She rides a Harley and wears a full-length fur, but don't draw any conclusions about Trina Dru Gordon.
The president and chief executive officer of Boyden World Corp. racks up mileage these days in a conservative navy pinstripe suit and prefers consensus-building over a more swashbuckling CEO style. Her approach has been honed, after all, over more than three decades of identifying the right executives for top roles in retail and consumer products companies.
Gordon, a veteran Chicago headhunter and the executive search firm's first female CEO, has spent the past 20 months trying to wrangle Boyden's far-flung global franchises into a united brand, even as it struggles with new competition and declining industrywide revenues.
Capping that effort later this month at a company meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, Gordon plans to unveil a substantial professional development program called Boyden University, an internal live and online training and information exchange designed to link offices more closely to win business rather than competing against each other. It's a major initiative on Gordon's watch, an investment aimed at getting the company's independently owned offices working together.
While declining to offer specifics before deals are announced, she has been emphasizing opportunities to develop executive talent in emerging markets. The company will also open new global offices this year and add staff in key existing markets.
The moves come amid the backdrop of wrenching change in recent years in an industry that has struggled with a recession and competition from online job-search sites and networking sites like LinkedIn. Those enable employers to directly access a much wider pool of candidates.
Industry revenue declined 6.4 percent in 2012, to $9.74 billion, and was 11.5 percent below the high in 2008, according to the Association of Executive Search Consultants.
Gordon, who works from the Chicago office of the Purchase, N.Y.-based firm, sees a niche in leveraging the firm's international footprint to go after more high-level assignments, the C-suite and board searches that typically aren't carried out online.
"Emerging markets will be critical for us because they're critical for our clients," she said. The newest emerging markets in Asia might not have a deep talent pool yet, for example, but the firm can identify candidates through its Latin American offices who have recently logged success there, she said.
"She's attempting to revitalize a great name in this business," said Robert Benson, an industry veteran who runs a consulting business. "Every one of the recruiting firms is faced with, 'How am I going to differentiate myself in a market where I'm competing with my own clients for the work that's out there?'"
Bristling with talent
Sid Boyden founded his namesake firm in New York in 1946, just ahead of today's biggest players, which include Chicago's Heidrick & Struggles and Spencer Stuart, according to a 50-year retrospective written in 2009 by the Association of Executive Search Consultants.
It was an intensely clubby, male-dominated industry that came late to the women's movement, a source of frustration as Gordon tried to make a name for herself in the business. Her strategy: learning everything possible about a client, whether it meant hanging around trade shows or checking out retail displays.
"I wasn't always the first person that would draw the attention of the client in the room," she said of her early career, which began in 1977 with William H. Clark Associates, a Chicago recruiting firm. "I learned everything, so that when I spoke there was some credibility behind it."
She did, however, garner attention from Clark President Richard McCallister, who hired Gordon after she graduated from Auburn University and married her about two years later.
One of her Auburn professors had called McCallister asking if he'd see her and give her a few pointers on interviewing for jobs.
"I agreed to meet with her but told (the professor) we had no current job opportunities," he recalled. "After a 45-minute conversation, I took her to lunch and took her around the office to meet other partners. By 4 p.m. I hired her.
"Some people just bristle with talent and composure. There was just something about how she handled herself … a sophistication beyond her years. It was the best hire I ever made."
Today he's a managing partner in Chicago, meaning it's husband reporting to wife — albeit with a caveat.
McCallister merged the firm with Boyden in 1989, and Gordon became a Boyden equity partner in 1995. After her husband had spent about a decade on the Boyden board, he stepped down, and she joined the board in 2001. She was elected board chair for the first of a pair of two-year terms beginning in 2007.