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With the City braced for a fresh round of job cuts, one wonders about that piranha-like breed, the headhunter.

Headhunting is one of those professions that thrives during boom times, but starts looking distinctly green when the economy takes a dive. In an environment where bonuses are dished out like hot meals at Christmas, no-one pays too much attention when headhunters placing a high-flying executive demand a third of the first year’s package as their fee.

Think about it. Vittorio Radice, moving from Selfridges to M&S, is in line for a salary of £425,000, annual pension of £120,000 and ‘golden hello’ of £1.2m. That adds up to £1.7m of which around £600,000 goes to the headhunter, paid for by M&S.

Nice work if you can get it. The trouble is, such coups are few and far between. The real money has been made in financial services, but there’s not much happening there.

All this is having a cathartic effect on the UK’s headhunters. Some of the biggest names in the business have decided to go it alone. The defectors include Anna Mann, a co-founder of Whitehead Mann, and John Viney, latterly chairman of Heidrick & Struggles. After years working within a big agency they are setting themselves up as boutique operators.

Mann and Viney are big enough to pull it off – but what about the rest of them? The UK has about 1,300 individual headhunters working at the £100,000-plus salary level. Many of them are sitting on their hands. The price has been paid at the next level down – the researchers who draw up the lists of candidates.

Headhunting firms collectively lost about £150m in fee income last year.

Unless things pick up, the pain will bite deeper still. But will anyone shed any tears?

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