Winning Moves – Laura J. Lofaro of Sterling Resources Inc

Elaine Pofeldt

A cool head and hot rejoinders help Laura Lofaro thrive in the macho banking world

LAURA J. LOFARO has just received a telephone call from an angry investment banker. The woman on the other end of the line was placed by Lofaro’s headhunting firm, Sterling Resources International, several years ago. Now she is ready to quit, despite her earning a salary that could feed half of Peru. Why? She’s convinced that she was passed over for an important promotion because of her gender.

“Quitting would be a big mistake,” Lofaro advises the spurned banker after hearing her out. “This is only one stage of the game.”

In Lofaro’s view, building a career — whether it’s in an entrepreneurial venture or at a top-tier investment bank — requires the same cool logic, gamesmanship, and mental toughness that propelled chess master Bobbie Fischer to the top. What the banker really needs to do, Lofaro counsels, is consider her next move. She has to enlist the support of her own clients in winning the promotion she deserves. They’re a natural constituency that presumably doesn’t want her to leave the firm. “Many women haven’t learned how to position themselves,” Lofaro says. “We need to solicit the support of our clients as well as the support of our superiors and peers.”


The strategic maneuvers that Lofaro, 40, recommends are a product of insights she gained during the years she spent building a high-profile business in the same male-dominated realm her charges occupy. In the early ’80s, when she first considered trading her job as an assistant buyer at Lord & Taylor for a position as a headhunter in the investment-banking industry, a friend in the field cautioned against it. “It would be much too arcane for you,” he warned. Convinced that she could handle whatever was dished out, she made the leap anyway, starting out in an entry-level research slot. Worried that she wasn’t thoroughly familiar with banking, she passed her evenings poring over dusty finance tomes from Columbia University’s business-school library. “I would stay up until 2 A.M.,” she recalls. It was those late nights that laid the groundwork for a policy that, clients confirm, she still embraces: “Do what is asked of you — and then do more.”

A year later, Lofaro was promoted to the job of recruiter. She soon started a department that specialized in making retainer deals with clients. Cold-calling dozens of people, she gradually devised a pitch that would appeal to the bottom-line mind-set of those she was approaching. She urged a banker to give her just three weeks to find him the best candidate for a job he was trying to fill and to sign a contract with her if she succeeded.

Eager to prove herself, Lofaro called a well-known managing director at a topflight firm, asking whether he would consider the position. This, she later found out, would have been highly unlikely for someone of his stature. Sensing that she was a rookie, the high-powered executive bombarded her with tough questions about finance. As she struggled to answer them, he remarked, “This obviously shows your ignorance.” At that she shot back, “You’re clearly showing your lack of breeding.” Lofaro had learned that a show of confidence in the face of direct challenges was an important commodity in the macho financial-services world. Who would entrust his investment banker with the fate of a key deal if the banker couldn’t hold his ground in a business meeting?

But after Lofaro hung up the phone, remorse set in. She wondered whether she’d been too sharp. When the banker began phoning her every two hours the next day, she avoided his calls in an effort to escape what she feared would be a verbal attack. (Years later, Lofaro was at a breakfast meeting with him, and after reminding him of their last “encounter,” she was told that he’d actually called back to compliment her on her chutzpah; he’s now a friend.) As for the position she was trying to fill, Lofaro found a more likely candidate — and consequently won her first major account.


Not long after that first success, Lofaro’s client suggested that she start her own executive-search and consulting firm; he even offered to be her first customer. Lofaro replied that she was too inexperienced. “He told me that the difference between successful people and unsuccessful people is that successful people seize an opportunity because they realize that it may never come again,” she recalls. Drawn by the challenge, she resigned from her job in July 1988. By October, she was working the phones from her apartment in Greenwich Village, N.Y. She visited the local Kinko’s so often that employees there kept one computer on reserve for her around the clock.


Young and attractive, Lofaro soon discovered that not everyone took her seriously. It was obvious from their dismissive tones that potential clients didn’t see her as significant competition to her biggest rival, a well-established placement firm. To compensate, she worked 17 hours a day, seven days a week. Fortunately, the client who’d inspired her to fly solo kept his promise and signed a deal with her start-up. His business was enough to keep her going until she found the accounts she needed to turn a profit.


By listening carefully to everything that her initial client told her about his company’s culture, Lofaro soon developed a complete understanding of the kind of candidates the firm sought; that was valuable currency for a recruiter. She practiced this method for her other accounts as well. Soon top-level bankers at another concern were inviting her to sit in on confidential strategy meetings; this gave her an even greater advantage.


But even the best of arrangements are not impervious to economic shifts. Lofaro eventually faced that reality when her anchor client dropped her in a 1989 corporate restructuring. Licking her wounds, she confided the details of the disaster to her father, a surgeon. “You were getting too comfortable,” he told her. “Find a better client.” Networking furiously, she signed a deal with another company five weeks later. “It taught me a lesson,” she says. “You’re only as good as the last project you completed.”


Now comfortably situated in a 37th-floor office on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, Sterling Resources brings in $3 million in revenue annually. Although Lofaro has six employees, she remains involved in all placements. “Sometimes, if you go to a larger firm, you’ll get the attention of folks with less experience,” says Stefan Selig, a managing director at SG Cowen Securities, who has worked with Lofaro for 10 years. “Laura gets involved in the assignment personally. She’s very tenacious, very thoughtful.” “She’s more than just a headhunter,” notes Brian Brille, a managing director at Morgan Stanley. “There’s a strategic aspect to what she does that combines the search with team building and consulting work.”

In fact, Lofaro’s strategic approach to her business has also helped her to leverage her relationships with the people she’s placed; many have been promoted to jobs in which they themselves need to place people. Several years ago, for instance, Lofaro lured Gall McDonnell Lobkowicz from a fast-track job at Merrill Lynch to Morgan Stanley, where she is now a managing director. McDonnell Lobkowicz has hired Lofaro to find recruits for the team she is building. Says the investment banker, “Laura Lofaro has the ability to think of the critical issues for both parties up front.”

COPYRIGHT 1999 Success Holdings Company, LLC

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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