Interview: Betsy Williamson, Core-Asset Consulting
‘The recruitment sector needs a regulator’
The brass plaques adorning the Georgian townhouses in Edinburgh’s west end make it clear that this part of the city has been colonised by headhunters.
FWB Park Brown, Odgers Berndtson, Saxton Bampfylde. The all live cheek by jowl. It is clearly a competitive sector and among them is one firm that intends to stand out from the crowd.
Betsy Williamson, founder of Core-Asset Consulting, not only has a business model that she claims makes it different from any other, she is critical of a sector that she believes has become too driven by sales and volumes.
“Recruitment is something that is easy to do, but difficult to do right,” she says. “People are not products, they are complex, and there is a trend in the industry to think only about the sale and the commission.”
Ms Williamson wants to see change that will improve the reputation of the recruitment business and develop its professional credentials.
“When I was graduating it was never mentioned or offered as a career option. But there are key skills that are required to do it well and it deals with a core business issue – hiring the right staff.”
Her reservations about the industry’s shortcomings have led her to believe they can only be tackled with changes that the industry may have to impose on itself.
“There is no regulator and I believe it should be regulated,” she says. Cold calling clients to win business is a particular practice she would like to see outlawed.
“There should be a framework to clarify best practice. The current sales practices are just ridiculous.”
She described one example of a potential client being rung five times in half an hour by different teams from the same company.
“We have no cold calling in this company. We have no need for it,” she says.
Her comments are built on a career that began soon after she left Edinburgh Napier University in 1999 and saw a newspaper advert for a job with Hays that she felt described her character and ambitions.
“It wanted someone ambitious, target-oriented, competitive – it was me,” she says. She admits to being competitive and single-minded, but not ruthless. “I do not step on people to get what I want. I would not trample on anyone.”
She took the job at Hays as a trainee consultant based in Edinburgh on a £6,000 salary plus commission. In her first year she earned £25,000. So was she the star pupil?
“I don’t know about that. I just did what I was hired to do,” she says, adding that she was “a blank sheet of paper” who was there to learn and get on with it. As someone who is naturally driven, she saw her targets as an attractive option.
Those early years were a time when the custodian banks – Bankers Trust, Citi, HSBC, JP Morgan and State Street – were moving into Edinburgh and creating hundreds of jobs, and lots of business for the recruitment sector.
It was high volume, quick transactional work, but as the market peaked there became less of a need for that style of operation. Some recruiters found their model was no longer fit for purpose and in their search for business, a more highly-charged and competitive climate emerged.
“The KPI’s (key performance indicators) were hugely high – meetings, calls, more meetings. If you didn’t hit the target there were questions. I began to question the environment I was working in,” says Ms Williamson.
Her achievements in those early years brought her to the notice of Orbis, a London-based firm that wanted someone to set up a Scottish office. It meant moving into executive search which was less familiar to her. After four approaches she accepted the firm’s offer.
However, she harboured loftier ambitions and while combining her new role with studying for a Masters degree at Napier she began planning her next move.
“I didn’t believe the companies at the time were providing the sort of product that the market needed,” she says. During the Christmas holidays she wrote the business plan for what was to become Core-Asset Consulting.
Her new company, launched ten years ago in June, was to be a hybrid that would combine the best elements of a pay-on-results recruitment agency and the research and bespoke service that underpins a recruitment consultancy. Core-Asset focuses on key areas of the financial services sector, serving clients looking at a whole range of skills sets.
The firm now employs 30 staff and expects to turn over £12 million this year. But it has been a challenging journey which began just before the financial crash that saw a 70% fall in recruitment business in the years between 2008 and 2011.
Client projects were cancelled or put on hold, sales and marketing staff were laid off, followed by the de-layering of senior management and the offshoring of business to cheaper locations.
The recovery has seen all of these put into reverse, starting with a need to staff up on risk and compliance workers to meet new regulations, and a return to hiring juniors. The recruitment industry shared the effects of the downturn.
“We were impacted but we never operated at a loss, nor did we lose people,” says Ms Williamson whose offices in Melville Street have the capacity for 50 staff. The recruitment business is now on an upward curve, she says, and the company is focused on the global market.
“Scotland is a finite market and so over the last couple of years we have been working on a globalisation strategy to identify the top talent and bring them here.”
Something like 70% of assignments have an international component and 90% of recruits are ex-pats.
“Clients feel greater confidence about hiring people who are from Scotland, or educated in Scotland, or who have a Scottish spouse. It means they understand the country and have a commitment to it.
“Scotland also still benefits from its school system, the high quality of life and ability to get about easily. I am a huge advocate for Scotland.”