Bernie Interview Transcription
In a new series of interviews focusing on the career paths of our team, our non-executive Director Bernie Cox shares her career journey with Chambers Group Marketing Manager, Frances Wright.
A non-executive director is a unique role; can you give me an overview of what this entails?
The textbook role of non-exec director is that you sit on the board, as an external advisor who challenges and questions the CEO/MD, maybe more so than the exec directors. The role is to probe, question, and make sure everything is compliant by ensuring there are sufficient processes in place.
In reality, it’s a lot more hands on that that, always ensuring that everything is checked & balanced, and the finances and forecasts are healthy. Also, for example Andy doesn’t have a board so my role is much more involved at The Chambers Group.
Also, in one company, where I am the NED, I chair the board. I wear different hats for the different companies, depending on their direct needs.
Particularly here I see that your role is focussed on training the consultants- why is this so?
This is only company where I am hands on with training. Firstly, it was a need for Andy at the beginning of starting the company 10 years ago. I needed to help upskill the staff, screening new hires and Andy liked to have a different voice.
The training supports the strategic direction of the business, plus junior consultants really benefited from a different perspective. I still undertake the training because firstly I love and really enjoy doing it, and it’s another perspective and different voice which is so important to a well-balanced consultancy.
In terms of strategy how far ahead do you look in terms of where the company should be going?
Every company is different, but I would say between 3 to 5 years. Some companies where I am the NED, the leadership team are very clear on their direction. However with private business owners it can be a changeable space, there is never one answer. So, as a NED I can offer focus and clarity when things are constantly moving. For me, alarm bells ring when there is a plateau. If you hear the words “I’m happy with where we are” it’s a warning sign. You should always be looking forward as a business owner.
What was your reason for getting in to a non-executive role?
Going back over 10 years when I was in Ireland, I was working for 100 + head count multi service consultancy called Brightwater with a turnover of over €20 million, which I bought in to. It was an amazing company, and a really great time. All the stars were aligned; there was a great board, great employees. It really was a sweet spot moment, and then the 2007 crash decimated it all overnight. We had to make a ranch of redundancies, and it was awful, just awful - we got to the point where one of the management team had to go as our salaries were such a drain on resources and I decided to be that person. I returned to the UK and became a non-executive director.
Also, my Husband was based in London, he had also just sold his business, and we were doing the horrendously long commute weekly, we weren’t enjoying our lovely home, so we decided to come back to the UK. Unfortunately shortly afterwards we both suffered close family bereavements and I decided to take some time out.
Then out of the blue my phone started ringing and essentially I was approached by my contacts.
It’s great to have such a variety of consultancies to work with! The only downside is that all of my roles are miles away from where you live! I think I will start to reduce my commitments and stay with my core clients, but we’ll see. (FW) Maybe you never will give it up!
How did you meet Andy?
He worked in the Dublin office at Brightwater.
Did you go to university, and if so, what was your area of study?
I went to St Mary’s in Strawberry Hill, and studied Medieval History. The general plan was be a teacher, hence my love of training.
I went to an all-girls Catholic Covent. The school itself was beautiful, lovely grounds, idyllic really, it was completely normal to me. With hindsight did they make people worldly? No, their world was quite small.
Our careers advice was so bad that I really didn’t have a context of business, and therefore recruitment. I don’t think there would be any other job I would have liked to have pursued, other than maybe a barrister or lawyer, but I find any injustice very difficult to contend with so a may have been too vocal for that sort of role. I think I fell in to the perfect role for me with recruitment.
What was your first job?
My first proper job was telesales, I graduated from university, and I decided not to continue within the area of study. I saw an advert in the paper for a magazine sales exec. I got it and my first job was looking at private ads for car sales and making the customer list their car in our publication. I would make 200 calls a day and I was great at it, but the company relocated over 100 miles away, so I had to leave.
I then saw a job for a trainee interviewer in the Evening Standard, I didn’t really know what it was, and went for the interview, and even on my first day I didn’t really know what I was doing. I found out I was interviewing candidates, and that was my only training in recruitment for the next 5 years! It was a little office in Hounslow, I made two placements in my first week. I didn’t really know how, and that was my foray into recruitment.
