Sitting comfortably? A story-telling time for recruitment

Sitting comfortably? A story-telling time for recruitment

Tired with the older ways of working, Betsy Williamson set up her own recruitment business in Edinburgh to find the right people for the financial service market. Her company is reaping the benefit of ensuring it delivers on its promise. She speaks to BQ editor Kenny Kemp

The battle for the right people in work has never been tougher. And among Scotland’s recruitment professionals there is a heightened expectation to deliver the right people into the workplace first time. In the sphere of high-value, larger income fund management, Betsy Williamson, the managing director of Core-Asset Consulting - shortlisted as Financial Services Company of the Year in the Scottish Business Awards - has been carving out a niche as a premier finder on the preferred supplier lists of some of Scotland’s leading investment houses. She is also emerging as one of the top entrepreneurial business women in Scotland under 40. Sitting in her well-appointed Georgian town-house office in Melville Street in Edinburgh, she is clear that her driven ‘next generation’ approach to the people business is a reflection of these times.

“I’m never fully satisfied with what we achieve. I always want to do more. It’s the nature of the game that we work in. To be truly driving a business, you can’t be satisfied with it and rest on your laurels. We’re always asking: did we get the best person? Have our clients got someone who adds value? Of course, we enjoy the moments of pleasure in our work. That doesn’t necessarily come from a job well done, it comes from knowing that you’ve done the right thing. Satisfaction comes from knowing we’ve done everything we possibly can to help our clients,” she says.

With Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen city centres brimming with recruitment firms, it is easy to see why talent management has been identified as the greatest people challenge and investment priority for Scottish businesses in the coming year. In an increasingly global world, Scotland could face another brain-drain of its best talent – and fail to present an exciting enough proposition to those who might want to come and live here. A KPMG report shows the issue is more pressing in Scotland than across the UK, possibly reflecting more competition from higher paid positions in southern England. The survey suggests that 58% of businesses polled saw attracting and recruiting the right people as their greatest challenge, with talent management (40%) the second most pressing as opposed to 28% in the UK.

Other notable areas included staff motivation (24%), staff retention (23%) and remuneration (18%). Eddie Norrie, a director of people services at KPMG in Scotland, said: “Talented candidates may now be more inclined to be selective when it comes to accepting job offers with areas such as the North East of England facing stiff competition from London. At the same time, Scottish businesses’ need for highly-skilled employees who are able to adapt to significant changes as we emerge from economic difficulties, makes the task of finding the right staff even more challenging.”

If this is true, this is a concern for Scotland. So the best recruiters, such as Betsy Williamson, need to use all their communication skills to find the best people. Just like her illustrious fathers Duncan Williamson, Betsy is a natural and effective storyteller. Her background and experience have moulded her unique take on recruiting – and it have been highly successful. Her mother, Linda, is an American academic who came to Scotland in the early 1970s to undertake a PhD in ethnomusicology at the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh University, academic home of the famed song collector Hamish Henderson, writer of the Scottish anthem Freedom Come All Ye. Duncan Williamson was born in a tent on the shores of Loch Fyne in 1928, the seventh of 16 children, and at 15 he began an itinerant life as one of Scotland’s ‘travelling people’. He became one of Scotland’s story-tellers, especially recounting collected tales of the seal people and the ‘silkies’, a large part of West Highland folklore. Linda Williamson was 20 years younger and Duncan was one of her research topics.

They courted, married and a young Betsy, one of two, grew up near St Andrews surrounded by Scottish folklore. She was steeped in traditional music and storytelling.
“There was almost an expectation that I would fall into the traditional cultural footsteps. Unfortunately, playing the harp or the fiddle, or singing folksongs never really interested me. I had aspirations towards the more corporate world. That was where my interests lay. I was something of a black sheep of the family!”

She attended Edinburgh Napier University and took a business and corporate
hospitality degree. She learned about giant brands such as Hilton and Sheraton, which gave her an appreciation of building culture and customer service. Her practical education also included work in Edinburgh’s hotels and bars, where the relentless reality of long hours and low pay doesn’t engender staff loyalty. When she graduated in 1998 she was hooked on working with people. “I didn’t know anything about recruitment. I’d touched on HR as part of my organisational studies but I noticed an advert in The Scotsman for a recruitment consultant. What appealed to me was that no two days were the same and it was target-orientated towards bonuses.” She persevered after several job rejections and landed a job. “I’m a determined sort. If someone tells me I can’t do something then inevitably that makes me want to do it even more.”

