Tom Neff ’59 has earned a reputation as the nation’s top executive search professional
By Dan Edelen
Conventional wisdom claims that CEOs wield the power in the business world. However, the truly wise pay attention to those behind the boardroom curtain, such as Tom Neff ’59. His discreet orchestrations as the top executive search professional in the country ensure that corporations seat the right CEO in the top-floor office.
As chairman of the U.S. operations of Spencer Stuart, one of the most influential executive search firms worldwide, Neff understands that corporations live and die by their leadership decisions.
“When I first joined the search business in the early 1970s, search was not fully accepted as a profession,” Neff says. Massive shifts in business thinking and the rise of globe-spanning conglomerates meant pioneering new directions in the way companies hired their top executives and recruited directors. “I saw a need evolving,” Neff says. “I started writing articles about it, started speaking on it, and clients started paying attention to it.”
That client attention resulted in a doubling of Spencer Stuart’s offices worldwide and a quadrupling of revenue under Neff’s direction as president and managing partner from 1979-87. But the loss of his first wife, Susan, and the stark reality of raising three boys alone saw Neff stepping out of the top office and back into the daily work of matching business talent with companies. With more than 200 CEO and 500 board member searches in his nearly 32 years with Spencer Stuart, Neff continues to live up to his billing by The Wall Street Journal as “the No. 1 brand name in CEO searches.”
Neff explains his success: “I have a true passion for what I am doing.” His facility with helping professionals find the right job only came in time, though. Deciding a different course after majoring in industrial engineering led Neff to Lehigh University for a marketing and finance MBA. Two years honoring his ROTC commitment as a 1st Lieutenant followed. His life in business began at McKinsey & Company, progressing to TWA, then Hospital Data Sciences, Inc., where he served as president and CEO.
In that time, a special skill emerged. “What I really enjoyed was matchmaking,” Neff notes, “and my friends encouraged me to go into recruiting because I had helped so many of them find jobs.” In 1974, he started his recruiting career at Booz, Allen & Hamilton, moving on to Spencer Stuart two years later.
Even as a teen Neff recognized his affinity for helping others succeed. “I’ve been in the people business all my life,” he says. “I’ve been a collector of [relationships], a networker dating all the way back to my high school and college days.”
Lafayette was a foregone conclusion for the Easton native. “My father went to Lafayette, my three older brothers went to Lafayette, and I went to Lafayette. It was inevitable.” Though by his own admission he struggled with his family’s penchant for majoring in engineering, Neff made his impact in other ways. He served as president not only of his fraternity, DKE, but also the Class of ’59 for 25 years following graduation.
“Some of my classmates who knew me best would be amazed today if they knew I had a couple books out there with my name on it.” Calling on his understanding of what it takes to be a CEO, Neff wrote Lessons from the Top: The Search for America’s Best Business Leaders (1999) and You’re in Charge—Now What? (2005) with coauthor and fellow Spencer Stuart consultant James M. Citrin.
Neff shows no signs of slowing down at age 70. He still departs for work in New York City at 7 a.m. from his home in Connecticut, meets with clients, strategizes searches with colleagues, phones prospective candidates and their references, and continues to stay in touch with prospects by phone evenings and weekends. Add to that the five newspapers he reads daily, plus watching CNBC and other TV business programs. “The day is never over,” he says. Dayton Ogden, the former CEO of Spencer Stuart, puts it more bluntly: Neff “works his tail off.”
In addition to his search work, Neff serves on the board of directors of Lord Abbett Mutual Funds, Hewitt, Inc., and ACE Ltd. His work with educational institutions has included chairing the board of the Brunswick School in Greenwich, Conn., where his sons attended, and serving 12 years as a Lafayette Trustee, chairing the Development and Alumni Affairs Committee.
Neff stays fit by working out with a trainer, playing golf, and race walking with his wife, Sally, and their two-year-old golden retriever. Their blended family of five children and two spouses includes David and Abby Neff, Mark Neff, Scott Neff, Bailey Hallingby, and Brooke Hallingby Day ’01 and her husband, Steve Day ’00. When asked about retirement and the future, Neff says, “I’m working indefinitely. I can’t imagine not working.”
As the boy who once lived down the road from Lafayette says, “It’s been a circuitous and exciting path from Easton, Pennsylvania.”