CEO Richard Tuck doesn't have to try hard to keep his employees happy. He hires people who know how to do that for themselves

Last year, mired in one of the periodic slumps that have characterized his 30-year career, Jon Westberg decided to seek advice from his boss. Westberg, an executive recruiter at Lander International (#290), had just about run out of ideas about how he might reverse his bad streak, which had dragged on for more than two months. And the one obvious explanation wasn't one he was eager to act on. Still, even as he made his way to Richard Tuck's office, he thought he already knew what was standing in the way of his ability to make placements: he was simply spending too much time on his art, sculpting furniture out of salvaged wood and driftwood. He was spending close to 100 hours a week on both pursuits. What he needed to do, he suspected, was to devote himself to hitting the phones aggressively.

Sure enough, it didn't take long for Tuck--cofounder and CEO of Lander, which is based in El Cerrito, Calif.--to raise the subject of Westberg's outside interest. "I suggested that maybe he was spending too much time at work, that he needed to devote more time to his art," Tuck says. Doing so, Tuck reasoned, would help Westberg gain a deeper sense of fulfillment, which would in turn energize him, helping him get back on track to making the commissions that added up to his annual six-figure salary. Tuck's passionate argument was the exact opposite of what most employees in that situation expect to hear. Not that Tuck was motivated to say it just because of its shock value.

Or was he?

As befits a roller-coaster enthusiast, Tuck seems to delight in consistently applying a kind of topsy-turvy logic to managing employees. While most CEOs might tolerate workers who have outside commitments, Tuck actually seeks such people out. Aside from the driftwood artisan, his employees include a former concert bass trombonist, an ichthyologist (someone who studies fish biology), a news photographer, and a Third World latrine builder. Several are refugees from the corporate world, including a former American Express executive who designs golf putting greens on the side. Having found what he's looking for in an employee--bitter experience has taught him that his number one priority should be to hire people he likes to be around--Tuck takes every opportunity to assure that person that he's not remotely interested in keeping anyone chained to a desk. Want to take six weeks' vacation in Asia? Why not take more? Fed up with your job? Let's try a new one, see what happens. Want to work at home? Go ahead. Tuck doesn't just think outside the box. There is no box to begin with. Never will be. He hates rules. "I kept waiting for policies to be firmed up, but he just wouldn't do it," says office manager Helen Winters.

If Lander sounds like some West Coast company too groovy for its own good, consider the real-world results Tuck has achieved: between 1993 and 1997, the company's revenues rose from $231,000 to more than $2.5 million, a growth rate of 994%. Lander specializes in placing information-technology auditors, high-tech workers who are certified to maintain the integrity of computer networks. The Year 2000 bug, while a potential boon to Lander and companies like it, has also brought waves of competitors into the field. "From the standpoint of a recruiter, if Richard is working for a client, you are probably not going to bother to compete against him, because you are going to lose," says Mary Ness, whose Minneapolis-based business, the Ness Group, operates in the same niche as Lander but focuses solely on the Twin Cities area.

Ask Tuck about the company's growth and he'll attribute it to the "fun" people he's managed to hire. But while his hiring methods may border on bizarre, he's not nearly as impulsive as he likes to sound. Of course, he's not about to deploy the same kinds of sophisticated screening techniques that other CEOs use--from team interviewing to psychological testing to take-home projects--but then he's not looking for the same traits that tend to interest many other employers. (For examples, see "Screen Tests," below.) What the 28 employees at Lander share is a quality that Tuck himself takes every opportunity to exude: they know what makes them happy. They don't need Tuck or anyone else to figure out their lives for them.

What Tuck has figured out, though, is how to identify such people. He does it by opening up his life to them right from the start--or at least seeming to. He acts utterly himself, making no secret of his five-week trips to visit roller coasters in faraway lands (he says he's ridden every one in the United States) and rarely missing a chance to throw others off balance. His anything-goes atmosphere loosens people up so that they feel more comfortable just being themselves. "I left there with a mixture of feeling fascinated but also not having the first clue about what this company did," says recruiter Derek Duval, recalling his interview for a job at Lander. "But I knew I had met someone I wanted to know more about."

Then again, there are times when Tuck's approach can be absolutely overwhelming. When recruiter Jason Schulterbrandt was interviewed for a job, the meeting took place in Tuck's "fun house" basement. "I come from New York, and I've seen a lot of things. But when I went downstairs, I was absolutely catatonic," he recalls. "I couldn't speak for 15 minutes." Recruiter Gregg Eiler--who sports hair down to his shoulders, favors shorts and a T-shirt, and parks a mountain bike in his office--puts it this way: "As soon as you see Richard's world, you know anything you come up with is going to be just fine."

