13 July 2017

How to grow a successful recruitment business, making over 100,000 placements and still learn from your mistakes

Interview with Tony Goodwin, Group CEO and Chairman of Antal International.

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1. Welcome Tony, please start by telling us a little bit more about yourself and the work you guys do with staffing and recruitment businesses at Antal International…

Okay, let’s go back to the beginning Roy, because Antal was formed just after a recession, so my story starts from an entrepreneurial point of view – and I like to think of myself as an entrepreneur, as well as a recruiter.

I was a good recruiter when I was a consultant at desk level, but I wasn’t the best. But what was really inspiring for me, was the idea of being able to set up my own business in recruitment.

When I saw what was happening in central and eastern Europe, in the early 90’s, I said to my then bosses, Graham Palfrey-Smith and Laurence Smith, “We should open offices abroad.” That was 1989 and their response to that was to send me to Bristol!

However that didn’t dampen my spirit of wanting to do this international work; something along international audit work at the time. I realised the European Economic Community, was relaxing the working descriptions for employment conditions for European members. I thought this was going to lead to an explosion of professionals going abroad to further their careers, and coming here to further their careers: Germans, French, Italians, Spanish.

And you know what, Roy? I was completely wrong. It didn’t happen. It didn’t happen in the way that I thought it was going to happen, but what happened instead, we went into a recession in 1990.

Just before that, the Berlin wall came down in 1989, remember those pictures on CNN? People standing on the wall, waving German flags to German unification. A monumental time. But at the time, I had no idea what personal impact it would have on my life.

Just three years later I saw this evolving market, and the truth of the matter Roy, was that I was sick and tired of coming up against Michael Page, and Hays, and Extra, and all the usual suspects in our industry. And I thought, “You know what I’ll do, I will go somewhere they’re not.”

So in 1992/93, I was reading in the Financial Times about Coca-Cola buying a plant in Poznan and redeveloping it. Mars Masterfoods were investing $420,000,000.00 in Stupino in southwest Moscow.

And that is where my eureka moment came. 

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My thoughts evolved over a period of six months or so, and I thought, "Let's focus, let's specialise", and I decided to specialise geographically, as I thought that was what would set Antal apart. 

2. What is your favourite success quote and how do you live that quote each day as a recruitment entrepreneur?

That's easy for me. I saw this actually during the first three months of setting up Antal International. It was a whole page in the Financial Times, it's a quote I believe by Abraham Lincoln: "Things may come to those that wait, but only the things left by those that hustle."

... and please, let's make a distinction between hustle and hassle! Let's not hassle people.

I say this to my children now, it's not all about talent, it's not all about knowledge, it's not all about experience, it's about the motivation to put all of that into practice and that is what I believe hustling is.

It is making things happen, and that's what I do still today 22 years on with Antal International. In fact, it's why I believe that the recruitment industry itself is constantly evolving, and the reason we have a whole host of very talented people in our business, in our profession, and in our industry. One of the things that sets them apart is their ability to hustle, to make things happen, to innovate, to use their initiative.

Initiative is what our business is all about. Using your initiative to get things to move to happen, to get people to make decisions, to influence and persuade, and for me that is the recruitment industry. That's the profession I love.

3. Can you talk to us about a specific time that you faced adversity and challenge in your recruitment business, and how you got past it?

What I say to people is, "It's not how you manage or handle success that defines you. What really defines you is how you handle the difficult the times when they come" because undoubtedly they will come. Business, and being an entrepreneur in the recruitment industry is not for the faint hearted. You will come across adversity.

My biggest challenge was in 2001, with the dot com bubble bursting and the technology recession that ensued. I never saw it coming, but there was a depression on most on the west coast of America. At the time 55% - 60% of our revenues came from the technology sector and IBM was one of our biggest key accounts.

We billed IBM approximately $1.2 to $3 million in 2000. How much do you think invoiced them in 2001? Just $67,000.00!

Also during that time (in 2000 and 2002) we had 22 company owned offices around central eastern Europe and Europe which we then had to take that down to 12 offices. It was one of the most difficult periods of my life. We had 423 staff at the time, and then we went down to about 117!

You know Roy, I really should have cut deeper than I did at the time. It was so challenging. You need insane power, you need perseverance, and you need guts to go through that; and take the slings and arrows that do come your way as a result.

It was an emotional roller coaster but you get through it and when you get through it, it does you better. Now people say to me, "Well how did you get through it?" And I say, "Well, it's like actually running across the Atlantic ... and you go half way across the Atlantic and you hit a storm. And all of your food and a lot of your water goes, you get enough water to keep going, to keep moving. So what do you do? Row back or row forward?" You might as well keep going.

You know to a fair degree a lot of people experience these things in their lives. Whether it's serious illness, or potential failure. I would much rather face potential business failure, than face worse things on the health side. From that point of view, I'm lucky. I'm lucky to have actually been able to get through, to face it, and get through it, and for that I'm grateful.

