Most middle-age guys, especially impeccably groomed, quietly confident, North Shore-bred corner-office-types, might take a passing comparison to George Clooney in stride, with an aw-shucks grin or self-deprecating chuckle.
But Challenger, Gray & Christmas CEO John Challenger, sipping iced tea over lunch at the Metropolitan Club, 67 floors above a spectacularly beautiful fall day in downtown Chicago, seemed politely annoyed.
"No, no," he said when asked, clearly not for the first time, about the perceived similarities between himself and the main character in the 2009 movie "Up In the Air."
"That was a fictional construct. Not what we do."
Such are the perils when one's life's work is Clooney-ized and already suffering from its association with one of the more ruthless aspects of the new global economy. It is true that Challenger and the fictional Ryan Bingham, Clooney's character, are in the business of outplacement consulting, or helping companies and people manage the process of cutting and losing jobs. The film memorably portrays Bingham's seemingly endless travels, descending day after day into nondescript suburban office parks to suavely sever various allotments of the newly unemployed from their livelihoods.
Though Challenger liked the movie, he said there is a crucial distinction between the role he and his advisers play in the laying off process, which is helping people after they are let go, and what Bingham did, which is actually firing them.
Hiring a consultant to tell people they are being laid off "would be the height of hypocrisy," Challenger said. "You're the boss of someone, and you're going to have to let him or her go. You've gotten to know them. Sometimes, they are long-term employees, sometimes not. But you hired them. And you would have someone else tell them you are letting them go? It would be gutless."
The real-world Ryan Binghams don't deliver the knockout blow, Challenger said. They snap open the smelling salts and start wiping off the blood, helping people to at least get up off the canvas.
"We're there to catch that person," he continued, holding his hands in the shape of a bowl, "to reassure them, to say to them as soon as we meet them, 'You know, you're going to be OK. You're going to have to work harder at this than anything you've done. But the harder you work at it, the better you're going to do.'"
If this is Challenger's sales pitch, it's a good one. He seems to be a man who truly believes in the work he does, both as a business and a calling. America's great capitalist machine routinely spits people out, as often as not through no fault of their own. Helping people get back on their feet is the right thing to do, Challenger said, and it refuels the economy.
That's the opportunity his father, James Challenger, saw almost 50 years ago, when he and two partners — long since gone from the business, though their names are still on the door — started the first outplacement consultancy in 1962. An attorney by training, the elder Challenger was running a small kitchen appliance manufacturing firm but looking for a way to go into business for himself. He noticed growing numbers of increasingly large corporations were laying off workers as market conditions changed. He saw an opportunity and took it.
"There was a wave of mergers at that time, and he saw that there were people who were losing their jobs who had not done anything wrong," Challenger said.
James Challenger convinced companies like Sears and Motorola that they should do something to help these displaced workers.
Companies pay outplacement consultants a fee to help laid-off workers get back on their feet. The outplacement services are part of an employee's severance package, which typically also includes a payout varying in size depending on the employee's salary, length of service and executive rank. Challenger advisers meet with clients to brace them for the rigors of the job search. They also offer logistical assistance in the form of job-searching software and offices from which to conduct their searches.
While the technology may have changed, the basics of the job search have not.
Challenger recalled his first summer job at his father's company. He formatted a machine called an Addressograph that created metal plates to address letters to prospective employers. James Challenger believed that automatic postage-meter stamps on letters increased their chances of being lost in piles of junk mail. So he bought commemorative stamps that were affixed by hand.
Workers would also scour newspaper ads, marking them with red pens, cutting them out and sending them to clients. Nowadays, Challenger said, custom-built Web crawlers roam the Internet on behalf of clients, automatically sending out resumes and cover letters to prospects.
While some might suggest that this is work a job seeker could and should do for his or her self, Challenger said his father knew from the start that precisely the opposite is the case.
"Even in those days, we realized you can't sit at home," he said. "We wanted to channel the person toward activities that were more productive — namely, getting out and seeing people in their world."
But a former Challenger executive said the business model that includes one-on-one, job-search coaching like Challenger provides is getting squeezed by much larger companies that have bought up much of his competition.