She landed a job with Hays, the international recruiter, on a basic salary of £6,000 with the remainder made up from commission. She was told she might make £12,000 or £14,000 in year one, instead she hit £25,000. Edinburgh was booming and recruiting for a golden age of expansion in financial services meant there was plenty of work.“I started out at the very bottom finding administrators, receptionists and more junior levels of recruitment.”
The dotcom market in 2000 and 2001 was leaning towards TPAS, third party administrators, with Edinburgh a major centre.

“I muddled my way for the first few months. The early training was very basic, without much structure. You really did sink or swim. The attrition rate with young staff was fairly high with recruits lucky to last more than six months,” she says. “Hays was very heavily sales based. You were learning about the evolving financial services industry as well as trying to accumulate the skills you needed to do your job. I was on a steep learning curve - we didn’t have Google as we do now. I had to try and find out what these jobs were and exactly what the companies were looking for.”

She intended to pursue this career path for a few years and perhaps move back into the international hospitality, but the prospects of night-shifts and weekend working as she climbed the ladder encouraged her to stick with the structure of the recruitment business.
“To succeed in this environment, you had to make yourself succeed. Nobody was identifying me – or anyone else – as the talent of the future. At this point, Hays was a very London-style macho culture – although I can’t comment on how it is now as a market leader. Back then, everyone was in it for themselves. If your individual performance was better than the team, then this was more rewarding for you.”

She recalls the competitive spirit and that people were not encouraged to help each other out because there were targets and company clients for each recruiter. Everyone played their cards close to their chest and made their own things happen. Looking back, how does this compare to her working philosophy now with Core-Asset Consulting? “It is exactly the opposite. Our way of working is much more collaborative in a team together to deliver for our clients on a wider front.”

Based on her sales figures, Betsy quickly rose through the ranks and was sent on the Hays management programme and asked to run the banking and finance team in Charlotte Square in Edinburgh. At 24, she was fast-tracked for a regional director’s role which was more about managing people, delivery and ensuring hitting targets, rather than finding people for clients - something which didn’t interest her. “I enjoyed the recruitment aspect most and the challenges of trying to understand the assignment: what are the technical aspects of the job and how do we find the person with the qualifications for such a role. I bolted that into my own job. Increasingly, this is what interested me.”

Betsy acknowledges there were a stack of positives about Hays, including its multiple sales training programmes, and, in many ways, she thrived there. But with Core-Asset Consulting she has created a recruitment agency that was driven by finding the right person for the position, rather than filling posts for a bonus.

“Working in that environment didn’t scare me. It suited my personality at the time and worked for me. What became clear as I got better at my job, and more aware of the environment I was working in, was that while it was fine for me, it wasn’t so good for my clients. I began to see that clients needed an adviser with an understanding of the bigger picture and was more involved with consulting.”

In 2002 she was headhunted to work for a specialist executive search firm. Her initial instinct was to decline the job, but after intensive pester and persuasion, she accepted. Those early reservations soon became apparent as she was forced to put together a new business from scratch. With restrictive covenants about approaching former clients and an aversion to the industry’s practice of poaching, her assignments soon became difficult as she realised that there was a very small pool of people in specialist fields.
“After six months I realised I’d made a big mistake, but it turned out to be t

he start of my thinking about how to create my own business,” she says. She saw an advert with the Hay Group, no relation to Hays, and was offered a place as a consultant helping with human capital, talent management and developing executive skills. She was interested in joining but was also undertaking a Masters in human resource management at Napier University and had started a long-term relationship with her husband to be, and didn’t want to work outside Scotland. But the Hay Group encounter opened her eyes and a plan was forming. In 2004 she took a step back and decided to spend some time asking her clients and others what they wanted and expected from a recruitment business. Top of the list of complaints was recruitment firms finding people who were simply unsuitable or inexperienced for specialist financial service jobs. Among such frustrations was that recruitment firms were trying to sell rather than service clients.

“The next step was to create my own company. In the Christmas break of 2004 I started to formulate a business plan. In July of 2005, I set up Core-Asset Consulting and in the intervening six months I found serviced office space in St Andrew’s Square, banks, suppliers, an accountant, and looked at recruiting staff.”
She re-mortgaged her flat and took out a business loan for the other half. Everything was in place for her business.