Then I was asked to set up a temp division. I, again, had no idea what I was doing, but I built it up to 150 temp staff in 9 months. If I wasn’t on the phone I was screamed at! It was an intense time, but I was good at it. I then opened a new office in Staines. The longer I stayed, the more I realised how unethical the owners were, so I moved on to a small company in Ealing which was privately owned, and then I got headhunted again by Manpower, which was my first corporate role. They trained staff brilliantly but also there was a lot of red tape which caused quite a few barriers to getting the job done.
Again, I was headhunted by Kelly. I went to the Sutton office which was very twee, and we as a team revolutionised the business. It was an amazing time in the recruitment. They then asked me to sort out the Strand flagship store, which was struggling, I transformed the branch, rolled out ISO standard across the country. It was my first time working in central London, which I loved and had been reticent about previously. I decided to split the teams into sales and operations, setting up dedicated sales teams across the UK. I was given a blank piece of paper to write job descriptions, hire & train staff. Once I had hired the team, we went to each branch and picked up the gaps in the offering in terms of business opportunities and account management. This role took me out of operations and moved me into a much more strategic position. It was a big turning point in my career.
I then got headhunted again, by a boutique outfit called the Crone Corkill Group. One of the brands “Hobstones” had a good reputation but was ailing, I hired new people, trained them up, and we increased turnover by 1500 % in one year! The group got bought by a huge American company called Interim. Their vision was to transform the group into a high street style operation which was totally contrary to the core values of the group. After much soul-searching I decided to move on as I no longer believed in the direction of the business.
I then took an Interim position with TRS group, initially for three months but stayed for 18 months, again, this was a turnaround situation. My commute was horrendous, we had a beautiful house which we weren’t spending any time there, so we decided to move to Ireland.
I joined TMP/Hudson as Country Manager, based in Dublin. The Irish business consisted of 5 recent company acquisitions, it was hugely underperforming, lacked cohesion and direction. I made some difficult decisions to turn the company round, but it was difficult as most of the staff did not have the right attitude. It took the better part of year to transform it into a buoyant, profitable business with a strong culture.
I was headhunted by Brightwater, an indigenous Irish company with a strong brand name. When I joined as MD, Brightwater was €2 million in debt and three years later it was valued at €35 million. This was one of the proudest moments in my career.
You have over 30 years’ experience in the recruitment industry, what’s your view on the transformation happening within the industry? Or do you acknowledge there is a transformation going on?
I think the marketing and digital ability to attract candidates will always evolve and change, but for me the transformation is about client engagement and candidate engagement; it’s going back to the core values. Recruitment will always survive if you engage with people.
What has been your biggest challenge in your career, and how did you overcome it?
TMP/HUDSON was the most challenging situation I’ve been in, which was my first job in Ireland
What has been your proudest achievement in your career?
Getting Brightwater into an amazingly successful place was my finest moment, the legacy side of it. And helping people by empowering and enabling them to do their best, which links to my early desire to teach. I’ve always wanted to make people the best that they can be.
What’s your view on flexible working and remote working?
I’m all for it but you need to have the right culture
What is the toughest part of recruitment consultant’s job?
Building your client base when you first start is incredibly hard, and you must make hundreds of calls, and the constant rejection is tough. You have to do it though, just keep putting the graft in and it does start to work and get easier. Tenacity is key. If you are starting a new desk, you are carving out a new business stream, you are a business developer in a sense, and productivity will flow from this.
I recently did a presentation to over 40 recruitment leaders about pitfalls of hiring the wrong people. There is a tendency in the industry to sell recruitment as a non-sales role and support the misconception that recruitment is glamorous, fun, easy even. It’s our own fault as an industry as we advertise it like it’s a holiday, when it’s the complete opposite. The beauty of it is that the hard work pays off and it’s the best feeling in the world when you place someone in their perfect role. Good recruitment consultants transform peoples’ lives by finding them the right job and the right staff.
Do you start with candidate or clients on a new desk?
It’s both simultaneously.
What’s your favourite food?
Lastly, what advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?
A little bit cheesy perhaps, but believe in what you have got, what you do, and your own abilities. A major driver for me from a young age was a desire to be successful and push myself to have a different lifestyle from my childhood.
Thank you for chatting with me Bernie, it’s been great fun!