.”
Al is such a big believer in communication and building relationships that he’s made that the centerpiece of First Search’s branding campaign. That campaign has included a new website design that further differentiates Al’s firm.
“Our brand is all about relationships and communication,” said Al, who is also a certified branding coach, along with Bill Griffis. “We talk to people and we ask questions that need to be asked. These days, with people wanting to text and be on their phone all the time, that’s a difference maker and that’s a differentiator.”
In terms of technology, 35 years ago might as well be 350 years ago. The good news, though, is that Top Echelon Network didn’t need paper resumes to be successful. It didn’t need fax machines or even software.
And now, 35 years later, it doesn’t need the Internet or social media. It doesn’t need smartphones or job posting.
What Top Echelon Network needs to be successful now is the same thing that it needed to be successful when it started on March 8, 1988: skilled, knowledgeable, talented members like Al Katz who are motivated to make connections with other recruiters and build solid relationships and quite possibly some friendships.
Even if they don’t have Mike Kappel to push around anymore.