Onward and upward

For Rob Walker, chief executive of the No.1-ranked FAST 50 firm, BIE Executive is the latest in a string of high-performing projects. His success is partly down to a competitive spirit but also remembering that recruitment is still all about relationships, he tells Colin Cottell
Mon, 25 Jan 2016


For Rob Walker, chief executive of the 
No.1-ranked FAST 50 firm, BIE Executive is the latest in a string of high-performing projects. His success is partly down to a competitive spirit but also remembering that recruitment is still all about relationships, he tells Colin Cottell

With getting on for three decades in recruitment, Rob Walker, CEO of BIE Executive, has pretty much seen and done everything in the sector. After co-founding accountancy recruiter Walker Hamill in 1989, he went on to launch Imprint with Walker Hamill co-founder Brian Hamill before floating it on AIM, the Alternative Investment Market, in 2001.

As an industry veteran, and one with such a track record, Walker might have been forgiven for resting on his considerable laurels. However, this year’s Recruiter FAST 50, compiled by corporate finance firm Clearwater International, which ranks the 50 fastest-growing privately owned staffing companies in the UK, proves that the passing of time has failed to quench Walker’s ambition. With a compound annual growth rate of 88.8% over the past three years, BIE Executive, a newcomer to the FAST 50, is a clear winner — more than 20 percentage points ahead of the runner-up.

Although Walker is delighted by the news, it is not just BIE’s exalted position as the UK’s fastest-growing staffing company that is contributing to his high spirits. As he speaks to Recruiter from a tiny interview room in BIE’s City of London offices, what comes across is his continuing passion for recruitment. 

“As a recruiter it is easy to become tired and burn out,” he says. “I am as passionate and enthusiastic as I ever was before, with the team of people we have here and the product we are taking to market.”  

Asked to summarise the secret of his success, Walker’s response is telling: “I know it’s a bit of a curse, but never [being] satisfied. We can always do better. Fundamentally, I am a competitive person as well.”

After a career that has gone through several iterations, Walker shows no signs that his competitive spirit has dimmed. Indeed, he clearly continues to revel in the battle to stay ahead of the game and outwit the competition. “My belief is that you have to keep evolving the business. You can’t keep doing what you have always done,” he says. And at the core of that, he adds, “you have to look at your clients and the relationship you have with them, and what else you can do with those relationships”.

The latest demonstration of Walker’s consistent ability to evolve and adapt those relationships came in 2014, when BIE launched its management consultancy practice, complementing its existing search and interim management practices. 

Fabrice Rodrigue, a former management consultant, was brought in to lead the practice. “I often refer to it as a one-stop shop,” says Rodrigue, describing how the consultancy side, typically supplying management consultants for business transformation and change projects, generates opportunities for the other arms of the BIE business. “Interim expertise to backfill functional roles, and permanent staff to fill future gaps in the organisation that result from the business transformation.

“We don’t always have to sell all three to a client; it just ends up that way. Once you do the consultancy services, you end up doing all three,” he says.

“It’s not just about having a transactional conversation but discussing an alternative between the interim side and what management consultancies have to offer, because there is a whole pool of candidates who are ex-consultancy that are a notch above regular contractors,” he adds. 

Integrated service

Rodrigue believes that adding an advisory service and offering it as part of an integrated offering sets BIE apart from its competitors in what is a congested interim and search market. Having three strings to the company’s bow, is “another reason to go and talk to clients; it is not just another recruitment offering”, adds Walker. “This is an area that we would expect to grow more quickly [than interim or executive search].”

Offering an integrated service is great in theory, but as Walker admits, achieving it is not necessarily easy in recruitment, where recruiters “are used to building their own desk” and not thinking about the bigger picture. 

That is precisely why Walker places such emphasis on BIE’s team ethos, something he makes abundantly clear when asked what differentiates the company from its competitors.  

“Without coming out with all the old clichés — quality of consultants, integrity and honesty — what does stand out is the team ethos,” he says. The company focuses a lot of its training on cross-selling, “helping staff to understand the buying signals for other parts of the business, so they can sell the integrated proposition”, he says.

“For example, if they are part of the finance team they will be listening to their contacts for opportunities for transformation to get Fabrice involved, or maybe an opportunity for supply chain or HR.” 