Answer a vaguely worded ad for a job at Lander--probably under a heading like "Juggler Extraordinaire"--and you'll get a voice-mail message from Tuck that ends like this: "Go ahead and tell us about yourself now. Let me know your fondest dreams, or your ambitions, or a funny story about yourself, something so that I get a sense of your personality. Based on what you leave on the message, it will determine which people we call in first for interviews. So, at the sound of the tone, go ahead: lights, camera, action, it's your turn now." Beep.

At this point, you won't even know what Lander does, or what the job entails. Some people hang up, compose an answer, and call back. Others just go for it. "I boiled down my life from kindergarten to the time of that phone call in a two-minute synopsis," says Duval, who needed a job after building latrines in Angola and attending graduate school.

If you're an experienced recruiter, no matter how good, that's a strike against you. Too predictable. Too much to unlearn. (Westberg appears to be the exception. But remember, there are no rules.) On the other hand, if you've done something unusual, passionate, or intense, Tuck will pick up on that right away. He calls back people who sound, as he puts it, "a bit spunky." If the person still holds his interest after a brief phone conversation, he might suggest he or she drop everything and come over. "I told him, 'I'm sitting here in cutoffs, combat boots, a T-shirt, and an old hat,' and he said, 'Sounds like you're dressed for an interview for my office," says Duval. "And I was like, 'Oh God, unbelievable."

Because of his goal in the interview--to find out how well you know yourself--Tuck never tells you what job you're applying for. "The main part of the conversation was about my interests, teasing out my outlook on life," Duval says. "I remember one question he asked me was 'How much of a chameleon are you?" Not surprisingly, Tuck prefers asking questions to which there are no right answers.

Still, he's very straightforward about who's in control of the situation. When recruiter Todd Weinman showed up at Tuck's house for his first interview, he was surprised to find himself beside another candidate interviewing for the same job. At one point, Tuck asked each one what he or she thought about the other. "You can trash the other person or take the high road, but if you take the high road, you don't want to make them look too good," Weinman reasons. "So I said I thought she was good." He got the job. Two days after he was hired, Weinman was left in charge of the office when Tuck flew off for a three-week vacation. Weinman knew he didn't want to be an office manager permanently, so Tuck gave him another task while he was away: "Think about what you want to do when I return." Weinman decided to start training to become a recruiter. He reacted, in other words, exactly as Tuck had expected.

Just as Tuck doesn't want the responsibility of figuring out how to make anyone else happy, he's not likely to preach to employees about balancing their work with their other interests. By his own example, he makes it clear that while others may concern themselves with balancing their work and personal lives, his goal is to integrate work and home as seamlessly as possible. His home features his collection of 18,000 movies, which he can watch on a large-screen TV or on one of 13 smaller sets. And there's a kitchen closet filled with soda-fountain syrup, 43 flavors in all. But 5 of his 9 phone lines (he has 19 phones) are reserved for business. (The lines are also used by Tim Sauer, Lander's cofounder, who shares Tuck's home, and by another friend and housemate.) And he's even negotiated recruiting deals from pay phones at amusement parks. Business and pleasure, friends and colleagues, all seem to blur into a unified whole--for Tuck, anyway.

Others at Lander seem to have to work harder at blending the two. Weinman, whose personal passion is playing trombone with classical-music groups, admits that he hasn't yet found the right mix in both pursuits. But that doesn't mean that he, or anyone else, is ungrateful for having the choice. Navigating alternatives is what Lander is all about. "Everyone's always in flux around here," office manager Winters says. "Everyone's always redefining jobs."

Winters certainly has. A single mother, she worked as a recruiter for six months last year and was getting deeply frustrated by the amount of time she was spending away from her kids. Ill from the stress, she resolved to quit. She met with Tuck. "She said she really didn't like the job," Tuck recalls. "And I said, 'OK, but why does that mean you have to quit? Maybe we can figure out something else for you to do." Tuck called up then office manager JoAnn Peters, who he thought would do well as a recruiter, and asked if she would like to swap jobs with Winters. Peters agreed, and both women seem to have taken to their new jobs.

Last June, Tuck even redefined his own job as CEO at the behest of one of his most recent hires, a researcher whose efforts didn't produce the job leads that Tuck had envisioned. When Tuck asked Jeff Kost what he wanted to do instead, Kost told him he wanted to be trained as a recruiter--by Tuck himself. Doing that meant Tuck would have to shuffle his responsibilities and return to recruiting for the first time in four years. So he thought about it over a weekend before he agreed. Now, in addition to his role as CEO, Tuck also covers the Pacific Northwest region, with Kost as his assistant.

Tuck, who is 50, is a large man whose relaxed physique belies his personal intensity. On the sunny day I went to meet him, he greeted me in his living room, which has a stunning picture-window view of San Francisco Bay. He was wearing a sweatshirt crawling with Disney characters. He spent the first 30 minutes posing a steady stream of questions in a very relaxed manner. Within the first 15 minutes, I somehow found myself talking about my parents and my Brooklyn upbringing.