It may be a bit of a cliché to say, but it's so true that in that adversity comes some great ideas. When people have their backs against the wall, often that's when they're the most inspired, and the most innovative, and the most resourceful. And certainly from a entrepreneurial point of view that's what I feel.

4. Describe that eureka moment for you when you reached the stage with Antal where all of a sudden you felt, "I know exactly what we're doing and how we're doing it." and it just started to go easier for you. Describe that moment for us.

I don't think it's ever been easy, actually. I think the interesting thing about being a recruitment entrepreneur is, that the reason you're an entrepreneur is because don't need a boss. The reason you don't need a boss is because you will push yourself harder than anybody else. Let's take José Mourinho for example, not everyone's cup of tea I appreciate that, but I believe that José Mourinho pushes himself and holds higher standards for himself than anyone else possibly could.

Even when I'm being successful I'm constantly thinking to myself, "This isn't good enough".  You climb up the mountain, you get to the summit, and you realise you've just got to the summit of a larger mountain. So climb one mountain, and you're at the bottom of another one.

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Of course, on the one hand that can be exhausting, and on the other hand it's very stimulating and exhilarating because you think, "Well actually life just keeps throwing more and more challenges."

So I've never felt "we've got it sorted" even after the Russia deal.  We did the largest recruitment deal in central and eastern Europe in 2008 and sold our Russian business. I'm not allowed to say how much the deal was worth but it was in the ‘tens of millions’…that kind of figure. It was a big deal, it still is the biggest deal in central and eastern Europe, but I didn't just sit back after that.

I'm very lucky actually, Roy, because I've been allowed to build a business, which is always interesting and fascinating and challenging. I've gotten the rewards that come from that but I've also done it in a market which has seen the biggest socioeconomic demographic changes that we'll probably ever see. The Chinese have brought 350,000,000 people out of poverty in the last 20 years. India is doing the same thing. The Middle East and parts of Africa where we have a franchised operation, the same thing.

It's worth mentioning that we do have a higher group model. Right now I own about 10 of the offices of the 130 in all, and rest are franchised, and some are joint ventures.We have the company owned, the joint ventures, and the franchise network. Antal is very good at looking at how we can partner with people, with mutual benefits. We believe in this mutuality, if you win, I win, we are all successful together.

5. Tell me what do you do to drive the standards of recruitment in your own business and maybe for the wider global staffing industry?

Well I'm looking right now in quite a lot of detail the various recruitment packages on offer. We have LinkedIn - which I believe is a tool, not a threat - and the increasing numbers of recruitment process outsource companies. I think that we are being challenged as an industry, as a profession, to come up with more and more uses of technology and social media, to make the client more effective in their hiring.

I don't believe for one second any of this technology is going to replace us, because we are very good at reinventing ourselves.

Fundamentally what we do is make things happen, we influence and persuade and make things happen, and we will continue to do that - things that cannot be done by computer or a piece of software or social media.

I'm intrigued by this ability to talk to an audience all over the world instantly - it's an incredible thing! But it doesn't change the fact that in recruiting, consultants provide a valued allied service that to our clients and our candidates. That can't be replaced by a computer. Let's not detract from the fact that we add value.

6. If you were looking into your crystal ball and trying to predict how the recruitment industry is going to develop so over the next 5 years, what do you think is going to happen?

I think that there is going to be consolidation. At the moment there is a lot of recruitment companies of medium size, between 3 quarters of a million and say 4 million EBIT, and I see a consolidation within the industry of these (well managed) recruiting companies into large entities through the roll up programs of some of the larger companies.

I'm quite excited by it and so what I'm doing is putting together a multi brand strategy and doing it on a buy and build basis in Europe. I think they'll be other people doing similar things in Europe in the next 3 to 5 years and as always I want to be at the forefront of both developments.

As an entrepreneur in this great staffing industry of ours, I want to make sure that I'm ahead of the game, or at least up with, some of the leading recruitment entrepreneurs who are great. The likes of Nigel Frank, Oliver James, Eurostaff, Earthstream, and many, many others.

There's about 20 companies out there that do really, run by people who actually almost a generation younger than I am, and that's really exciting to see. I don't feel threatened by that, I feel excited and exhilarated by that.

7. Tony, what's the number one thing that you've seen holding recruiters back from becoming more successful? What's needed to be a successful recruiter?

You need to rely on your fundamental instinct to get things done, or to persuade, and stop relying too much on technology.

It's the old analysis paralysis scenario. With a number of ways to communicate these days through social media, people don't pick up the phone enough, they don't meet people enough and talk directly.

Skype is fantastic! Facetime, Skype, whatever it is, just talk to people. Don't look at their CV for two hours, don't research the company for four days before you do anything, get on with it and do it; and talk to people.

