How the City of Melbourne landed its new high-calibre CEO

By Stephen Mayne

Monday January 19, 2015

Executive recruitment by major government groups tends to be a secretive process with lots of politics, high pressure, tough decisions, delicate negotiations, egos to accommodate and well-paid handlers assisting with the arrangements.

The City of Melbourne has just been through the process. Given we claim to be “Australia’s most open and transparent council”, here’s a factual outline of how 42-year-old young gun Ben Rimmer, a high-flying federal public servant, was lured into the role.

First up, you need a vacancy. This occurred when the incumbent, Dr Kathy Alexander, gave us more than four months’ notice by announcing she would be resigning on December 3, her 60th birthday, after more than six successful years in the job.

The Napthine government had introduced but not passed legislation which would have required Victoria’s 89 councils to have a permanent CEO Employment Matters Committee with an independent chair. We decided to go with it, so former Ernst & Young partner Janine Kirk was recruited to join lord mayor Robert Doyle, Greens councillor Cathy Oke and myself on a suitably diverse four-person committee.

Our committee then spent a day receiving pitches from six head-hunting firms, after which three were requested to lodge formal written proposals which were required to cost less than the $150,000 threshold for formal tenders under the Local Government Act.

“It was a high-calibre field and the 45-minute interviews occurred over a full day at the Spencer Stuart offices …”

Executive recruitment firm Spencer Stuart was selected from this process and the first task was to agree on the advertisement. Many CEO positions are not advertised but we opted for The Australian, The Age and The Economist, where we pushed the line: “The world’s most liveable city — as judged by The Economist — is looking for a CEO …”

In hindsight, given the poor response to the ads, we either should have not taken this path or gone with the advertisement before selecting the executive search firm as we lost valuable weeks.

The Spencer Stuart black book then kicked into overdrive before we had a phone hook-up with the mayor in New York to try and crunch down a long list of almost 50 names, comprising respondents to the ad and anyone who might be capable or available.

This first meeting gave Spencer Stuart the necessary feedback to come up with a shortlist of about a dozen names who were then firmed up and refined before our first major face-to-face meeting at Town Hall where we settled on five candidates to interview.

It was a high-calibre field and the 45-minute interviews occurred over a full day at the Spencer Stuart offices at 101 Collins Street, after which the committee settled on two candidates who were then each exposed to all 11 councillors for up to an hour at Town Hall. It’s vital the names of unsuccessful candidates don’t leak and so far so good on that front.

All councillors then provided their feedback to committee members ahead of a more informal dinner catch-up with the final two candidates.

Ben Rimmer
Ben Rimmer

The Spencer Stuart representative then joined the committee at the restaurant after the second candidate had departed and, with reference checks completed, we settled on a unanimous recommendation in favour of Ben Rimmer, who has a sparkling CV with heavy experience in both Spring Street and Canberra.

There was very little politics in the selection process as none of the selection committee had come across Ben before we met him. There was no old boys network or previous connection which comes into play so often.

The Future Melbourne Committee then met on December 9 and in confidential session authorised an offer of a four-year contract starting on $450,000 but with council having the ability to terminate without cause with just six months notice at any point.

Ben had a week to agree and the only minor sticking point was a February 9 start date to enable him to move from Canberra to Melbourne and settle his three kids into new schools. The full contract was authorised at the December 16 council meeting and then announced publicly the following day.

Spencer Stuart earned every dollar of its fee producing numerous reports and making vast numbers of discreet phone calls. Their advice was sound. We now just need the new CEO to be a superstar when working for the first time in local government and to a board.

No pressure there for the former professional violinist who used to busk on the streets of Melbourne before filling out that remarkable CV covering honours in Law and Arts, Boston Consulting Group, an Oxford MBA and then senior posts such as deputy secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet in Victoria before being Kevin Rudd’s lead negotiator on hospital reform and Tony Abbott’s man running a major change program at Centrelink with 40,000 staff.

More at The Mandarin: Ben Rimmer on why he’s leaving Canberra for council job

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