Perhaps because of the surroundings--the house is overflowing with curiosities, and I hadn't yet seen the portion that rendered Schulterbrandt mute--Tuck conveys the impression of sweeping away all formalities. Intimacy is the currency of our exchange. The dynamic isn't that different from what the company's customers experience. "Richard does an extremely thorough job of scoping the skill set, of interviewing people, and I know because I was an intelligence officer," says the Ness Group's Mary Ness. Joan McBride, who has used Lander three times since 1989 to find a job, first met Tuck when she was on her own, cold-calling companies for openings. "One of the first things Richard asked me was about the people I had talked to and the corporate cultures I had seen," she says. "He was really interested in how I viewed these cultures and what I liked, instead of what I wanted out of a job." Over the years, job placement evolved into career counseling and then into a friendship.

Recruiters at Lander insist that they'll walk away from a deal if it doesn't seem right. "I wouldn't place anyone in a company I wouldn't want to work for," Peters says. The recruiters, many of whom are in their twenties and thirties, often make more than $100,000 a year after a couple of years and can take in as much as $175,000.

There are also gratifying moments, like the time last year when Peters got Frank Cordima a job after nearly a yearlong search. Cordima, 47, had worked as an information-systems auditor for the state of Massachusetts for 24 years and carried the stigma of a 9-to-5 government worker despite the fact that he had continually upgraded his skills. With two young kids, he was making $36,000 a year and knew he was underpaid. Peters coached him through interviews, channeled him to several prospects, and then landed him an offer at Staples Inc. in Framingham, Mass. His package included a 66% raise, a year-end bonus, and stock options. "When she told me I got the job, my wife ended up crying," Cordima says. "I feel like I'm in a good situation, with my pride and integrity back to where it should be."

Tuck himself knows what it's like to work for a boss you don't like, in a company that feels stifling. He felt the same way not so many years ago--except that he owned the company. Founded in 1979, Paramount Personnel was the first incarnation of Lander; he changed the company's name in order to hire a woman who didn't want to work in a "placement" firm. (Her mother's maiden name was Lander.) To grow the business, he hired the kind of employees it made sense to hire at the time: experienced recruiters. Even so, the company barely squeaked through the recession of the early 1980s. "My accountant told me I should close down. But I thought Mickey [Rooney] and Judy [Garland] wouldn't have done that. So we hung on," Tuck says.

The company survived, but Tuck grew increasingly despondent over the business. "I was getting burned out, working with experienced recruiters who were like salespeople," he says. "This was like a business. I wasn't having fun." So in 1985 he hired a manager and took off to Europe for four weeks. Upon his return, he started working out of the house and was soon billing more than everyone else combined. So he let the manager go, and the staff gradually trickled away. With just two support people left, Tuck moved the company to El Cerrito, down the hill from his home.

But by 1993 Tuck still wasn't happy--and his personal obligations were mounting. In April, overwhelmed by debt, he found himself filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy--an act he regrets and even now has difficulty explaining. "I was really shaken up," he says. He became depressed and went into therapy. During those sessions he finally realized what made him happy--not only in his work but also in what he wanted out of life. One morning, looking out his living-room window, he saw the entire bay and lowlands covered in clouds. But in his inner world, the clouds parted. "All of a sudden, everything became clear," he says. "Who I was, what I had to do, why I was here."

Knowing himself that much better, he resolved to build a company in which the culture made sense to him. Then he began to fill it with like-minded people.

After my last day of interviews, Tuck invited me up to the house for dinner. Sauer prepared an Asian stir-fry. Once dinner was out of the way, Tuck offered me a tour of the house. Finally. Wait till you see it, everyone had said, referring to the "fun house." Hundreds of visitors take the tour every year.

We entered a room devoted to Hollywood, lined with a wall of film books and filled with movie posters. A second room was dedicated to Broadway plays. Then we headed to the basement, which is crowded with pictures and objects. An entire wall was lined with painted-plaster characters from Charles Dickens novels, and a bathroom was plastered wall to wall with postcards of roller coasters, including a small mechanical replica on a counter. Beyond, there was a room with four pinball machines fixed so that the player usually wins. We continued touring the basement, but there was so much covering the walls and ceilings, I couldn't take it all in. There was the screening room and, behind that, a stage for presenting magic shows. In a small, darkened anteroom, two large chairs faced a three-level display--a faithful replica of a Victorian English village, painstakingly created with miniature houses, each one lit from the inside.

In a far wing of the house, we entered a bedroom, which was also overflowing with objects. A miniature Christmas display contained several trees and fiber-optic strands that resembled fireworks when they lit up. Beyond a sliding glass door was a wooden deck, overlooking a garden below, with San Francisco in the distance. On the other side of the bedroom was another picture window looking into darkness. With the faint sound of a foghorn in the background, the window slowly brightened to reveal an entire New England village, with miniature lobster boats, docks, houses, shops, a church, and a market.

