With a swashbuckling family history, Spanish descendant Damian Navas led a nomadic life before deciding to make his fortune in Birmingham. Steve Dyson finds out more.
A smartly-dressed Damian Navas rocks back his head and laughs when I ask where his unusual surname comes from. And the reply from the Birmingham recruitment entrepreneur is the perfect ice-breaker.
“My ancestors were from Spain,” he explains, “and my grandfather was in the Spanish merchant navy. He jumped ship with the captain’s daughter in South Wales in the early 20th century, and they made their home in Newport.”
What a back story – and it’s all true! The runaway Spanish lovers ended up with eight children, one of them – Navas’s father – moving to “sunny Doncaster” where he married and had three boys of his own.
One of these lads was Damian Navas, and after a happy childhood in the North he picked up his grandfather’s wanderlust. First he left home to study at Humberside University, dropped out after his first year aged 20, then got himself a job with a cinema chain – initially “scooping popcorn” but soon travelling across the UK.
“I never had much direction in my early 20s,” Navas, now aged 42, recalls. “After the university debacle I joined Warner Bros Cinemas and spent a number of years moving around the country opening their new sites for them, ending up in London’s West End at their flagship site.
“I was a bit of a nomad. I stumbled, like most people, into recruitment and spent 15 years or so working for some of the well-recognised brands in the market. I came to Birmingham more or less accidentally: the business I joined was due to open an office in Cambridge and I was training in the centre of Brum. As it turned out, Cambridge never opened and I spent the next few years getting to know Brum.”
Navas reached brand manager level in the West Midlands for a well-known recruitment agency, and went to Manchester for a while to head an information technology specialist. But eventually he felt disillusioned at the sector’s “aggressive sales”, fuelled by the dot.com boom.
“I felt there was a bit of a short term approach and I was stagnating,” he says. “In 2012 I’d just met my wife, married and my dad died, and it felt like a natural break to go and do something to further my career, whichis when I moved to Manchester. It just didn’t work out and at that point my future business partner started telling me to do something. He said: ‘Come on! You’ve got the brains, I’ve got the money.’”
That business partner was Greg Morrall, and he and Navas spent the next few months back in Birmingham creating the framework of what became the Haig & Co recruitment agency. “It was all very exciting,” says Navas. “We were asking ourselves: ‘What does it feel like?
What will it look like? What are we going to do with it?’”
The resulting business – owned 50:50 by Navas and Morrall – was launched in January 2015, carefully described as a “boutique recruitment and talent firm”, concentrating on the finance, accounting and cyber security sectors, but with an insistent emphasis on people and relationships.
“We wanted Haig & Co to quickly build up a reputation for customer service – both for clients recruiting and for customers we were finding jobs for. You see, recruitment agents have only got a slightly higher reputation than estate agents. There are many out there who give the sector, well, not a great image.
“And so we’re not sales driven, but are more about attracting excellent talent. We focus on social media, brand promotion, marketing and relationship development, as opposed to the traditional cold-call business. Our whole emphasis is on building relationships, which is why even our website – www.haigand.co – is playful, not too serious or corporate.
“We want to make recruitment – from both directions – an enjoyable experience. It can be a daunting task finding another job. For candidates, we’ve tried to make it more accessible, friendly and humane. From a business point of view, companies are trusting us with business goals by putting ‘talent delivery’ in our hands. We have to make sure our aims and goals are linked to the way clients do things, becoming a partner for talent delivery, rather than just an agency that they have to use.”
Although not a natural Brummie, once he’d arrived Navas never even considered launching the business in any other city. He felt his local connections, knowledge and the access to “great talent” was all provided by Birmingham.
“It’s truly the second city,” he says, “and it’s attracting not only some top tier talent from London but also some exciting businesses that are choosing to set up their head offices, shared service centres and distribution hubs here. Think about it: location, cheaper square footage, lower wages than London and the south east, and the boomerang effect – the return of well-educated, qualified professionals coming home or back to where they were educated to settle down and raise a family, away from the London rat-race.
“Since 1999 when I landed in Birmingham, I’ve felt a change in the pride of the place. Back then, there was no Bullring, no Selfridges or Touchwood, and the Jewellery Quarter was very embryonic, Digbeth was at the point of its regeneration plans, but it was still a vibrant business and social city. Moving swiftly on and Brum still feels that it’s changing and evolving.
“Grand Central [the shopping centre above New Street railway station] is such an advertisement for why Brum should be invested in and returned to. Brum is very much my home. Coming from up North, it was never anywhere I ever thought I’d live, let alone base myself. But the business life, the social life, the diversity of things to do, and the entrepreneurial nature of the city means it makes total sense to grow a valuable business here.”
According to Navas, Haig & Co made a small profit in year one, “just over break even” on a turnover in the “low-end” of six figures. Year two has seen turnover climb to the “mid-end” of six figures, with “significantly larger” profits, and year three will see revenues grow to the “high-end” of six figures, with even better profits, mostly reinvested in staff, technology and marketing.
The company, which currently has a staff of six at its offices in Birmingham city centre, has “around 50” active customers, including the likes of Genting, Britvic and Hope Construction. The big growth area is cyber security, where Navas was shocked to see how even many listed organisations have no internal cyber security teams or strategies.
This area, he predicts, will take off in terms of recruitment in the next few years because of new data protection regulations coming in 2018, which will increase fines from around £20,000 to up to £1.5m for business that don’t respect and protect customers’ data properly.
But while Navas hopes to see Haig & Co quickly grow, he and Morrall don’t want to expand much further than a staff of “around 15”, and will probably seek to keep this on a single office site. “We want to create a valuable business,” he says. “But we want what we’ve created to be manageable. We’d like to stay ‘boutique’ and retain what makes us ‘Haig & Co’ when we get bigger, not to dilute the culture or operations.”
Navas, who lives with his wife, Fidelis, and young children in Moseley, Birmingham, has a clear view of the firm’s future. “We see two options in eight to 10 years time, when we’re aged about 50,” he says. “One, to stay on as owners with a very good management team running things. Or two, selling it at a point when it’s natural.
“But at the moment we’re in our growth stage, building a brand that’s very well-known and very well networked, and that means a slow, steady growth to hit our future goals. I’m very excited about achieving that, and the future options are a very long way off.”