About 10 days before America Online Inc. and Time Warner Inc. announced their merger in January 2000, James & Co. founder Michele James, then a top headhunter at Korn/Ferry International, had a meeting at the online giant's Dulles, Va., headquarters. She was offered the job of chief talent scout for AOL.
“They recruited me very heavily, and I really couldn't understand why,” says James, who turned down the job.
After AOL and Time Warner unveiled their plans for the largest media merger ever, then-AOL chief operating officer Bob Pittman offered her the position in which she would oversee 118 headhunters and be charged with filling 10,000 jobs per quarter.
Soon, James was meeting people like former U.S. Army generals Alexander Haig and Colin Powell, two AOL board members, and helping to decide the fate of more than 200,000 employees at the combined AOL Time Warner.
That was a far cry from her first job in the industry — selling cable hardware out of her car. A native of the upstate New York town of Newark, James sold splitters and other gear for her family's hardware business after graduating from Ithaca College, and before taking a job as a field producer at P.M. Magazine.
James says her first real job in cable came in the early 1980s at Manhattan Cable, where she helped the Time Inc. system obtain franchises in Queens, N.Y.
In 1983, she returned to the family business, Regency Electronics, and hit the road selling cable hardware. “I hated the hardware side of it,” James says. “We had very good products, but I loved the people interaction, and how everybody, very early on in the cable business, had to matrix with each other.”
James later joined Group W Cable, where she sold Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Home Again With Bob Vila into syndication.
Former Group W president Don Mitzner recognized James's people skills and moved her into human resources, where she worked on Group W's acquisition and integration of Country Music Television. He also introduced James to Gary Knisley, the head of the boutique headhunting firm Johnson, Smith & Knisley, which she joined in 1988. “I put them [James and Knisley] together. That started her on the road to the search business,” Mitzner says. “She is perfectly suited to do this because she cares about people. She wants to make sure there's a good marriage between the company and the people. She knows everybody, and can evaluate people's skill sets very, very well.”
Korn/Ferry, the world's largest search firm, recruited James in 1991. At 32, she became the firm's youngest partner ever.
AOL and Time Warner were both Korn/Ferry clients, which helped lead James to the post of chief talent scout at the combined media giant.
James wanted to quit her AOL Time Warner job soon after joining the company. “It was too overwhelming, and it was so massive, and I'm a high-touch, high-impact, high-transaction person,” she says. “And in that environment, it's so big, you really can't transact.”
But she stuck it out, bringing a big search firm mentality to AOL Time Warner. Before she resigned in 2002, James had hired many search firms to work for AOL Time Warner.
Teaming up with some of her Korn/Ferry partners, she founded James & Co. that year. James & Co. landed some big clients early on, including AOL Time Warner, the National Football League, Conde Nast and Charter Communications Inc.
Focusing on eight vertical industries — publishing, cable, broadcasting, advertising, music, sports, technology and filmed entertainment — the firm's clients today include College Sports Television, ESPN, the NFL Network, Outdoor Life Network, Oxygen Media, Rainbow Media Holdings Inc., World Wrestling Entertainment and XM Satellite Radio.
Among the executives James has recently placed is Ray Hopkins, whom she recruited from Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc. for the post of chief operating officer at the Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network.
“You don't have to be with Michele for two seconds to realize she's a ball of fire,” Hopkins says. “She's constantly reachable 24/7, and lets you know exactly where things stand in the process.”
James has spent a good chunk of her free time helping to raise money for Cable Positive, the industry's AIDS/HIV organization.
James was good friends with late Multichannel News publisher Joel Berger, who died from AIDS in 1995. Each day they would gossip, and one day Berger proposed putting together a cookbook to raise money for AIDS research.
James, who showed Berger a draft of the cookbook two days before he died, sold about $30,000 in advertising for the first run of Cable Cooks, The Inside Dish. Last year, James teamed up with Cable Positive to produce a 10th anniversary edition of the cookbook. “My goal was in the world of $500 dinner ticket, let's do a $20 fundraiser,” James says. “This is a small way and a more sort of fun and palpable way of getting the message in front of people.”
James hopes to “grow old” with her firm, which she wants to keep a boutique shop. “The big firms that are public, your clients aren't your client; Wall Street is your client.”
She adds, “To go from the world's biggest media company to the world's smallest search firm and sort of back up to a good sized boutique was humbling and just really career making for me, to prove a concept where I have an idea that I want to do things differently.”