Once recruited for a high-level management position at a major soft drink company, John Kerns is now the recruiter, searching for presidents, vice presidents and directors for a number of Fortune 500 fi rms. But with the economy nosediving and companies laying off workers by the hundreds and thousands, Kerns calls this the most difficult time for his executive search firm, Kerns International LLC, which he founded four years ago.

“It’s challenging,” said Kerns, 52. “But you just work that much harder. I seek out companies that are doing well.”

And those companies exist, Kerns insists.

“There are still companies growing, although cautiously,” said Kerns, noting that mid-level and privately held companies are still hiring.

For example, Kerns works with Carmelbased Crown Point Graphics, a wholesale paper-products company that is considering expansion.

Mike Bursaw, the company’s president, recently hired Kerns to find a director of national accounts. The two have known each other 15 years; Bursaw knows Kerns has a track record of success.

“When you give John a project, he’s like a bulldog,” Bursaw said.

Within 10 days, Bursaw had resumes from three well-qualifi ed candidates.

“It was the quickest I ever got qualifi ed candidates using any method,” Bursaw said. “It’s magic. He just knows a lot of people.”

Kerns has an impressive bag of tricks he uses to find candidates for his clients. He uses job boards to help compile lists of candidates, feeds profiles to a research firm he contracts with to find others, and taps into an in-house database of several thousand individuals he’s worked with or just talked to in all his years of business.

Many of those contacts come from Kerns’ 30 years in sales, human resources and operations management positions with Illinois-based Baxter Healthcare, New York-based PepsiCo, Indianapolis- based Day Dream Publishing, and Wick Works, a manufacturer of gift products he founded and ran with his wife, Nancy. That company was acquired by a Finnish company, and the sale opened the door to the Kerns International opportunity.

“I’ve held a number of the positions I’m now filling for my clients,” Kerns said. And while that kind of experience sets him apart from many of his competitors, he said, the recruiting business is not a dog-eat-dog industry.

“There are thousands of recruiting firms,” Kerns said. “But there’s not a real competitive nature among us. It’s more of a support group. People are anxious to share information or, if they have a diffi – cult placement on someone that does not fit with their typical work, they’ll work with us.”

One such recruiting firm he works with is Atlanta-based Brady Partners. Founder Rick Brady and Kerns worked together at PepsiCo in the 1980s.

Citing Kerns’ strong people skills and an astute understanding of what makes a business successful, Brady recalled that Kerns often held their regional executive team at PepsiCo together.

“As you can imagine with seven type-A people charged with the success of the area, we all had our individual ideas about how to achieve success,” Brady said. ” … Because of his strong interpersonal and influence skills, coupled with his quick and deep grasp of the issues and, most important, his personal values, he often brought the group to consensus much faster than if he were to take a passive role.”

Kerns said he understands what businesses need to be successful and uses that knowledge to play matchmaker, so to speak.

A candidate’s personality must mesh with the company’s culture, Kerns said. If not, the relationship will not work and both his client and the new employee will be unhappy. And that wouldn’t bode well for Kerns; 95 percent of his business is repeat.

Kerns gives equal credit to his wife for the firm’s success, which posted $350,000 in revenue last year.

In addition to reviewing resumes and handling all back-end operations, Nancy Kerns, 49, helps identify talent using her own network of people through several years at AT&T and helping run their Wick Works business for six years.

“She connects the dots,” Kerns said. “Basically, she makes it all work.”

The two spend part of the year working out of a second location in Florida; they left this month for their fair-weather office.

While Kerns anticipates that 2009 will be another challenging year, he’s optimistic. The current economic climate has created a glut of candidates for far fewer openings, but Kerns said he’s actually a bit ahead of his original business-plan projections.

“We’re very satisfied with this,” Kerns said of the four years he and his wife have run the firm. “It has met our expectations.”

And advice for other entrepreneurs?

“Do the research, develop a wellthought-out plan, and plan for a lot of long hours,” Kerns said. •

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