A friend of Tuck's who suffers from AIDS planned to die in this room. The Christmas scene, the New England village, the view of San Francisco--all are images the man told Tuck he wanted to see from his deathbed. Tuck first met him when a group of AIDS patients toured the house, and the man was intrigued enough to come back and help Tuck conduct tours. After a hospitalization, he asked Tuck if he might move in to recuperate. Tuck and Sauer talked it over and agreed. In the months that followed, their newfound friend designed his own room and created the wildly elaborate displays. Now, with his health returning, he hardly talks about dying anymore.

With some help from Tuck, he even has a job, which would hardly have seemed possible when Tuck first met him a couple of years ago. Back then, the friend had to be coaxed to do anything. Finally fed up, Tuck asked him if he was going to die soon. The man admitted he wasn't. "So why are you dying now?" Tuck pleaded. "All of us are going to die. Why not live to the fullest until you die?"

Samuel Fromartz is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

Screen tests

There may be no surefire method for hiring the right people, but--as these Inc. 500 CEOs will attest--it helps to know what you're looking for

By Ilan Mochari

Sure, Richard Tuck's hiring methods may be unorthodox, but there's no question about one thing: the CEO of Lander International knows what he's looking for in a potential hire. Herewith, some other Inc. 500 CEOs who screen candidates for very specific traits:

1. Team Spirit
"On a Monday, if the Packers lose, it is extremely somber around here," explains Scott Spencer, vice-president of Laser Pros International (#163), which supplies and repairs printer parts. Rhinelander, the Wisconsin town where Laser Pros is based, may be two hours away from Green Bay's Lambeau Field, but the office atmosphere can resemble a parking-lot tailgate party--as Spencer explains to anyone seeking a job at the company. "Talking about the Pack is just a big part of the culture," he says. Currently, only one confessed nonfan (out of 109 employees) works for the $11-million company. Spencer has an explanation, though. "We must not have known him around the fall," he says. Not that there weren't clues: on his first day of work, the Chicago native actually arrived in a sports-utility vehicle with a Chicago Bears wheel cover on it. "He told me he was a transplant," says Spencer. "That's acceptable."

2. Mayberry Factor
Heck, all Travis TeSelle is after are folks who know what it means to put in a hard day's work. The CEO of Tensor Information Systems (#176), a systems integrator based in Fort Worth, has made a conscious effort in recent years to hire employees who hail from the rural Midwest. "People from small towns are generally people who want to do the right thing," he claims. "They're extremely honest." TeSelle himself was bred in Tekamah, Nebr., where the townfolk total 1,853.

3. Life Support
When he was leaving graduate school to become a professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Paul Shirley set down in writing both his short-term and his long-term goals. He found the exercise so challenging and helpful that he had his two founding partners at SVS (#122) do the same thing at the company's inception. "It's a way to force the personal issues to the front," says Shirley, who serves as chairman and CEO of the aerospace- and defense-engineering firm. Many of SVS's hires come from large aerospace companies and government agencies; having them write life plans--of whatever length they want--has been Shirley's way of determining how his growing company fits into their big picture. "You are opening yourself up to much more than a business relationship," he says. "Can you really address their needs in your environment? If not, maybe it's not the best fit."

4. Peer Pressure
Apply to work at Active Control Experts (#79), and you may begin to feel that you are under suspicion for a criminal offense. The questioning--from a wide array of interrogators--feels endless. The first time around, says Ken Lazarus, president and CEO of the manufacturer of vibration-control devices, from six to eight people will lob queries at the applicant. Aside from Lazarus, those interviewers include the recruitment manager, the candidate's would-be department head, and potential coworkers. If the recruit doesn't emerge with a unanimous thumbs-up, he or she is asked back for another round. Then, as many as six additional interviewers may sit down with a candidate, focusing their questions on potential weaknesses that turned up earlier. Each interviewer covers a specific aspect of the candidate's skill set. One, for example, may subject mechanical-engineer recruits to a brainteaser that requires diagramming. Why the rigor? Lazarus wants to see how a recruit reacts to the kind of pressure that's akin to working at a fast-growing company. "Candidates say it's grueling at times, but they understand why we do it," he says.

5. Sinking Feeling
From the start, Sean McEwen, chairman and CEO of TriTech Software Systems (#344), never put much stock in writing samples when he was hiring technical writers. Each candidate, he knew, would simply bring one or two best efforts. That's why he came up with an assignment for those who want a job writing manuals at the software developer: go home tonight, he tells recruits, and write me a manual about hand washing. "It's something so basic; it's something we all know how to do," explains McEwen. "And we're all experts on judging the quality of the manual. I could give it to the person who answers the phones, and she'd have a valid opinion of it."