A man of the world
Alistair Cox’s global outlook was just what Hays needed to build a worldwide brand
If diverse experience and a global outlook are prime requirements for leading a top recruitment agency, then it is immediately clear why Hays invited Alistair Cox to take over as chief executive in 2007.
His career had, up to that point, included spells in aircraft engineering, the oil industry and IT services, and was impelled by an ambition to find new challenges and see the world. He could therefore be no better prepared for life in a business where change is endemic and plans are geared to international growth.
"I thought the role had an interesting mix of things I like working on, so it made sense to come on board," says Cox, who currently oversees operations in 33 countries. "Of course, I had some sleepless nights asking myself whether I had the skills and DNA to be successful in a new industry. But I saw it was a golden opportunity to turn a UK-centric organisation into a truly global corporation and build a well-known, better-articulated brand around the world."
One priority identified early on was to make more effective use of technology. In particular, front-office systems had to be faster, more accurate, web-enabled and - recently - able to interact with social media.
Another priority was to enhance shareholder value and longevity for the company. This was done by implementing a far-sighted marketing strategy designed to build scale and profile, and looking beyond the disruptions and inevitable cutbacks wrought by the global financial crisis.
"Five of the last six years have been difficult, but we committed to doing the right things and investing where necessary - and that puts us in a fantastic position today," Cox says. "The market is now on the front foot and I think that is set to continue."
Cox's sixth sense which informs such assessments and helps him read the market runes is, by now, well attuned to moods in the industry and shifts in the broader economy. It has been developing ever since he took his first job as an apprentice aeronautical engineer with British Aerospace in the early 1980s, armed with a degree in engineering and a determination not to get stuck in one place.
Finding the prospects limited and the environment torpid, however, it was not long before he opted to move on. "Aerospace was quite a predictable and safe career path, but that wasn't the way I wanted to spend the next 40 years at work," Cox says.
Instead, he moved to oilfield services giant Schlumberger. "I thought the oil industry was advanced in terms of engineering and that career progress would depend more on how much energy and effort I was willing to put in," he says. "Also, I had not travelled much and thought there would be opportunities to see more of the world."
That came later. First, though, Cox spent six years on semi-submersible rigs drilling exploration wells in the North Sea. His team's main task was to run surveys and tell oil companies what was down beneath a stretch of ocean extending from southern Norway up to the Arctic Circle.
Not surprisingly, it proved a formative, life-changing experience. Cox learned how to work independently with limited back-up and, while in Norway, met his future wife. Time there also led to a transfer to a research position in the United States, where he acted as a bridge between leading physicists with expertise in niche areas and commercial oil companies which needed solutions to specific technical problems.
"Digital telemetry had just been invented, but both the hardware and software were at an early stage of evolution," Cox says. "I enjoyed laboratory-based work but, in 1989, decided to take an MBA at Stanford and that really opened my eyes to the big wide world and the different possibilities out there."
A subsequent stint in London with management consultant McKinsey focused on advising companies in financial services and consumer goods, as well as energy and oil. In 1995, Blue Circle Cement came calling in search of a head of strategy and - now very much on the fast track - Cox was later transferred to Malaysia. Following a corporate buyout, he stayed on in Asia as regional head for new owner Lafarge.
"When investing in something like a cement plant, you are taking very large capex [capital expenditure] decisions involving millions of dollars and timescales of 40 to 50 years," Cox says. "But whatever the business, the most important thing is to have good people with the right objectives and make sure that empowerment goes hand in glove with accountability."
This was something he remembered when returning to London after the dotcom boom to run IT services firm Xansa and build its outsourcing business in India. It was also at the front of his mind when joining Hays in 2007.
"In the early days, you must have an open discussion about what works and what doesn't, what people want to see and why," Cox says. "Then you can start to form opinions about the individuals, focus them on the right things, and ensure they have the skills the company needs for the future."
RIGGED UP FOR BUSINESS
Alistair Cox imparts some useful tips gleaned from his wide-ranging career
Clarity and public image “You need to have a very clear view of yourself and how the outside world sees your business.”
Ask for facts “If people talk without facts, that should be a warning sign.”
Stay confident “In business, you must learn to trust yourself and your judgment.”
Be strict with your approach “Discipline is needed to effectively manage time and marshal technology.”