Teeing Off a New Career

photo by Eric Tadsen

In this economy, it’s tough finding a job in your chosen field, but it’s daunting to start from scratch. Well, not completely from scratch, which is where former professional golfer Todd Vernon found himself when his family moved to Madison.

Earlier this year, Vernon agreed to let IB track his job search to chronicle the moments of hope and frustration. In the end, he took advantage of a break to get an interview at his wife’s employer, Lands’ End, ending a several months-long exercise in introspection, networking, perseverance.

Vernon is searching his memory banks to apply the accounting concepts he learned as a collegian at Notre Dame. He wasn’t sure this was the direction he would take, but the job fits his skill set — the one that doesn’t include driving, chipping, and putting.

Interviewed in early August, Vernon had been with Lands’ End for six weeks and was enjoying his financial forecasting work. "It’s definitely different than what I’ve been doing last number of years," he noted, "but I studied a lot of it in school and it’s starting to come back, and that’s a good thing."

Tough Course

Patience also is a good thing, and like others in the quest for hire, Vernon would need plenty of forbearance in a professional job environment where there reportedly are five applicants for every job opening.

The Vernons were living in San Francisco when his wife, Abby, accepted a position at Lands’ End to work a new product line called Lands’ End Canvas, a collection of casual apparel, denims, and seasonal outerwear that has been updated for new lifestyles. After a collegiate career in which he became one of Notre Dame’s most distinguished golfers, Vernon enjoyed his fair share of success on various sub-PGA level tours, traveling nationally and internationally and winning events like the 2002 New England Open, the 2005 San Francisco Open, and the 2007 Long Beach Open.

While the pay wasn’t quite as handsome as a PGA check, there are similarities. On tour, he was sort of a one-man entrepreneur, courting investors to help pay expenses and share in the winnings, planning his own schedule, and keeping his own books. He was, like any professional person, responsible for his own game — and while he enjoyed playing golf and traveling, and he had done well enough to stay with it for a while longer, he had his family to think of.

Abby had been working in merchandising when the Lands’ End opportunity arose. Although the Vernons loved San Francisco, it was a bit expensive and they had no family there. They were approaching their fifth wedding anniversary and thought life in a smaller community would be a nice change of pace.

When IB first approached Vernon in March, he wasn’t locked into an accounting or finance position. Even though golfing was like running his own business, the entrepreneurial route was unlikely because "you need some money and a bright idea." Coaching golf was out of the question for several reasons, including his interest in making a clean break. Still, aside from studying accounting in school, his only professional experience was interning at a Denver CPA firm. He was just starting to put together his resume and make the networking rounds, and his sense of urgency was not yet elevated.

On occasion, IB would invite him to networking events such as the 40 (Executives) Under 40 gathering, and he took the opportunity to get to know people in the community. With information technology factoring more in the job search, looking for work today is much different than it was 10 years ago, but there still is no substitute for human connections. In the networking phase, he may not have encountered many people who experienced the job search from his vantage point, but some could offer the perspective of a hiring manager.

"I thought some of those things were very valuable to hear in order to make me look more presentable to employers," he noted. "I had a few of them look at my resume, but I made a conscious effort not to take the resume to too many people because of the downfall of too many opinions."

When IB met him for lunch in early June, Vernon had applied for three jobs at Spectrum Brands, including one for credit analyst in the organization’s financial department, and two in their supply-chain department — an area he had shown increasing interest in.

He knew the company was in a transition, having re-established its headquarters in Madison, but never heard back.

In May, Vernon told IB that he sensed the management of companies typically have a short list of people in mind for job openings, and it was difficult to break through from the outside. He talked openly about going back to school and getting more education, possibly for supply chain management. Given the way jobs evolve today, he’d heard mixed reviews on local certification programs, and the UW-Madison MBA program was a two-year commitment.

Networking Notre Dame

Meanwhile, he looked into making contacts with the Notre Dame Alumni Club in South Central Wisconsin, which has 300 local members. He enjoyed the comraderie and advice of Notre Dame alums; he knew they would look more favorably on him, and he questioned them about area job openings.

By late April, he had attended an IB business seminar featuring Skip Brennan and Craig Culver, and appreciated the chance to take some inspiration from their business histories. At that point, he needed some inspiration after applying for several jobs. "I have heard back from some that I am not exactly qualified, or that the position was already filled," he wrote in an e-mail. "I have also met with a few folks to learn more about what they do, or to get advice. That has been helpful. One was a banker, one was in real estate development, and another was going to open an indoor golf-training center."

That’s not to say Vernon had abandoned his decision to make a clean break from golf. He had an exploratory interview for a sales position with an insurance company and was asked back for a second interview, but declined. "At this point, I would rather not go into sales," he confirmed. He later attended a reception for Business Connections of Greater Madison, a LinkedIn group that has Happy Hour meetings every other month.

Vernon also tried learning what he could from a book titled, What Color is Your Parachute? It contains a number of self-reflection exercises to help job-seekers discover what their next job will look like.

"It’s very interesting, as I continue to reflect upon the results and create a possible job list from this information," Vernon wrote.

This was when he started making attempts to reconnect with former colleagues and employers so that he could share some references. He also started building an inventory of past jobs and achievements to assist with creating a resume, and attended a seminar at the UW Business School on the first steps of starting a small business.

"While I may not be going into business on my own, I am starting to understand that I would prefer to work for a smaller company that is more entrepreneurial in nature," Vernon wrote, prior to hearing from Lands’ End.

He also acted on the little things that could make a difference, such as having some business cards printed so that he could network in a more professional manner.

Given that he was out of work for several months, there were times that self-doubt crept in, but he didn’t allow that to tug at him for very long. Even while unemployed, there was too much work to do, and too much to learn to give in to a self-defeating mindset.

In prepping for the Lands’ End interview, Vernon tried to learn everything he could about the people, the company, and about himself. In the job-search process, the latter was an ongoing avenue of discovery. "The most important thing for me was to be able to answer the questions about how my background pertains to the job, and how my personal qualities would contribute to the company," he said.

He didn’t hesitate to acknowledge that having a spouse at Lands’ End helped his resume see the light of day, but he still had to do the heavy lifting when it came to selling himself.

No retailer, even one as large as Lands’ End, can afford to take on unproductive people during a recession. "One of the very key things to really get through the door was to have someone who could recommend you or walk your resume in," he said. "Certainly, that was a big part of me getting that interview. After that, I really don’t know. I’d like to think my personal qualities came through in the interview and they hired me on my own merit."

Ironically, Vernon had made a list of companies he’d like to work for, but Lands’ End was not initially on it because Abby is employed there; it has worked out, in part, because their paths seldom cross. Not that it matters too much because there is little time for even a quick chat. "There is a lot of work to be done, and everyone is busy," Vernon said. "What I’m finding is the more I immerse myself in what I’m doing, the more it comes back."

When Vernon informed IB of his new job in mid-June, he was excited to be with a well-known company that appears interested in his growth and development. If Vernon’s career unfolds like most, his current job won’t be his last, but the contacts he has made will prove invaluable in future advancement. Like many other things, the job search is primarily about relationships of the networked variety. "It takes a lot of patience and lot of perseverance because it’s really a difficult thing to do," he said. "I think that’s just the nature of it because you’re going to get a lot of rejections and "no" calls, and you’re going to make efforts to call and e-mail people who are not going to return the favor."

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