Michaela Reaney spotted a gap in the market and developed a business to support both individuals and companies to make the most of graduate talent. She tells Paul Robertson how it is going nationwide from its base in the North East of England and now incorporates training and development at all levels.
While at school, Michaela Reaney formed a plan to one day start her own business – the only issue being, what would that be? She was encouraged by both family and her teachers at Teesside High School in Eaglescliffe to believe it was possible. So, when it came to the choice of higher education, she deliberately chose a path that would prepare her for the challenges ahead, then took early career decisions to support her ambition.
Now 31, Reaney is owner and managing director of Gradvert, a business in its fifth year, supporting organisations to design market-leading graduate schemes, recruit top-calibre candidates and develop industry-leading and accredited training programmes. Turnover will exceed £500,000 in 2017 with a growth trajectory expected to take it through the £1m barrier in 2019 thanks to recent expansion into the Midlands, with the North West of England next on the agenda.
We meet in Gradvert’s headquarters in Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s Hoults Yard. Reaney talks passionately about the business, which now has seven full-time employees, two part-time and a small team of associate consultants delivering everything people-focused.
“Engaging with graduates at university level gives us the edge and gets us into companies that otherwise might have been reluctant to see us,” she says. “My aim is to ensure Gradvert is the best in market – the go-to provider for anything to do with people development.
“Our clients see us as an extension of their learning and development. We will always help people grow their own talent but then make sure we support them in all aspects of people development.
“We are small and agile, which means we can react quicker than some of the other agencies out there. People are so fundamental to the success of the business and we are passionate about what we do.
“When a client meets the team, they see that and want to be part of it rather than the traditional off-the-shelf, transactional approach. We go in, analyse the business needs and design something bespoke to them.”
Gradvert is the only provider of a full 360-degree approach to graduate attraction and development. It has been a steep learning curve but one Reaney was more than prepared for. “I am lucky that I come from a family of hard-working women and entrepreneurial spirit,” she says. “Several of my family have their own businesses so I have seen the highs and lows and understood it wasn’t a glamorous lifestyle but could be very rewarding.
“I went to Northumbria University to study law because it was the done thing. I knew I didn’t want to practice law but I thought it would be a good foundation to launch a business, understanding the legal obligations. I did my dissertation on the Companies Act (2006).”
On graduating, Reaney travelled to South Africa, working for the Red Cross before securing a position on her return with recruitment agency Nigel Wright, looking after IT contractors on the company’s international graduate programme. “It was a brilliant grounding for me,” she says. “It felt like running your own business within the organisation. I was soon making a lot of money for the company and commission so they progressed me quite quickly.
“Their approach to building long-term partnerships with clients helped me formulate the structure I have within Gradvert – it is a recurring revenue model that is built into a programme of activity for a client.”
Reaney’s next move came out of the blue, the result of a journey to London – a trip that was to put her on track to set up the business she had always dreamed of. “I am one of those irritating people that speaks to everyone on a train and I have met some fascinating people over the years – it is how I got my next job,” she explains. “We were just talking about what each other was doing and a few days later they approached me.”
Management consultancy Blackswan had a contract with mining giant Rio Tinto to deliver its leadership programme and executive coaching. The conversation on the train saw Reaney appointed and effectively seconded to Rio Tinto for three-and-half years – covering the operations in London, Asia and North America.
“It was doing everything from selling in the leadership and development opportunities that existed and the executive programmes to project managing and making them work – managing the consultants and the client relationships,” she says. “It was a great experience, working in every region of the world, speaking to lots of interesting people and a great grounding with some fantastic mentors to help my personal development.”
It was at Blackswan that she met Lisa Bean, who had an idea about coaching graduates after they leave university and support them into employment. It was the lightbulb moment. “I looked at how to scale it – we all know you leave uni with no money getting pressure from your parents to get a job, so then to go cap in hand to them for more money for coaching is unlikely,” Reaney says. “We flipped it and looked at how we could get employers and universities to pay for the service.”
The pair, along with another colleague, saved up to launch Gradvert. Reaney is now sole owner having bought out Bean – an amicable parting. “I was very clear the direction I wanted to take the business in,” says Reaney. “It has never been a lifestyle business – had I wanted that I would have done something very different.
“I wanted to move down the development programme route, having seen the benefit of a clear holistic development plan at Rio Tinto for both apprentices and graduates, which was innovative and helped retain talent within the businesses – that was the model I wanted to replicate.
