HRO World’s chairman looks back at HRO World 2003-2005 and helps us look forward to 2006.

by Jay Whitehead

April 26 and 27 will represent either the last HRO World Conference in New York City of which I will be chairman, or not.

You see, the HRO World conferences, including LA HR Week, NY HR Week, and HRO World Europe, were acquired by LRP Publications in January of this year. (However, Harry Feinberg and I retain ownership of HRO Today, HRO Europe, and FAO Today magazines.) I have been retained by LRP to continue running the conference content through 2006.

From 2003 to today, we have built NY HR Week into the world’s second-largest HR conference and the world’s largest HRO show. LRP will take it to the next level, which we are certain means bigger, better, more comprehensive. That is why LRP is an ideal new owner for the HRO World conferences.
In this case, change is good. Yet with change, inevitably comes nostalgia. So let’s take a quick look back.

We started the HRO World Conference in 2003 on a hunch that there was a critical mass of HRO buyers and sellers who would come to New York to meet each other and learn. We were right. In July, 2003, we drew nearly 2,000 to the New York Hilton.

That first HRO World was really hot … and humid too. It was held on a classic 90-degree, 90-percent humidity week in the Big Apple. To draw attendees, we mailed 600,000 pieces of mail and sent out two million e-mails. But we worried that the weather would negate our efforts and keep people away in droves. Thankfully, we were wrong.

We knew that a successful conference launch depended on a great day-one keynote. We had featured Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on the cover of HRO Today in late 2002. The state of Florida was one of the nation’s first, large-scale HRO efforts, and the governor had been effusive in his praise for the effort. As a result, we made a very energetic effort to get the president’s brother as our first keynote. Our efforts were rewarded some weeks later when he accepted our invitation to fill that inaugural 45-minute slot. But our ecstasy turned to agony the day before the conference, when the governor’s office informed us that he was skipping the event to attend the unexpected funeral of a long-time supporter who had died earlier in the week. Thoughtfully, the governor sent a video tape ahead to offer the assembled crowd a bit of his HRO vision. It was a nice gesture, but it was only four minutes long.

Fortunately, our second keynote was the nation’s top HR officer, Kay Coles James, head of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, or OPM. (Note to future HRO World chairmen: always have more than one keynote, especially if one or more of them are elected office-holders.) As a draw for HR leaders, James, the country’s highest-ranking HR officer, was dazzling. And because she was also one of the highest-ranking African-American women
in U.S. government history, she had an additional sizzle. To make her presentation even more interesting, her support of the president’s Competitive Sourcing Initiative had many in Washington up in arms.

As it turned out, James was a better draw than the governor. She brought down the sellout crowd with a stirring defense of competitive sourcing and issued a resonant call to the assembled HR leaders to make the department a strategic asset of their organizations. She spoke in a way the governor would have been unable to do, since she was a member of the HR profession. And thus, HRO World was launched.

In 2004, emboldened by our luck in 2003, we set our keynote sights even higher. But three months prior to show time, we found ourselves without a big draw. Then luck intervened. Through an advantageous discussion with some friends on whose board he sat, Mike Milken agreed to be our keynote. The next day, I got an e-mail announcing I had a 45-second call with the investing legend at 3:30 the next day. I must admit I had a hard time imagining a guy being so organized that he schedules his time in seconds.

The e-mail made one thing clear: Mike’s answer to my keynote request would be “no.” He does not speak, I was told, at any other conferences other than his own Milken Institute events. In a subsequent phone call with his office, I heard the word “no” loud and clear at least a dozen times.

But here is something you should know: For my partner Harry Feinberg and me, “no” translates into “there’s still a chance.” So, since I had a day until my 45-second pitch time, I dusted off old notes to bone up on Milken. By chance, I came upon a notebook from a class I had taken from Milken back at my alma mater, UCLA, in the early 1980s. On the first day of the course, Professor Milken wrote a formula on the board that I noted. It went like this: “Prosperity = (Human Capital + Social Capital + Real Assets).”