“So it is not just about me; it is what else is going on within this business that I can introduce colleagues to.”

Walker emphasises that operating in this way is not an option, but is integral to the company’s identity and culture. “It’s a ‘must have’, it’s part of the induction, and so when we are interviewing for staff we make it clear that this is actually a benefit to them, that this is how we operate.

“We don’t believe in people working in pure silos. In the majority of meetings, at least two people won’t be from the same team. It is rare that two people from the same team go along.” 

The team ethos is reflected in how the company’s staff are rewarded. “The remuneration is geared to encourage people to go and cross-sell,” he says. 

In addition, it’s reflected in the open-plan nature of the company’s offices. Indeed, it is also one of the reasons why the company plans to shut its original office in Windsor, opened in 1996, and concentrate all its resources in London. “We are bringing the whole team together because you hear about opportunities, you talk to other people, and that communication is absolutely key to it,” says Walker.  

He describes the Windsor decision as his most difficult to date. “It is not a negative because it is going to make the business stronger, but for the people there it is a disruption.” The challenge is “to make sure it’s seen as a positive move by those people who were based in Windsor”, he adds.

The latest phase in BIE Executive’s story began following a management buy-out led by Walker in 2013, when the firm was part of the Cornhill Partnership. “It was a fantastic opportunity, a good name, a great platform, and some good people I was happy to go into business with and wanted to work beside,” he says. 

“I consider myself as the person who defines the strategy and then ensures that we deliver,” he adds. “We have a strong team around me, so I see my job as the glue that holds it all together.” Six of BIE Executive’s senior management team, including Walker and Rodrigue, hold stakes in the business, with private equity firm Barclays Venture holding the rest.

Changing the model

The company’s recent growth has been helped by the encouraging trading environment, says Walker. “Anecdotally, in the market it is quite busy — it’s probably back to 2008 pre-recession levels.” 

That’s not to say there have been no changes — in particular in how BIE is remunerated. “The old model of ‘a third, a third, a third’ is difficult to achieve on a regular basis,” he says. “You have to be more imaginative around fees. Rather than taking it in three stages you might take two — a retainer fee and then on completion. It’s not unheard for us to do four stages, where the final stage is three months after the person has started.”

He continues: “We try not to move on the quantum or the amount. What we will do is show some flexibility around payment.” He always bases his fees on results, he says. “I have never understood why any client would go on 30-, 60-, 90-day payment whether or not you produced somebody or not.” 

Looking back over his career, Walker says the biggest change has been the way the market has become more sophisticated. “In 1988/89, if you met someone at a party, and they liked you, the next day you were doing some work for them, whereas now you have RPOs [recruitment process outsourcing firms], PSLs [preferred supplier lists] and procurement getting involved, and that only happens rarely.” 

But despite the barriers between recruiters and clients that have grown up over the years, they can never hide a central truth about recruitment, he says.   

 “First and foremost — and it is something that has remained from day one when we set up Walker Hamill — is that recruitment is all about relationships,” he says. “There are people I talk to today I would have got to know 28 years ago, so relationships are the core to all of it. 

 “I remember times when I have not filled a job and the client has been absolutely delighted with the process,” Walker adds. “I have also seen situations where the job has been successfully filled but the client is particularly unhappy. It is how you deliver that is the key to it.” 

When the CEO presiding over the fastest-growing staffing company in the UK makes such a suggestion, perhaps it is time for others to sit up and take notice.

BIE Executive

1996: Formed as BIE Interim Executive

2012: Merged with Archer Mathieson

2013: Management buyout led by Walker 

2014: Advisory practice launched 

Number of staff: 30 

2013 turnover: £15.96m 

2013 profit after tax: £590,757

2014 turnover: £19.45m 

2014 profit after tax: £1.066m

Rob Walker

2013-present: chief executive officer, BIE Executive

2010-13: chief executive officer, the Cornhill Partnership and BIE Executive

2007-10: non-executive chairman, Hexagon

2004-07: various non-executive director roles

2000-02: chief operating officer, Imprint

1989-2000: joint managing director, Walker Hamill

1976-87: British Army officer

Fabrice Rodrigue

2014-present: head of BIE’s advisory practice

Previously: management consultant, Ernst & Young (now EY), Atos KPMG Consulting, Chaucer Consulting and Accenture

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