“In work, it was not always clear where the progression was for me and I felt people would have to retire or move on for me to get on. It inspired me to develop a transparent, clear progression route with a lot of accountability on the graduate to work hard and meet their objectives, but be rewarded accordingly.”
Gradvert’s growing list of clients, from small businesses to FTSE 100 companies, includes Go Ahead Group, Sharps Bedrooms and Veolia. “Business is all about people and long-term relationships,” she says. “We tend to work best with organisations where there is an ageing workforce, considering succession planning, brands needing help to attract and retain talent in challenging and changing times, with a smaller human resources (HR) and learning and development function.
“We really get to know an organisation and the customer experience is so important. We are scaling the business rather than always focusing on bringing in new clients – it is the bit that keeps me awake at night. You live and die by your reputation and it is important we are on top of it through our communication and relationships.”
Gradvert is enjoying strong growth. An office in London provides space for meetings and training activities to service clients in the South East but opening in the Midlands and looking to launch next year into the North West is where Reaney sees the real opportunity.
“Those areas are similar to the North East in many ways,” she says. “There are a lot of manufacturing, distribution and logistics companies that fit our model. I think these areas have a lot of growth potential, more than London, and are easier to service.”
Having previously secured investment from the JEREMIE (1) Fund, Gradvert’s intention is to raise equity finance and look to expand further to accelerate the growth of the business by bringing in the right people. However, Reaney has no intentions of handing over the reins.
“It is all about getting the right people to support me to develop the strategic direction of the business,” she says. “I want to get a board in place as, in my mind, we are still a start-up looking to scale, so we need that expertise to develop.
“I would rather own a smaller percentage of a bigger business than 100% of a small business. We are ready to go to the next stage and we need more people to know about us.”
One area that Reaney believes provides opportunities for businesses to invest is the apprenticeship levy, though she worries about the images being used to promote the reforms. “You search online for information and it’s back to the 80s – the images are still of a young man in a boiler suit fixing something mentored by a grey-haired white male: it’s not like that,” she argues.
“We position graduate programmes to be appealing across genders, ethnicity and age to make sure we attract the talent from all backgrounds, but there is a long way to go.
“We are very proud of the fact the projects we worked on with Go Ahead Group saw us achieve a 50-50 split of males and females across its graduate programme. The bus industry is not seen as glamorous, it’s challenging with shift work and they learn to drive the bus – we needed to reframe it as an exciting opportunity and raise the profile of the progression they can achieve.
“It is all about quality. The bit I love is when someone who starts a development programme, arms crossed, cynical and feeling they know it all, by the end of the training is saying, ‘It is changing my life’.
“Organisations can look at their people strategy and maximise the reforms – engineers can be upskilled or supported in other areas around leadership and management to allow them to progress. Graduates can do apprenticeships to become managers and leaders – the reforms are no longer just about school leavers but the whole workforce, including existing employees.”
Reaney’s own experiences have shaped how she runs her business – she cites her Teesside High headteacher Hilary French and her staff as being a very positive influence. “I always felt they allowed me to achieve what I wanted to and to believe I was more than capable of starting my own business if that’s what I wanted to do,” she says.
“They were like that with everyone, very supportive in helping you think how it works in practice. Paul Victor, my manager at Blackswan, opened my eyes to opportunities. He was very supportive when I left and we are now doing a project with him.”
Away from the office, Reaney is renovating a 1970s bungalow with her partner, Russell – “It is very satisfying knocking down walls” – they travel a lot and she is part of a book club. “It is an excuse to have a drink and catch up with friends but forces me to relax and read a book then talk about it,” she says. “Keeping fit is also important. You get to the point of burn out and not looking after yourself – if I am not on top form the business won’t be.”
So, what advice does she have for other budding entrepreneurs? “Don’t let other people’s lack of understanding of what you want to achieve put you off – if you think you have a good idea do your research and make sure you have a great case that you can comfortably and happily present to anyone as your business – the simpler the better. Make sure you have your house in order, you may be small but make sure you have the fundamentals in place which will allow you to scale up and grow.”
Reaney’s approach and vision mean Gradvert, which started as a bridge between university and employment, is now bringing together the worlds of education and business to deliver programmes and people with the skills to sustain the future workforce.