WittKieffer: A History

WittKieffer traces its roots to 1969, when John Witt left his executive recruiting position at consulting firm A.T. Kearney to go into business for himself. He was joined in Oak Brook, Illinois, by one employee, administrative assistant Joan Bourke. A year later Witt brought on a former A.T. Kearney colleague, Richard Dolan, and created Witt & Dolan, Inc. Theirs was the only search firm at the time dedicated to the nonprofit healthcare market.

Executive search in the 1970s had few established traditions. With few support staff, executive search consultants completed most search tasks themselves, from endlessly cold-calling potential clients out of the phone book to compiling candidate files in manila folders. Technology was minimal as well. At Witt & Dolan, there were desk telephones but no voicemail, fax, computers, smart phones, or electronic databases. Mail – all of it “snail mail” – was delivered to each desk by rolling cart. Administrative assistants typed client proposals on IBM Selectric typewriters using search consultants’ handwritten notes.

In 1980 a new firm, Clapp Associates, entered the healthcare executive search market, headquartered in Chicago. The two firms knew each other well and dominated healthcare executive search in the 1980s. In 1992, they decided to join forces, coming together and named for five of the key principals: Witt/Kieffer, Ford, Hadelman, Lloyd Corp. The company was located at 2015 Spring Road in Oak Brook, its current location.

As the merger brought together fierce competitors, employees were asked to put the past behind them and bury any ill feelings – literally, in fact, as a “funeral” was held soon after the merger. People gathered in the courtyard outside the offices and, with pens and paper, they wrote down everything they didn’t like about the other firm and dropped their notes into a small, wooden casket. The casket was sealed, with the understanding that any negative feelings between the two firms were in the past.

The merger made a significant difference in the marketplace. The firm – usually referred to simply as Witt/Kieffer – was now invited to most big client “shootouts” and won more than its share against the largest firms in the executive search industry.

New Markets, New Services

In the 1990s, WittKieffer saw business opportunity beyond its core healthcare clients, and in offices outside of Oak Brook. This included significant work in academic medicine, as well as in academia. This success working with colleges and universities set the tone for the company’s next major growth move, a 1998 acquisition of Educational Management Network (EMN), based in Nantucket, Massachusetts. This launched an official Education Practice.

By this time the firm had opened offices across the U.S. (from Dallas to Irvine to Boston to Atlanta). This is not to say that the expansion was easy. In the 90’s and into the 2000’s, many clients in healthcare, academic medicine and education were still not sold on executive recruiting. “We were just building into the fabric of our clients that they would need search,” says Jim Gauss, who served as company CEO from 2007 to 2011.

A Modern, Global Search Firm

To serve its clients better, WittKieffer further diversified its offerings. The company launched a Professional Search Practice (then called WK Advisors), as well as practices for Leadership Solutions, Board Services, and in the Life Sciences and Not-for-Profit sectors.

Some of these initiatives began under CEO Charles W.B. Wardell III, hired in 2011. In addition, WittKieffer over the years started to do more work outside of the U.S. In 2014 it formed a joint venture with Australian firm Ccentric Group. In 2018 – with Andrew P. Chastain now as CEO – WittKieffer purchased the joint venture outright and formally launched its global search capabilities, headquartered in London.

Other important changes have been implemented in recent years: the start of a Diversity Council, a Community Fund, and a Values Task Force. In 2018, it launched a new practice dedicated to Interim Leadership. In 2019, the company undertook a major branding initiative and introduced a new website. All of these changes were dedicated efforts to preserve and refine what has made WittKieffer special throughout the years.

Today, WittKieffer is represented by more than 250 employees across more than a dozen locations, an integrated global firm that strives to remain true to its roots and core values. Two things, perhaps, best define WittKieffer through the years: It has maintained a focus on serving clients who are committed to improving the quality of life, in select core industries (healthcare, education, life sciences, not-for-profit); and it has been led and staffed by people who are truly dedicated to the firm and its mission, who collaborate as teams and support each other, and who stay for long, rewarding careers.

“We’re mission-driven,” says Karen Otto, a partner with the firm since the 1980s. “We work here because we do something that makes a difference. We throw our heart and soul into it.”