James & Co.: A go-to duo in executive search
Adam Silver ascended to the podium to accept the NBA’s League of the Year honor at the Sports Business Awards in 2018. At almost the same time out in the crowd, Michele James tried to slip quietly toward the exit, but her movements didn’t escape Silver’s attention.
“I lost my voice from yelling at Michele James for trying to recruit my colleagues at Table 27,” Silver joked in a raspy voice, as the crowd chuckled.
The NBA commissioner publicly recognized what many in the room already knew about James.
With the help of her friend and business partner, Roysi Erbes, James has grown her executive search firm, James & Co., into one of the sports industry’s most important, and most discreet, power players. James and Erbes specialize in speedy but effective searches that provide clients with non-traditional candidates.
Their focus on diversity has led to recent placements at StubHub, On Location Experiences, Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, UFC, and, of course, Silver’s NBA. The pair have made over 2,000 closes together.
Yet, type “James & Co.” into Google’s search bar and substantive results are sparse. The company’s stripped down website offers little beyond the addresses of its Manhattan and London locations, office phone numbers and emails, which is exactly the way they want it.
James & Co.’s success is built on the relationship of its two principals, James and Erbes. They first met at Korn Ferry nearly three decades ago, before James moved to AOL Time Warner. There, James oversaw 120 recruiters while working in the nexus of sports, entertainment, media and consumer-facing technology.
In 2001, Erbes left Korn Ferry and James left AOL to start their search firm. James & Co. had no sales force. All of its employees were from human resources, more interested in how a company was structured or the type of people it was hiring than just filling openings for the sake of closing a deal.
“We had a culture of organizational design, effectiveness, diversity and inclusion, 18 years ago,” said James, who funded the company with her own money. “No one was talking about this. So I always thought if we failed, what a great story, what great learnings.”
James & Co.
Locations: New York, London
Offerings: executive search, organizational design and effectiveness, transactional assistance, and coaching and development.
Companies that have used James & Co.: NBA, Ticketmaster, MLS, Fanatics, Legends, NASCAR, UFC, BSE Global, On Location Experiences, Turner Sports, WWE, Octagon, NFL, Wasserman, Pac-12 Conference, IMG, ESPN, New York Knicks, New York Yankees, Philadelphia 76ers, San Francisco 49ers, New York Red Bulls, New York City F.C., Liverpool F.C., New York Giants, New York Jets.
Would-be clients initially were unconvinced they should go with a boutique outfit like James & Co. over established and much larger search firms. They were unsure about a female-owned company and the duo’s insistence on diversity candidates. But after James & Co. landed work early on from AOL, other clients soon followed.
“We started as two women, literally with a cell phone, out of an office on 22nd Street and here we are 18 years later,” said Erbes. The company now has 29 employees, all women.
On Location CEO John Collins is indicative of most who work with James & Co., in that he’s been both a candidate and a client. He explained what is obvious to people about James and Erbes as a duo: Erbes is more organized, focused on execution, while James is like a pinball lighting up the machine, providing contacts and context.
“Each one, formidable in their own right,” said Collins. “Together, a whole egg.”
James and Erbes work and play together. They share season tickets to the Knicks and Nets and a closeness and ease with each other that few professionals have. James was there in 2007 when Erbes, who was born in Turkey, became an American citizen. Afterward, James threw Erbes and her family a party.
Focus on diversity
Years before diversity became a sports industry buzzword, James & Co. — a government-certified diversity supplier — focused on finding job candidates who were diverse in different senses of the word, be it gender, age, or thought. They shied away from traditional candidates.
“We bring our value structure to every search,” said James. “We’re going to show you it, not because you need to check a box but because you’re real about it.”
Gillian Zucker, L.A. Clippers president of business operations, who was placed by James & Co., is a good example. Zucker ran NASCAR race tracks before joining the Clippers in 2014. With no previous NBA experience, she became the NBA’s only female team president with no relation to a team owner. While some may have been surprised by the hiring, under Zucker’s watch, the Clippers have won a Sports Business Award for Best In Technology and signed deals with tech companies Bumble and Honey in the last two years. She now uses James & Co. to fill Clippers job openings.
“When you have organizations that are trying to aggressively grow their business, diversity of thought is a key driver of that,” Zucker wrote in an email. “James & Co.’s sourcing of both inside and outside-of-the-box candidates pushes their clients to more deeply analyze their goals. In my experience, their process over-delivers with exceptional results time and time again.”
James & Co.’s database, created shortly after the 2001 launch, helps the firm stand out in the crowded executive search industry. The database contains up to 64 personal attributes on each of the company’s 250,000 candidates. It tracks professionals as they progress through their careers and is updated constantly with data.
The wealth of background information helps James & Co. pinpoint diverse candidates who have transferrable skills that could otherwise be overlooked. And it puts the company a few steps ahead in the search process, usually a fraught time for all involved.
“I’m starting with warm and hot calls, not cold calls,” said James.
Establishing and maintaining relationships helped James & Co. keep early clients and grow its business. The company boasts an 82% repeat business rate, and all you need to do is watch them work a room to understand the depth of their relationships.
“The trust you develop with those executives, it becomes much more than ‘Oh, I need a body here, help me,’” said Erbes. “You become much more of an adviser and a consultant.”
“They’re really good listeners,” said Brett Yormark, the former CEO of BSE Global. “If it’s not a right fit, they don’t pursue it. They’re trying to create the best possible fit so someone has a long and prosperous career wherever they place them.”
James & Co. placed Yormark at NASCAR, and again at BSE Global in 2005, where he just wrapped up a successful 14-year tenure.
“It seems like over the years they’ve developed lots of truly meaningful relationships, with both candidates and employers,” said Yormark, “and have done it in kind of a boutique-like setting, where they try to personalize the search for both the employer and the client. It’s worked out famously for them.”
James & Co. declined to share any revenue numbers. But James and Erbes can point to nearly 20 years in business, offices in Manhattan and London, and a roster of successful C-suite placings as clear measuring sticks. They annually field calls from investors interested in buying their company, and while James says the interest is flattering, she says they have plenty of growth left.
Still, it would be easy to never notice James & Co., aside from the occasional Adam Silver shoutout. And James and Erbes are fine with that.
“They’re more about promoting their clients and the people they place than themselves,” said Yormark, “and I think that speaks to who they are. But they’re always in the mix when it comes to the biggest and best searches and I think that will continue for them.”