What I think is holding people back is the fear that they might be seen as foolish, or the fear that they might not have done enough research because everything's on social media. But it doesn't matter that everything's available. If anything now, there is so much information available that it's overkill. You can get bogged down in that and instead of getting bogged down in that, instead of this analysis process, talk to people.

8. What's the best piece of business advice you've ever received Tony?

It came from Graham Palfrey-Smith, actually. I was running the Bristol office for him in 1991, and gave him some reports on how well we were doing during a very difficult, challenging marketplace with the recession. After speaking to him on the phone for about twenty minutes he just said to me, "Tony, how many interviews have you got?" And I didn't have a lot at the time, I have to be honest.

It really brought home to me that it's the #1  fundamental KPI, it's absolutely paramount. The number of face-to-face interviews that you've managed to arrange between your candidates and your clients. Because that's the ultimate asset test of whether or not you're good in this business. It's 'the king of KPI's', as I call it.


9. Tell us about an app, a growth hack, or a bit of recruitment software that you use in your business or personally that works for you brilliantly right now.

Well, I think in terms of getting the message out and about Antal, it's the usual suspect, it's the Twitters, the LinkedIn, the Zings; communicating the message about what we are about. It's fantastic we can do this across all the different countries instantaneously.  We spend a fair portion of our marketing time on getting that message across.

I also do a blog. I've got the kind of credibility and substance behind otherwise just being an advisor. You often see people writing blogs, everyone is a blog writer these days, and everybody is free with their advice. But the only advice I'm really interested in hearing about is from people who've actually done it. Otherwise you can just say, "Well that all sounds good. But have you done it? Have you sat in that deal room and done that deal? Have you made those decisions for yourself?"

That's the difference; and the difference for me is the longevity I've had in this great industry, I'm still doing it.  I'm doing it today, Roy. I'm living, breathing, working it; I'm not sitting back in an ivory tower pontificating about what I did 10 years ago, or what I did 15 years ago. I'm doing it today!

10. Tony, what's the best business book you've read recently?

The best book I've read recently is actually about India. It wasn't a business book but it was called, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" by Katherine Boo, and it tried to explain through narrative, through stories of people living in the slums, the juxtaposition between the wealth that's being created in India right now and the poverty that lives alongside it. It's a naturally brilliant book.

Business wise I've read very many books, but obviously I would plug my own book "How They Blew It: The CEO's and Entrepreneurs Behind Some of the World's Most Catastrophic Business Failures".  If anybody wants to read a book on success - read about how people fail!

People say to me, "Why did you write a book about failure? Isn't that a bit morbid?" But it's not about failure, if you think about it we learn more from our failures then we do our successes. Anybody can want a business, anybody can want a business in a successful time. A rising tide floats many boats! But until you been challenged and until you've seen what goes wrong for people, you don't really know how you're going to react and how you're going to respond. I've been in that situation.

My claim to fame is I make more mistakes than most people I know. I'm not being overly self deprecating or modest. It's actually true. That is part of entrepreneurialism.

I think there is a misunderstanding where people say, "Don't take 'no' for an answer." My response to that is, "Do take 'no' for an answer." And ask why, and then do it differently.

If you keep going back to people with stuff they don't want, then you'll continue to fail. Qualify what they want and then give it to them. It's interesting because Luke Johnson, the ex columnist in the FT and now at the Sunday Times, writes about this a lot. He says as we get older we become more risk averse. Which is true because the more you know, the more you don't understand, the more questions you've got.

I for one, want to get out there in the recruitment industry and tell people to carry on taking risks. It's necessary to develop and build society.

Creation through entrepreneurialism is one of the most important things that we can talk about in the 21st century.

I'm going into politics now, but if we get the economy right then we can start paying for everything else, everything else will fall into place. That's the fundamental of entrepreneurialism above creation. If we can get it right then we can change society, and we have to create wealth. Entrepreneurialism must be allowed to carry on and not be overtaxed and not be over penalised for doing what the country and the world needs.

11. Given all of your knowledge and experience, if you woke up tomorrow morning and your recruitment business wasn't there and you had to start again from scratch, what are the steps that you take? What would you do?

Immediately look around for a service or product that needs to be developed. So I wouldn't spend my time as many people do - waiting for a unique idea. Because they don't exist. If they do they're as rare as rocking-horse poo.

Look at all good businesses, whether it's Starbucks, Costa Coffee, EasyJet, Facebook, all of these were modifications of businesses that already existed. Even The X Factor - I'm old enough to remember "Opportunity Knocks", with Hughie Green! I would look at what is going on around me, at the good ideas that can be improved and I would get straight into doing that.

I'm very grateful to the recruitment industry. It's treated me well, and I've enjoyed it - it's a great people business. I've been all over the world, I've traveled over all of the continents of the world in building my business over the last twenty years and I feel incredibly grateful. I want to carry on doing that actually for another 20.

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(c) Roy Ripper 

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