Helen Lao Baxter, President/Chief Talent Officer, ClearPath Solutions

Inspiring Women Series

Helen Lao Baxter, President and Chief Talent Officer at ClearPath Solutions
Helen Lao Baxter, President and Chief Talent Officer at ClearPath Solutions. Helen Lao Baxter

Helen is one of those people that makes you feel lazy. For most of my adult life I worked two jobs; I juggle several commitments and I'm always open to new challenges and yet, Helen Lao Baxter leaves me in the dust. She is a human dynamo of positive energy.

Helen started her own executive search firm, ClearPath Solutions in 2011. In the last four years, the firm has gone national. Helen manages core and independent teams of placement specialists with a focus on the retail and restaurant industry, but within that realm place candidates in a panorama of fields right up to the C-Suite.

Helen is also a mom of four, partner and director of marketing at a Carsmetics franchise group in SoCal, sits on the board of Women Helping Women as well as the Irvine Public Schools, and manages to travel, coach, train, develop two distinct business models and smile, tirelessly throughout. Her energy is apparent in her voice, which could cut through a sandstorm with clarity and vision. No excuses.

Helen has a background in HR and the automotive industry. She actually sought out the owners of the Carsmetics franchises and convinced them her 'touch' was just they needed to improve their business and expand their reach. Carmestics is not your traditional body shop that may do extensive framing repairs on major accidents. Carsmetics fixes cars with drivable damage, what Helen refers to as 'bumpers, bumps and dings', those smaller but infuriating shopping-center bonks and parking mishaps that may not reach the high thresholds of insurance carrier deductibles.

According to their literature, 70% of accidents fall into this category. That's a huge potential market. Carsmetics is a modern, hi-spec body fixer that gives precise estimates and can have you back on the road in 1-2 days.

Carsmetics is a franchise company based in Tampa, Florida, but the four locations in California are owned by restaurateurs.

Helen believes their customer-centered, hospitality model and their insistence that the locations are visually impressive, give this group an edge. Helen's strength is in raising awareness, incorporating a social-media strategy and engaging the customers. "Our Yelp scores are 4.5-5 stars and we've brought in new customers based upon positive reviews about our service." Helen responds to every Yelp review then, good or bad, discusses them with her team and gets the problem fixed. The group plans to spread south into San Diego, then into L.A. and Santa Barbara.

ClearPath Solutions

Helen's primary business is relationships. She owns an executive search firm with a national team of fifteen. "I was in corporate-America, with a young family and traveling a lot as a director of Field HR." Helen went out on her own four years ago and says, "It's been the most rewarding experience, in terms of a lot of folks expressing doubts. The executive search space is so competitive. The naysayer said, 'Gosh, your model won't work'. But I went out with not one client and now they are in board rooms and upper management, a true, viable option. We have a virtual team that worked their tails off to get the clients we have and now we are one of the elite firms."

The Better Model

The industry works with little barrier to entry. "Anyone can hang a shingle, fire up their laptop and call themselves 'executive search', so we work on a different model than the typical eat-what-you-kill model that has survived for decades", but not without a little used-car salesman reputation because of the commission structure, the intra-office rivalries.

"So the way we work is; I bring in the business. No one on the team does any business development outside of me. When I bring it in, I distribute the work and put an entire team on it. The whole reason for this model is we should always be keeping the client in mind. Instead of competing, we work together. We'll put three or four people on a search. So we narrow down through a big funnel to give our clients a slate of candidates they wouldn't otherwise find.

It's a business of constant networking and referrals. Helen's group will talk to literally hundreds of people to get that field narrowed down to the top 5-6 prospects. "We do even splits, so no matter who gets the placement, we all get paid."

That system creates a positive, inwardly directed peer pressure. "I don't want to let this person or my team-member down. It's still a commission environment but I take very good care of my team. We kind of started from my kitchen table but I still have people who've been with me from day one."

ClearPath does focus on the restaurant industry, but at the multi-unit level. Some of their clients are backed by private equity. "They might have eight restaurants and they're looking to grow to forty. For example, we work exclusively for all executive-level searches for the Orange-County based, Habit Burger, which just went public. I muscled my way in there," she says proudly. "Under that restaurant/retail umbrella, we work across HR, training, real estate, construction, finance, VP's of architecture, CFO's, COO's and VP's of operations, all across the country."

"We are women-owned and run. We have full-time folks and stay-at-home moms who work part-time as well. There are a lot of talented women out there, so why not take advantage of this talent?"

Are there enough qualified candidates for the jobs that are available. "Yes. Companies are investing again. We can tell in our industry that when people start hiring marketing, training or other ancillary positions that's typically when the economy is getting better. When they cut costs they have to keep key operational posts but when we see the up-tick in these other hirings, we know things are getting better."

ClearPath offers additional services, such as, guarantees and executive coaching to differentiate themselves from the pack. "We are the only ones in the space to offer that. We work just as hard with the candidate as the client. The idea is to find the ideal fit. We've steered candidates away from jobs because we don't feel it's the best situation for them. What sets us apart is we're honest, candid and transparent."

Both Helen and her husband Brad are certified coaches and he leads the executive coaching service. What I found most interesting in talking with Helen about coaching, career choices and self-direction is she told me the higher the position, the more likely they are to take advantage of the coaching sessions. "They know the value in it and continually reinforce their knowledge base."

Volunteering to Helping Others

Women Helping Women is an organization whose mission is to,"provide comprehensive employment support services to empower disadvantaged men, women and teens to achieve economic self sufficiency through employment success."

"I joined their board last year and I really feel like this is my way of giving back. It's right in my wheelhouse in terms of using my connections to help get a job. We help them shop for an outfit, improve interview skills, resumes and teach them how to effectively use social media such as LinkedIn to re-enter the workforce and find success." Most of the women are underprivileged and may not have worked in a long time for a variety of reasons.

Helen points out that times have changed since many of the women have been working and they need a new set of skills to make the right connections.

Helen sits Irvine Public Schools, a district well-know for having a high-standard in their public education. Having four kids in the district, it's yet another way Helen makes the time to assist, to give to the community that gives to her family.

They is a strong emphasis on the arts and music as well as the sciences. They developed an instrument rental program among others to find creative ways to get instruments into the hands of kids to see if it sparks their interest.

A Moment of Clarity

When I first went out on my own I was over-confident. Ignorance was my best friend. "I've always been a great HR person, so of course they're going to use my firm. I didn't know what I didn't know. Going out on my own was humbling." What Helen and her team have built in just four years is remarkable. The secret sauce? "Endless hours and very little sleep have made us the firm of choice."

She worked with stay-at-home moms and taught them how to recruit. "I knew this model would work and I've stuck to it. They call us, scrappy."

Get in touch with Helen


Joe Hefferon is a writer and retired police captain living in Toms River, New Jersey. He has recently completed a novel, The Unlost, due out in 2015.

Hefferon is a regular guest writer and has published a series of articles featuring inspiring women.

He can be reached at hefferon.joe@gmail.com or Twitter: @HefferonJoe