Exec Search Firm ZRG Makes Inroads Into Sports With Turnkey Deal

Emily Caron
·3 min read

Executive search firm ZRG is moving into sports and entertainment to start 2021, acquiring the firm Turnkey Search, a 25-year veteran in the sports industry. Human capital company Hunt Scanlon Ventures facilitated the introduction between ZRG and Turnkey.

The deal immediately brings all Turnkey staff and assets under the ZRG umbrella as a subsidiary of ZRG. Turnkey Search, now called TurnkeyZRG, was formerly a subsidiary of Turnkey Sports & Entertainment. The rebranded group will continue to be led by Turnkey founder, chairman and CEO Len Perna.

ZRG declined to disclose financials of the acquisition. Turnkey similarly declined to disclose specifics, but Perna did say ZRG “made a good offer.”

“It’s not just about putting a big bag of money on the table,” Perna told Sportico. “It’s not about exiting; it’s about scale. We needed resources. We needed technology. We needed reach. We’re competing against global firms, [and ZRG] came in and gave it all to us and really turbocharged us.”

Turnkey Search had been approached by several other interested buyers in the last three years, Perna said, but it wasn’t until the introduction to ZRG that he felt like he found the right fit for his company, culturally and strategically. ZRG Partners felt similarly: CEO Larry Hartmann called Turnkey the “best sports executive search firm” and Perna “the No. 1 talent recruiter,” in a press release.

With the deal, Perna described his company as gaining “a bit of real estate inside [ZRG].”

“Technically, they acquired us, but what we really acquired is a global company that didn’t have a sports practice. So [it was like I] bought oceanfront property inside their company—that property is all sports and entertainment inside ZRG. We now own that, and that’s really very different than what other firms came to me with. It’s a clean deal. It makes sense. They’re going to give us capital to grow, and we couldn’t turn it down.”

Turnkey has filled more than 1,400 positions throughout sports, entertainment and media since its inception and handled 56 searches in sports in 2020, a record for the firm, including the placement of personnel in three of the big four American sports leagues. Turnkey oversaw searches at six NFL teams, four NBA clubs, three NHL franchises and a number of MLS clubs, among other sports entities.

The firm capped the year with the placement of former Northwestern AD Jim Phillips as ACC commissioner in December, the same month it expanded its presence in college sports with the acquisition of Ventura Partners—a deal Perna said was only made possible because of ZRG’s incoming involvement and capital. As a smaller, boutique firm, Turnkey didn’t have the capital to make acquisitions until it came into ZRG’s fold.

The Ventura acquisition brought industry veterans Chad Chatlos and Katy Young Staudt to Turnkey’s college sports practice, long managed by former Villanova and Boston College athletic director Gene DeFilippo. Chatlos now leads the TurnkeyZRG work in college sports, including football and basketball coaches, having recently assisted on head football coaching hires at the University of Arizona, the University of South Carolina, the University of Texas and the Atlanta Falcons.

As TurnkeyZRG, Perna said growth—via additional acquisitions or hires—will be a continued focus, alongside expanding the firm’s efforts to diversify the sports workforce with their hires.

ZRG itself has made a number of acquisitions in recent years. In 2018, ZRG Partners acquired “certain assets” of the Epsen Fuller Group, a Forbes Top 100 executive search firm, followed by the 2019 acquisitions of the Toft Group, to add to its global life sciences practice, and Miror Partners to bolster its global technology practice, but the Turnkey addition fills a sports-expertise void at the New Jersey-based search firm.

TurnkeyZRG will adopt its parent company’s data-driven approach to search and recruitment, getting access to ZRG’s tech and tools as well as its global footprint. ZRG has locations in North America, South America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

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