The next day, the phone rang at the appointed minute. “Hello, Jay, this is Mike Milken, I’ve read your magazine, and it’s interesting,” the caller said. Knowing I had only 45 seconds, I launched right in. “Thanks Mike. You know, when I took your course some years ago at UCLA, you wrote a formula on the board. Prosperity equals the sum of human capital plus social capital plus real assets. My HRO World Conference in April addresses the hottest trend in one of your formula’s elements, human capital. That trend is human resource outsourcing, or HRO. HRO is now a $49-billion market. I know you have made investments in training, which is one of the fastest-growing HRO business segments. Your contribution as a keynote would be the most valuable words most HR leaders will ever hear in their career.” Then I shut up.

What followed was tough to hear—namely, 20 seconds of silence. I was acutely aware that the investing and philanthropic legend had only given me 45 seconds. And by clamming up, I was letting nearly half my time just slip away. But I had given my best pitch. There was nothing more I could say.

Mike broke the silence. “What is the date of your conference?” he asked. I gave him the date and time of the keynote I proposed. “OK. My office will call yours in a week to schedule some time for me to understand how to customize my slide show for your audience. Thanks for your time,” Milken said. Then he hung up without saying another word.

For five minutes, I simply sat at my desk, digesting what had just happened. My mind flashed back over my short and rather undistinguished entrepreneurial career, counting what I thought were some big sales. Sure, I sold a $1-million trade magazine ad contract to Microsoft’s Bill Gates. Sure, I raised $20 million in venture capital from the likes of the Walt Disney Company. Sure, I sold $3 million in advertising to the world’s largest investment banks for an unknown start-up magazine in California. But at that moment, I understood that getting Mike Milken into a keynote slot at HRO World was the biggest sale I had ever made. True, no money changed handsut the Milken agreement involved something larger. It was validation of an entire market. His keynote at HRO World 2004 was a sign that the HRO market was the real deal. And for me, it represented a perfect illustration of my raison d’être.

I believe that making money is good, but because of its intricate complexity and heavy reliance on organizational and communication skills, making a market is even better. To my mind, making a new market is the highest form of art.

Since Milken’s appearance, there have been many other market-making moments at NY HR Week. In 2004, the TSA’s Gale Rossides brought 50 airport security personnel from JFK airport to her second-day keynote and got a tearful standing ovation for the screeners, who she termed “our nation’s first line of defense against airborne terror.”

In 2005, UPS’s Lea Soupata, gave a sterling justification of her firm’s selective sourcing strategy. In 2003, 2004, and 2005, the Presidential Debate panel was stunning for its sheer number of panelists (13) and for three consecutive years of repeat heavyweight championship performances from company presidents such as Lynn Blodgett (ACS), Steve Bohannon (ExcellerateHRO), and Jos Sluys (ARINSO).

Enough nostalgia already. This year, on April 26-27, HRO World will feature six huge keynotes, including Fast Company magazine Editor Keith Hammonds, author of the August 2005 cover story, “Why We Hate HR.” He will explain why he has changed his tune. Another is an HRO pioneer, Prudential Financial SVP Sharon Taylor, who is also chair of the HRO Association. And the 2006 conference also features three huge HRO themes: Mid-market momentum, the changing world of the sourcing advisor, and HRO buyers getting their voice (via the headline-grabbing HR-BPO Buyers Group panel). For the fourth year in a row, I look forward to bringing you the best and the brightest in the world of HRO. It may be my last, but then again, maybe it won’t. Stay tuned. 

Tags: Benefits, Consultants & Advisors, Enabling Technology, Engaged Workforce, HRO Today Forum APAC, HRO Today Forum Europe, HRO Today Forum North America, HRO Today Global, HRO Today STA, Learning, Multi-Processed HR, Payroll, Performance Management Rewards, Professional Contribution, Relocation, RPO Staffing, Sourcing, Talent Acquisition

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