First piece of advice: ‘Start at the top and work down’ says Steven Street, group MD of the Cubed Resourcing Partnership, based at the iconic Salts Mill at Saltaire.
Our conversation about the lessons entrepreneurs can learn from the world of recruitment has started briskly. The coffee machine is on at his home, the dogs are in the other room and 52-year-old Steven is enthusiastically off and running.
He is used to dealing with people at the top of the corporate ladder, either finding people to work for their companies or finding the next role for the boss himself. The strategy he uses to approach recruitment applies neatly to BQ’s world of entrepreneurialism. We all need to find the right people to work with in the right places, whether that is for a new job or to seal the first contract for the first product.
“I have always found that people at the top of organisations are generally very comfortable in their own skin. They are much less defensive and less likely to try to score a point off you or wield any power,” he tells me. “The further up the food chain you go, the more receptive people are – no matter how bold the approach is or what the question is you are asking.
There is a tactical argument that you should look for influencers and gatekeepers, and that is a part of a dual strategy, but I am all about building relationships at the top and history has taught me they are the people who are most generous with their knowledge and most likely to facilitate something good happening.”
And Steven believes it won’t matter what sector you have decided to work in. The business strategies and approaches you discover, adapt and adopt should stay with you. “When I sold my company Relay Recruitment in February 2011 without a clear idea of what I was going to do next, I was fortunate because quite a few people came forward and asked me if I wanted to get involved with them. What struck me was how universal a lot of business knowledge and method is. I have worked for an online travel company, an insurance company, a manufacturing company and a design company and a lot of the principles stood true.
“You couldn’t shoehorn everything into every business, but those principles were there in pretty much every scenario.”
By that time he had a small consulting company (being labelled as a consultant doesn’t sit easily with him, but until he can come up with something better.....) which was rebadged as the hugely successful Hunter Wolff, and became a vehicle for other projects like Cubed.
When the opportunity came he took an ‘equity for expertise’ stake in Cubed Resourcing with co-founder and multi-millionaire Rob Fleming. His starting point for what Cubed does is “there are some people out there who are just too good to be employed, so we are the bridge, the enabler of self-determination and entrepreneurship”.
“If you feel that you have hit the ceiling and there is no prospect of you moving on and up in your organisation and you have that deep belief that you could make it on your own, then we are the catalyst for that,” he explains.
“We are about financing that belief, securing somebody’s income in the short term and providing out of the box everything you will need from accountancy, marketing, finance, mentorship and the legals.
“We will impress on people that they will already be doing 99% of what it takes to run their own business. I always say that it is not what’s above the door but who comes through it. It is the people who build good quality relationships and networks with their clients.”
People like Steven know how people tick and it wouldn’t take long for him to know whether he was going to be able to do business with the person sitting in front of him. But what about age - does it matter that whoever is putting their future in his hands might be 26, 46, or 56?
“It all comes down to the individual and the opportunity,” he says. “Is the business scaleable in whatever timeline they decide to put to it. Some people come to me and say they just feel they have another job in them.
“But once you start making money and get some traction and momentum it is easy to say ‘well that’s OK’, but if you are 46 years old you still need to know what sort of money you want to make when you are 55 and see if the company has the trajectory and momentum to get there.”
His own start along the business route was tough. He grew up in the deprived area of White Abbey in Bradford and was the son of a single mother. When, as a 15-year-old, he was woken up on Christmas Eve morning to be told his mum had died the challenge had well and truly started. He left school without any qualifications, eventually got a flat on his own and only began figuring out his future in his mid-20s. Once he started working he discovered a knack for gathering knowledge as he worked alongside people. He saw how business worked and that a high level of success might not be out of reach.
“I think I had a very basic instinct of security and reassurance that I was competent at most things I tried. I was experiencing some successes I had never thought possible and what followed that was belief.”
His personal background is deeply rooted in his family, including four sons, two of whom have autism. His wife Vicki now runs two charities and won an award just before Christmas for securing substantial funding for a double-deck bus kitted out with a sensory area.
“When I start to think about what is really important in life, I look at a piece of paper I have in my pocket which son Barney brought home from his special school. It asked the parents and children to pray for a young girl who had died over the weekend.
“I keep that with me just in case things start getting out of perspective. That – and Vicki - always keeps me grounded.”
These are extreme credentials for someone talking about jobs and entrepreneurialism, but they prove – again – that there is no end to the number of reasons why we run our own businesses. We are driven, whether that is by tragedy, circumstance, luck, desperation, sheer talent... or a personal cocktail of those things that can lead to operations as impressive as Cubed, and its very particular approach which would certainly test the resolve of an entrepreneuer.
“We have four divisions, Engineering, Electronics, Supply Chain and Manufacturing and have gone from nothing to budgeted sales this year of £5m across three trading locations,” said Steven.
“Rather than being employed or running your own show, we have a hybrid in the middle, which has you incubating your new enterprise under the auspices of Cubed. So most of
what you need is already there and you run what is effectively a Cubed operation.
“We would agree up front certain triggers, perhaps on operating profit or a set number of clients who stay for a certain period. If they are met we would create a new company and you would get between five and 20% of the shares. When the next series of triggers are achieved, more shares would be issued to take you up to 49%, with Hunter Wolff holding 51%.
“In year five – which Rob and I call the magic number – there would be enough cash on the balance sheet for you to buy our stake through an MBO.”
Taking on the BQ belief in entrepreneurial DNA, this is gene-splicing. Taking the original DNA - always there but perhaps a little weak - and grafting on the required strengths and security. This gives the DNA time to establish itself and grow before it can be released fully formed.
It is the perfect way to make sure you have a ‘soft landing’ when you take that first leap, but it involves a huge amount of trust in Steven and Cubed at a pivotal time for an aspiring business.
“It’s a no-brainer if you are ready for it,” says Steven. “But we know we are not entitled to success and are not immune from failure. If your venture failed you will have learned a lot along the way which would mean you could move on to the next role.”
His standards are high, and it is a key part of his role on the executive council at the Recruitment & Employment Confederation to make sure there are standards for others to meet, eventually by making recruitment firms chartered.
This would be a transformational move and would increase the trust people have in the sector because historically there has been no barrier to becoming a recruiter. “The chartered status is key – as with other chartered bodies like RICS you can only practice through qualification and you can only qualify through examination, I think that can’t come fast enough,” he says.
I get the feeling Steven will get his wish soon and that the bond between his industry and
its clients will be strengthened and lead to more entrepreneurial dreams moving off the drawing board.