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Jørgen Friisberg, our founder, talks with Lorri Lowe about his career and the foundations upon which Friisberg was built.
Why did you decide to start Friisberg in 1977?
To answer that question, I will have to go back a few years, to when I joined INSEAD in Fontainebleau. It was during this period that Eva and I met, we married in 1957, and our daughter Nina was born about one year later. After having obtained an MBA with distinction from INSEAD in 1963, and having spent one year in Copenhagen with Hempel as an internal controller, I was invited to return to INSEAD as an Assistant Professor in Business Policy, reporting to the Head of the Business Policy department and Head of INSEAD.
At INSEAD I was also given the responsibility of the Admissions department, whose role was to provide the Institute with three times more applicants than needed, to ensure that we recruited the most talented. We searched for candidates throughout Europe and the US, ensuring that that no nationality counted for more than 30% of any class and that the candidate backgrounds were evenly spread over a large areas from Engineering to Languages.
After three years I managed to bring the first women into the classroom, it was not an easy task in a very conservative French environment.
I became heavily involved in setting up the first International Management Seminars, together with the University of Los Angles, recruiting the teaching staff, and with McKinsey & Company providing the financial support.
Our theme was the management of International Operations, and my specific area of responsibility was to “sell” the seminar to Board members and Top Executives in Europe. The response was high, and for the two following years we ran these seminars with huge success in terms of the level of participants, and financial results.
This was a unique opportunity to get close to Senior Business leaders from companies all over Europe – I actually ended up with two offers from two Danish banks, but did not accept them!
I also received an invitation to visit the newly created McKinsey office on Place de la Concorde in Paris. The office manager invited me to join the Firm in Paris as Manager of Administration with the specific goal to expand the consulting staff considerably over the coming 6-12 months. McKinsey had clients, but new as they were on the French market, they did not have access to talented potential consultants to join them.
I also extended the search for talents to INSEAD, and brought the first female consultant into McKinsey in France, and she in turn opened the door for other women to join.
It was here that I met for the first time an Executive Search Consultant, one of the first in France, and saw how they worked in a very systematic way.
My involvement in the recruiting process in France, was later extended to Amsterdam, Düsseldorf and Geneva, and followed very closely by the chairman of McKinsey and Company in New York, for whom the recruitment of qualified consultants was as important as getting clients.
During my last days in the McKinsey office in Paris, I was contacted by a former colleague from Arthur D. Little, for whom I worked part time for 12 months, and teacher at INSEAD, who had just joined Egon Zehnder International and started the Brussels office. He asked me if I would like to join him as an Executive Search Consultant in Brussels, I said no, but suggested we open an office in Copenhagen and after meetings with Egon Zehnder in Zürich we decided to jump into the unknown – would Executive Search be accepted in by the business community in the Scandinavian area?
In December 1968 we opened the office.
I was the first “Headhunter”, resident in Scandinavia and had the responsibility to establish an Executive Search Operation covering Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark from Copenhagen.
At the same time I was elected President of the International INSEAD Alumni Association, and in this capacity, I also joined the Board of INSEAD, which gave good contacts to a number of important French and European companies, who sponsored INSEAD.
With my interests and my professional background, Executive Search was a natural next step and the strong entrepreneurial aspect of building up a service to Management was the perfect combination for me, but it meant giving up France, which was a very difficult decision.
But in 1975 I was made responsible for the implementation of Executive Search in the Middle East. The original plan was to open an office in Beirut, but the Civil War put an end to this plan, so we moved to Teheran, only to find that the country was moving to revolution.
I continued to work in the Middle East, but with Copenhagen as my home office, it was not a long-term solution, so I took the decision to leave and set up my own firm in Denmark, as a subsidiary of a Fribourg Company, which I had started a few months earlier.
There were many positive elements in the decision to set up Friisberg & Partners – not least that I was free to handle my clients my way.
Why have your remained so passionate about what we do?
I retired from active “Search duty” several years ago, once I had completed the last of my assignments for my biggest client.
I also retired from my hands on role as Chair, but I have kept in close contact with the Firm and today I sit on the Executive Committee, and contribute to some key strategic decisions within our organization.
I feel it is natural to “care” for the organization you have created and I know from experience how difficult it can be to keep good consultants, who in most cases want to start their own business!
I enjoy sharing my experiences in a positive way which is also an effective remedy against the idleness of retirement. It is a good way to stay alive much longer than anticipated!
What are you most proud of in Friisberg today?
Believe it or not, our Firm has existed for 44 years. Of course we have had our challenges, such as hiring the wrong person to run an office, the stresses of opening up in new areas and countries, but we remain one of the oldest and most successful Search Firms in Europe.
Today we have a strong organization. We all support one another and work together to make the decisions we feel are in the overall interest of our firm. This is something that I am very proud of, because it works!
We have managed to keep retained Executive Search at the core of our business – this is another decision to be very proud of.
When there is no global pandemic we have a Partners’ Meeting twice a year, which is not common in this industry, and we have increasingly active Practice Groups. We have continued to meet online and have a very active group of Partners, who all participate in the running of the Firm.
I am both happy, and proud of what we continue to achieve, year after year.
Who, or what, has shaped who you are today?
I have had the privilege to work with some outstanding individuals who have all contributed to who I am to-day, and most importantly my wife, who has helped me immensely in her own special way.
I have been given opportunities to act and decide on matters of great importance, and to succeed as an entrepreneur – very few are given such an opening and opportunity.
In Executive Search you meet new people all the time, and you must have the ability to quickly switch from one personality to another. It sounds very easy, but requires some effort to meet the quickly changing environment and constantly adapt to new faces and experiences before submitting a clear recommendation to the Client on the next steps.
No doubt, I have made my mistakes and taken several wrong decisions, but the end-the result is not all that bad!!
At both McKinsey and later with Zehnder, I was taught the importance of maintaining high quality. Just as important as quality was location, you had to have your office in the best location in town, it enabled you to get the recognition of the local establishments. And last, but not least commensurate Professional Fees – all three are key elements to success
What advice would you offer to someone thinking of a career in Management Consulting & Executive Search?
Let us just define, what Management consulting is:
“Management consulting is the practice of helping organizations to improve their performance. Organisations may draw upon the services of Management Consultants for a number of reasons, including gaining external and presumably objective advice and access to consultants’ specialised expertise.”
Executive Search is to be considered as one specialized expertise – we bring talent to the client who are then hired to bring change and growth to the client organisation. Traditionally Management Consultants tend to only evaluate results of client performance and recommend change where needed, but do not provide the talents to implement the recommended change.
Anyone, who wants to join the profession of Management Consultants should firstly try and evaluate, if he or she has the analytical skills, the commercial instincts and the intellectual stamina to face the requirements of the profession.
Nothing can be more rewarding as a consultant, than to see that the client follows your advice, and implements the suggested action.