Issue 15 – May 2013

Ruella CrouchDescribe your business and your current role?

True North is a recruitment and resourcing business at its heart but the way we deliver our services and solutions is rather less conventional than it is for most in our sector. Because we mostly work with fast growth organisations that have aggressive demands and limited timescales, our job is to deliver efficient and cost effective approaches that deliver results. True North is a boutique consultancy staffed by wonderfully talented people who are experts at what they do, and the mix of skills is amazingly diverse for the size of business we are.

Someone has to keep this box of fireworks safely and that is my job. As CEO, I do everything you would expect of the job but I try to ensure I speak to and spend time with our clients as often as possible.

What was your first ever job?

Well if you discount being a ‘warehouse man’ as a youth to earn some pocket money to spend on skateboard kit and the like, I worked in Singapore for Hyatt Hotels as a Marketing Exec. It was one of the dream jobs which at the time I did not really appreciate. The Grand Hyatt was one of many hotels in the region owned by the Sultan of Brunei and his management team were keen to trial a 5 * ‘plus’ service in the region. This was well before the days of the 7 * Burj Al Arab in Dubai and I was one of a team of people given a very big blank cheque and a floor of a 2,000 room luxury hotel to play around with, lots of crazy and some not so crazy ideas to offer an enhanced experience for some very discerning guests.

I recall being about 23 years old and being sent to a local auction house, with a pot of money and a brief to go and buy smart antiques to kit out a new hotel suite in ‘Louise Style’ furniture. I imagine some dealer cleaned up that day, but I managed to get the items we needed.

How did you get into recruitment?

It is a cliché I have heard many times, but recruitment found me rather than me having made a conscious decision to get into the industry.

After returning to the UK I worked as a Brand Manager in an FMCG company but found the internal politics to be stifling. I approached Michael Page in the hope they could help me to move and ended up accepting a role with them. I guess they recognised qualities I did not fully appreciate myself but I have to admit I initially found the transition hard. I worked for a wonderful manager called John Seasman who helped me through the early days.

What has been your best career move to date?

There have been moves I regretted and other options I turned down which perhaps I should have taken, but it would be hard to point out a single move which stands out because I have been lucky to work for three great businesses over the past 18 years.

Without sounding corny, I find the work we do at True North incredible fulfilling. I am sure many good practitioners in the recruitment world often find the transactional nature of the work a frustration and it can be hard to get clients to adopt better practices. The model we have at True North allows me to do just that so I can really put my 20 plus years of knowledge and experience to use.

What have been your best and worst business decisions?

The worst is easy to answer. When I was at EMR in around 1999 we developed a really successful early entrant into the world of job boards. It was called New Marketing Jobs or NMJ for short and it was a huge success. Although we did it on a shoe string budget, within six months of launch it was profitable and around 50% of the dedicated marketing recruiters were using NMJ to advertise and increasing numbers of companies were coming direct to the site too.

A few months on, one of the big publishers approached us to buy NMJ and we decided to sell because it was a significant distraction from the core business and we thought the deal was a good one so we banked a six figure cheque and walked away. 18 months later, the same publisher, having spent virtually nothing on further development of NMJ sold the business on for £14 million!

And the best… well many years ago I learned that what was most important in order to progress was to actually make decisions and act on them. Companies rarely fail because they make a single or even several mistakes but they do fail because they fail to act at all.

Most people know Albert Einstein’s theory of insanity right: do the same thing over and over again and expect different results!

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing our industry over the next 12 months?

Where to start? I think we all need to accept that the current market conditions are here to stay at least for a while to come and certainly well into 2014. I think as a result, we all face a challenge to keep motivated to deliver great outcomes for our clients.

I am not one of those people who believe that Linked In will kill recruitment as we know it but many recruiters have become very lazy, relying on tools like this to do the work for them. Nor do I believe that the current surge towards building in-house recruitment teams represents a long-term solution for organisations who want to recruit and retain great talent. These structures ultimately lack the dynamism and flexibility of either the 3rd party agency or the MSP and RPO providers, and are ultimately very expensive to run.

The recruitment industry as a whole though needs to focus on attracting a new generation of energised and dedicated professionals, who add value for the clients they work with. We also need to move away from compensations schemes that only reward fee generation, because it encourages the same sort of behaviours that brought the banking industry to its knees.

Who has been your greatest influence and why?

I have worked with some great people both before and since working in recruitment – individuals I can only dream about emulating but for me it goes back to my family and my Dad in particular especially in business.

He ran his own food and confectionary company over many years mostly through osmosis, I learned a great deal about how a business worked. He also taught me a really valuable lesson about people. From the age of about 12 I used to go to his factory at weekends and during holidays and clean floors and load delivery vans, and he insisted that I was treated just the same as everyone else. I made some really great friendships with lots of incredible men and women and I learned that even though I was more privileged than many of them, they were just as bright and talented as I was. I think this really helped me to value what I actually had much more.

What is the best piece of advice you have been given?

When I was in two minds about whether to sell some shares in a company for a significant amount of money, my father suggested that I stop worrying about what they were worth to the potential buyer and focus on what I could achieve with the proceeds of the sale. That was in 2007, and I used the money to help fund the set-up of True North. 18 months later the market crashed and had I held on much longer, I would have lost a lot of money.

What do you think are the 3 key characteristics that make a successful recruiter?

I hate phrases like this because my approach does not work for everyone!

My focus is to do everything possible to give the client value for money and if I make a promise I will do all I can to honour it. Going back to my days as a marketer, I try to think of clients and candidates as consumers and if you start from this point and think about how you would want to be treated, the rest is pretty much common sense.

What are the 3 things that you can’t live without?

My family provide my inspiration and my motivation. I have three little boys and a very talented wife and I love nothing more than spending time in their world.

The dream that one day I will be able to go off and do something completely different. I have what I think are some great ideas but just need the time to explore them develop them.
Finally on a practical level, my Vespa. I started riding a bike when I moved to London and I find it really liberating.

What do you do to relax away from recruitment?
Nothing different to many I expect. I love my sport and the great outdoors and about two years ago I discovered cycling for the first time. In the summer months we often head out as a family on great adventure rides and we all love it. 

Norman Burden, CEO of True North