“My first day was 4 July 2005 and the phone started ringing with business leads. The most exciting thing was coming down in the lift in the MWB business centre and hearing the collective receptionist answer the phone saying: ‘Good morning, Core-Asset Consulting...’” This was the actual realisation for Betsy that her own business was up and running. “It was a definite moment of clarity. The objective was to take the best bits of a large corporate organisation, such as Hays or any other large recruitment group, which are systems, processes and procedures, functionality and clear objectives and ways of working and bolt them together with what I gleaned from my executive search days, which is that each assignment is a project in essence. You should spend a lot of time researching that project. It is about getting the best possible person as opposed to the ‘best’ person.”

etsy also included the thinking from her brief encounter with the Hay Group. “I’ve taken these three defined ideas and developed a recruitment model that is fit for purpose for my clients. I didn’t create something that I thought was needed, I created something that the clients told me they wanted,” she says. Her clients want the right person in the job – not someone put in place simply to secure a bonus for the professional job finder. She also recognises that simply sending a pile of CVs through for interviews to make up numbers was becoming counter-productive. But that final decision is not easy.

“The challenges that the UK fund management industry is facing now are increased regulation, around compliance, remuneration and bonus packages, and codes and ethics. The fund management teams are asked to do very tricky things: to identify stocks and companies and segments that are performing well and predict a trend to get a return. It’s a difficult thing to do. I have a lot of respect for the jobs they do. A lot of people stand on the margins of many things and make assumptions or a presumption that is not well considered.”

Working recently for a fund management company, Core-Asset Consulting, after a period of intensive search across the UK, Europe and beyond, presented two people for interview. Normally, three go forward but
this highlighted the issues raised by the
KPMG review.
“We did that because there weren’t three candidates fit for the purpose. The skillset we are recruiting for in Scotland is very limited, so there might only be six or seven people in the Scottish market place to recruit. Of those, three might be settled in their work, another two might not fit the culture, so we are left with a very short list. Increasingly, we have to look to other regions, bringing them up to Scotland. People will ask me who I think is best and I reply, ‘it’s not about what I think. I can guide you but it’s your decision’.”

Betsy says Core’s job is to facilitate, assist and guide but the final decision must be outside her control. And she sleeps better at night because of this. Her clients include Baillie Gifford, Franklin Templeton, Standard Life Investments, plus the other investment houses attempting to attract specialist fund managers who are always looking for global candidates with connections to Scotland. She enjoys preferred supplier status along with a roster of other firms. She’s also established a contracting arm allowing her to place people into positions on short-term contracts where they pay the salaries and undertake HR functions on behalf of clients. “As a group, investment and fund managers are geographically mobile, and the best ones are in demand. They often enjoy travelling and working around the world. Scotland offers a lot of exceptional things and a quality of life for families. There are trigger points that bring people back to Scotland. But 98% of the time, people will have a strong connection with Scotland, and these are the people we develop relationships with.”
From the start Core-Asset Consulting was created to be scaled, and this includes putting together a recruitment infrastructure and database of prospective candidates and clients. Discretion in searching for the right person is important and managed in a considerate manner. Her team includes ‘the persistent and tenacious’ operations director Louise Powrie, who has been a work colleague for 14 years, and a director of communications, Richard England, formerly with Standard Life Investments.

So how has she been able to grow from a serviced office to buying a townhouse property in Edinburgh’s most favoured business street and employing 18 people with a £4.4m turnover? “You need to know your market and what you’re doing. We need to know our candidates and we work hard to maintain our reputation. We’ve been successful because we’ve always delivered what we said we would. And we’ve done it in a correct method and manner, following the rules and processes of our clients. If they request things, such as not to contact line managers, we don’t. We’ve consistently delivered.

“And, if you do that, you will get repeat business. In Edinburgh and Scotland, where reputations matter, it’s about referral, referral, referral. ”So what advice was she given when she started up? “I was told to get a good lawyer and a good accountant, which is sound advice. And I would add, have a good relationship with your bank! That’s been essential. We’re set up like a corporate organisation and we’ve ambition about building it up to some scale.” For a storyteller, Betsy still has several long chapters to go. Let’s wish her a happy ending.