Clark Riley, founder of Workstone LLC and a former vice president at Challenger Gray & Christmas, said these larger companies are cutting costs with scale and technology, another parallel with "Up In the Air," in which Clooney's character, pathologically afraid of the connections of a normal, nontraveling life, faces a young, cost-cutting tech whiz who has sold the company on the idea of terminating people by online video chat.
Riley said Challenger understands that the personal aspect of outplacement consulting can't be removed from the process.
"As a businessman, I don't think John has lost sight of what works," Riley said. "The core of his business is very personal."
Challenger acknowledged that some of his competitors have been bought by larger companies — most notably Right Management, now owned by ManpowerGroup — which sell a variety of services along with outplacement consulting. But he also said his company competes with smaller, boutique agencies in local markets across the country.
"We have a national, even global, presence," he said. "But we are still a company that focuses almost exclusively on outplacement consulting."
But Challenger's customers, downsizing companies going through tough times, are increasingly less willing to pay as much for outplacement consulting.
"(Challenger) may be going in there and quoting $1.5 million, and another company is quoting $500,000," Riley said. "So (laid-off workers) get less services, and a lot of people wind up not taking advantage of them or, when they do, they are short-served."
John Philbin, founding partner of Strategic Talent Solutions, a Chicago-based leadership consulting firm, agreed that times are tough for the outplacement business.
"People aren't spending on it," he said. "People aren't spending because they don't feel guilty, and guilt is what that business is all about."
Challenger said that while the business climate is tough, companies understand that they still need to provide the service he sells. He knows that neither corporations nor the market are inherently altruistic. But his business sustains itself partly because enough corporate leaders are progressive and want to do right by people who have worked for them, and partly because job insecurity reaches to the highest levels.
The executives hiring Challenger today, in other words, might be meeting with him to discuss their job search tomorrow.
"Everybody's in the same boat," he said. "The executive team is changing like baseball managers. The middle managers who might make the decisions are being squeezed."
Challenger, Gray & Christmas is a privately held firm and, as such, is not required to release annual revenue figures. Various online business research sites give estimates ranging from $25 million to $50 million. Challenger would not comment on the accuracy of these estimates. He did confirm that the company has about 200 employees, and that number has, in the past, been as high as 300.
One of the ways Challenger fights for his share of the market is by relentlessly promoting the Challenger, Gray & Christmas brand. Indeed, the most rudimentary Internet search turns up story after story on all manner of workplace trends in which Challenger or someone from his company is quoted.
"He works very hard to keep that Challenger name in the forefront," said Tom Gimbel, president and CEO of the LaSalle Network, a professional staffing and recruiting firm. "He's very effective. The Challenger name is as well-respected as any in the market."
Added Riley, "He has built that brand."
Challenger doesn't deny his publicity-seeking ways.
"Certainly it means that companies and people know us," he said.
Not long after taking over the top post in 1996, Challenger said, he began getting calls from reporters working on stories about downsizing and other issues related to job loss. Those same reporters were also writing stories about other workplace issues, and it occurred to Challenger that he had an expertise in that area as well from his frequent contact with human resources managers across different industries.
"I spend my life talking to people who are out of work, every day," he said. "But I also spend my life talking with HR people, who are my customers, who are thinking about all sorts of workplace issues."
Reporters would ask him about broader topics, and Challenger said he would "go back and ask HR people I was dealing with about things like wellness, dealing with older workers, dress is the workplace (and) how they were dealing with those issues."
The variety of topics would also explain how Challenger came to be quoted last year in the same story that featured Sailor Bill Johnson, vice president of the National Tattoo Association and owner of an Orlando, Fla., tattoo shop. The hook was a Challenger, Gray & Christmas report that found tattoos are becoming less of an obstacle to finding jobs.
"One reason," Challenger said in the MSNBC story, "is that with everyone from soccer moms to MIT computer science graduates sporting tattoos, preconceptions about tattooed individuals are no longer valid."
The firm also banks publicity at NCAA basketball tournament time, serving up an annual study on lost productivity from employees watching March Madness games, particularly the early round matchups that take place during the day. Last year's study estimated that 8.4 million hours would be lost to the college basketball games, generating a financial impact of $192 million.
