Richard C. Perkey could have stayed at First Union Corp. until he retired.

Back in 1991, when he was 33, Mr. Perkey had been at the Charlotte, N.C.-based company for 11 years, steadily climbing his way up the corporate ladder to become manager of consumer banking in the bank's $1.8 billion- asset Jacksonville, Fla., office.

Literally speaking, First Union was his family. In 1991 he married a colleague who is now a senior vice president.

But Mr. Perkey chose to leave the nest.

"I decided that I wanted to satisfy some curiosity about life outside of banking," he said.

So Mr. Perkey became a headhunter, joining Korn/Ferry International's Atlanta office. Last year, he became a partner in the firm.

Such a career move is hardly unusual for the executive search industry. Most search personnel are recruited from the industry they later specialize in as a headhunter.

But with more senior-level bankers finding themselves out of work, and banks relying on executive search firms to satisfy their rapidly changing personnel needs, headhunting has also become a viable career option for disenfranchised bankers, observers said.

"Executive search has become a more valued tool among all corporations," said Peter W. Kelly, managing partner at R. Rollo Associates, a Los Angeles search firm.

Others agreed that though the number of bank clients has shrunk because of consolidation, the number of searches per client has increased. Between 1991 and midyear 1996, Mr. Perkey's office conducted 43 searches for a single regional bank, 41 of them successful, he said.

John Carusone, president of the Bank Analysis Center in Hartford, Conn., said headhunters are necessary now because it is a buyer's market for personnel. And banks don't want to spend their own time sifting through the candidates.

"With the pace of the competitive shakeout, if you make a wrong move on a key person you could do significant damage to your institution's long- term viability," he said.

Why does the successful banker become a headhunter? Among the top reasons: closer contact with clients, which bankers lose as they rise; freedom from the bureaucratic control in large banks; and the consultative nature of the work.

"It's the opportunity to deal with senior management on the most important corporate resource there is," said Shelly Jones, managing director in Korn/Ferry's Seattle office and a veteran of the former Continental Bank in Chicago.

For Mr. Perkey, it is the thrill of "living vicariously" through the success of executives he has placed and seeing them make an impact on their banks, he said.

The pay isn't bad either. Although many headhunters won't discuss their salaries, observers said those at the largest firms make just as much as the executives they place, if not more. Typical salaries for senior people range from $250,000 to $300,000.

Top search firms are hired on a retainer basis and usually receive fees equivalent to one-third of the first-year's salary for a successfully placed candidate.

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