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A headhunter's survival instinct

Published on Friday, 09 Mar 2012
Robert Walters
CEO, Robert Walters
Photo: Berton Chang

With 2,200 employees and a recent market capitalisation of around £183 million (HK$2.23 billion), Robert Walters is among the world’s leading recruitment firms. CEO Robert Walters discusses the story behind the eponymous company he founded, what it takes to run a global business-services provider, and how to ride on and rein in recklessness.

How did you end up in recruitment?
By total chance. I was a failed accountant and went stumbling into an agency called Michael Page, which, at the time, was [helping a client] source a partially qualified accountant for a job.
They called me back and asked if I ever thought about doing what they do. I hadn’t, but then I did and, soon enough, ended up joining them. I spent a very happy eight years with the company. Two of which were spent in New York and the rest in London.

How did you work your way up the ladder?
I was given a directory and told to phone up potential clients to ask if they had any new jobs. I was doing about 150 cold-calls a day, through which I managed to pick up some key positions. That experience continues to help in my role today. It makes a big difference when you have a guy running things who’s done the job before.

What compelled you to start your own agency?
The biggest thing was probably my experience in New York, where nobody was really head-hunting – at least not the way they do now. I saw a gap in the market and an opportunity to take a slightly different approach to attract candidates, and to sell them to clients.

So, in 1985, I left and started my own thing. It must be said, however, that it was a relatively easy time to start a recruitment business. It was still fairly new and there weren’t any preferred-supplier agreements in place. You were able to get in through your personality, and by phoning people up. It was a bit more ‘Wild West’.

What were some of the challenges in the early days?
I financed it myself. So, as with most businesses, a big part of it was the money. I had my house on the line, I had a half-a-million pound personal overdraft. I could have lost everything. So that was main thing sitting in the back of my mind. Thinking about it now, it was actually quite reckless.

Were there times where you thought it wouldn’t work out?
Oh, yes. The downturn in 1991 was particularly tough. But I was lucky, because nine months before, I brought a venture capital company on board. They put in £750,000 for a 15 per cent stake, which was just enough cash to get us through the rough patch – but only just.

What are some of the other difficulties you overcame? 
Getting through the 30-person barrier. Once you build a business beyond 30 people or so, you have to delegate, you have to trust, you have to separate yourself from the day-to-day. In recruitment terms, it means you can’t know about every client, you can’t know about every placement, you can’t know about every deal. But if you don’t make that step, you’ll never get anywhere.

Once you’ve gotten past 30 people and start to go international, it becomes a different machine. You have to have an HR department, a legal department, a proper accounts team. You become a bigger company and will eventually need the infrastructure to support that company.

What does the day-to-day involve for you now?  
If I don’t have a road show or board meeting, there’s not a lot I need to do. My chief operating officer oversees the running of the company, so I don’t have to attend too many internal meetings. We also have a solid management pyramid in place, so I tend to avoid delving down into the mechanics of the business, even though I’d love to sometimes.
I still attend a lot of client lunches and lot of media interviews, however. But it’s only when I’m travelling that it starts to get busy.

Is recruitment a team sport?
I hate to give you a politician’s answer, but it’s a combination of team and individual.  We have a top-billers’ corporate weekend, for which we look at people’s individual performances. But the way we work is on a team basis. And if you work well on a team basis, you tend to do well as an individual.

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