In the press release announcing the study findings, Challenger calls the lost productivity a drop in the bucket, with "no measurable impact on the economy or even an individual company's bottom line." But that doesn't stop the story, and the Challenger, Gray & Christmas name, from getting picked up most every year.
Challenger grew up in Winnetka and still lives on the North Shore. He graduated from New Trier High School and then Harvard University. He worked for ITT Corp. for several years, in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, and joined Challenger, Gray & Christmas in 1981, first heading its Milwaukee office before managing business development in the Chicago headquarters and, ultimately, taking over as CEO.
He said he has grown used to people looking at his industry and associating it, perhaps negatively, with the ruthlessness of modern corporate life. But he is sustained by the positive impact he knows his advisers can have on people's lives.
"We are like a hospital for the unemployed," he said.
Outplacement services are "a way of dealing in a healthy way with something you wish didn't exist," he said. "The reality of the day is that companies move their workforces up and down to a much greater degree than they used to. If that's true, then you have to help those people through those changes."
Q & A
John Challenger has been working with unemployed people for 30 years. He often has to push them out of the house.
"It feels like, everybody you're going to go see, you're asking if you can borrow money from them," he said. "Everybody hates to do that. It's so awkward and uncomfortable."
But it's also important to remember that how you carry yourself is part of your job search. People, especially friends and colleagues from your business life, need to see you handling the situation well, gamely and smartly moving forward, he said.
Hence, the advice to get moving.
Q: What do you say to people who have just lost their job?
A: In the first few days it's very important to talk to your family about it. Sometimes, people don't want to burden other people with the news. But the last thing you want is for someone you love to hear the news from someone else.
Q: What is the most important thing people can do in a job search?
A; Get out and be a part of your world. Talk to people you know: friends, colleagues. People will want to help you. You need to get used to talking about it, to portraying it in a positive light by showing people you are looking ahead. You have a message, and you need to get that message out.
Q: What is a common mistake people make?
A: Don't sit in front of your computer all day, tinkering with your resume or researching companies. I tell people to do that stuff after dinner. You can't make it the core of your search. You have to see people out in the community. Re-engage yourself with organizations you have relationships with.
Being out of work is difficult. The tendency is to focus inward, to try and heal the hurt. From a search standpoint, it's essential to do the opposite. You have to focus outward.
Q: Any particular advice for people who've been out of work for a long time?
A: The number of people out of work for more than six months has hit record levels. Sometimes, you just have to get back to work. Try to do projects here and there to fill those gaps and show that you can still do it. You may want to consider jobs that may not be where you've been before. It's better to get back to work than to sit at home.
President and CEO, Challenger, Gray and Christmas
Family: Married to Nancy; children Andy, Jack, Ted, Claire and Eleanor.
Education: New Trier High School (class of '73) and Harvard University (class of '79). He would have been in the same Harvard graduating class as Bill Gates, if Gates had graduated.
On why he's drifted from one passion, duplicate bridge, to another, tournament poker: "Bridge is about solving the puzzle. But what's great about poker is, it's solving the puzzle, but it's also understanding how people play. So the puzzle changes, in a sense, based on your read of the people you're playing with."
Can we expect to see him on ESPN? "I've been out to the World Series of Poker a couple of times. I got in the top 20th percentile this past summer in one of the events. I haven't yet made the top 10 percent, to make 'the money.'"
On being invited to play online duplicate bridge with one of his personal heroes, Warren Buffett: "You can have these conversations amongst yourselves while you're online. There can be table conversation. I always hoped to engage him, because he's such a brilliant, articulate person. ... But bridge was his way of letting go. He didn't really talk much. He'd talk about hands, but I could never get him to talk about issues."
One book that changed his life: "The Tipping Point," by Malcolm Gladwell, "was a really transformative book in my life, in that I kind of made a decision that I was going to really work at tying into the community and trying to get to know everybody I could as a way of then helping the people that I work with, and that we work with, get places. I've spent the last decade really working hard at that."