Honig International in the News

January 26, 2003
Seeing Shadows, Deciphering Speech
New York Times
By Patricia R. Olsen

If you think the sound of your alarm clock is annoying, you should hear Barry Honig's. When it blares, "It's 5:30, time to get up," he says, his wife threatens to throw it out the window.

Mr. Honig is blind, and the talking alarm clock is just one of many devices he relies on, from a hand-held laser that helps him coordinate his clothes to a JAWS for Windows computer-screen reader that tells him what he is typing, reads his e-mail aloud and describes Web sites to him.

But in the elevated position he holds in the business world, he needs more than high-tech gadgets to succeed. Mr. Honig, 41, is the founder and president of Honig International, an executive-search and consulting firm in Tenafly, N.J., and he has learned to sharpen his other senses to compensate for the lack of sight. His ace in the hole is his hearing.

"People are cued in on the visual; as a society, we are not trained to disguise our voice patterns," Mr. Honig said. So when interviewing prospective employees for positions around the globe, he listens for subtle nuances that sighted people miss. If someone hesitates when responding to a question, he is attuned to whether the reaction is normal, or whether it might mean something else. Or, he might deduce that a candidate is nervous if his voice comes from different directions, which indicates he is shifting in his chair.

And he has apparently mastered the art of deciphering people's speech well enough to secure clients some high-level positions. Among the several hundred senior executives he has placed are a first vice president of global risk management technology at Merrill Lynch and a director of United States fixed-income technology at Barclays Capital. In 2002, his company, which has seven employees and 20 corporate clients, expanded its practice from financial services executive searches to serve the life sciences and consumer products fields.

He has also decided when someone is not right for a position. Recently, a large hedge-fund company asked him to find an executive to run its technology operations. One candidate who had held a similar position at another firm had smart answers to Mr. Honig's questions, but there was something about the man's nonchalance that raised a red flag in Mr. Honig's mind. A sighted interviewer might have been distracted by the man's winning manner or fashionable dress and missed the verbal clues, Mr. Honig said. He, on the other hand, was listening for the frenetic energy the job required, and he just didn't hear it.

Christopher Corrado, now chief executive for securities at Wipro Technologies in Piscataway, N.J., was the manager at Merrill Lynch who hired the first vice president recruited by Mr. Honig. "Barry is one of the few recruiters I ever met who knows what he's talking about when it comes to both financial services and technology," he said. "And I'd trust him with my checking account."

Mr. Honig was born with Leber's congenital amaurosis, a genetic disorder that can cause blindness or severe vision impairment from birth, and he sees only shadows and images lacking detail. Mr. Honig was the first blind person to attend the Bronx High School of Science, from which he graduated in 1979. Much later, he left a job as a principal at Morgan Stanley in 1995 to start his own risk-management and proprietary trading consulting firm, a forerunner of his present company.

Dr. Ronald Siwoff, Mr. Honig's optometrist in Denville, N.J., who specializes in treating the visually impaired, says he has drawn inspiration from the drive and determination he sees in these patients. "I've learned how to deal with challenges in my own life by seeing how they deal with them every day," he said. Since meeting Mr. Honig 15 years ago, Dr. Siwoff has introduced him to a number of technology tools for the blind, like his first computer-screen reader.

In addition to conducting executive searches, Mr. Honig advises firms on corporate governance and risk management. (He declined to name clients, citing proprietary agreements.) He takes his guide dog, Starks, a 90-pound German shepherd, to business meetings, and breaks the ice by introducing the animal as the company's new head of risk management.

It is on his frequent business trips that Mr. Honig faces some of his biggest challenges. Several years ago, he had to use a cane on a trip to England because he found out too late that dogs had to be quarantined for six months before being allowed in. And finding the right English replacement for Starks was out of the question. "It's not like a Hertz rent-a-dog," he said.

One of his biggest frustrations on the road is trying to distinguish among the bottles on the tray of toiletries in hotel bathrooms, especially when shampoo and cream rinse are similar in texture. He relies on smell to find the mouthwash.

Off the job, Mr. Honig skis in Vermont and in the West, accompanied by a guide, and he windsurfs in Aruba, followed by another windsurfer who tells him whether to tack or jib.

Finding other people for a pickup game of volleyball in the pool with his three children is always a vacation highlight. He puts one of his children on his shoulders and holds another out of the water, and they tell him what direction to move in so they can hit the ball. Afterward, he usually lifts weights, he said.

To give something back to society, he said, he and a partner run an interest-free loan association for people in the Tenafly area who have fallen on hard times.

Recently, they helped a man who was several months behind on his mortgage payments avoid foreclosure on his house. When his business picked up, the man became a contributor to the loan program himself.

"That's exactly what we hope for," Mr. Honig said. "It's all about giving back."