40 Years In Recruitment: Part One by Russell White

Part One – The 1980’s

This month I celebrate my 40th year in recruitment. There are not many people I know who have stayed the course in the industry and are still ‘at the coalface’ after all this time. Indeed I may be unique! Recruitment has changed beyond recognition since 1983 and I feel now is a good time to share my journey, as I somehow doubt I will still be doing the same thing after 50 years! The easiest way of doing this is breaking down each decade – sharing some of the stories and highs and lows that have occurred over a 4-decade career over 4 parts.

My First Recruitment Role 

I started my career as a Trainee Recruitment Consultant, working out of an office in Eton, Berkshire for a Home Counties multi-office recruitment consultancy, placing accountancy staff for commercial businesses, mainly on the Slough Trading Estate. I had seen an advertisement in the Evening Standard for Recruitment Consultants that required someone with an understanding of recruitment and accountancy. From age 17 till then I worked in McDonalds, rising from Crew Member to Manager, moving to the then 4th busiest store in Oxford Street, where, as training Manager was responsible for all hirings. This tied nicely into my Business Studies degree, where I was always interested in Personnel and Training. I also spent the placement year of my degree in McDonald’s Accounts Team, rising to Assistant Payroll Supervisor and managing one of their first-ever national promotions “Build A Big Mac”, orchestrating the prizes. 

It would be hard for most people to imagine recruitment in November 1983, but there were no computers. Candidates, who had responded to adverts in the Slough Observer, sent their CVs by post, often with a handwritten cover letter, which was indexed and a card made based on their skills. Companies phoned, or I would phone companies whose details were held on a Rolodex for vacancies and we would go through the box, looking for candidates who matched the Job Title select those and the secretaries would prepare the CVs and send in the post. The client would ring, tell me who they wanted to interview and only then would you ring the candidate and tell them they had an interview. 

I started on a salary of £5,500 and if I hit the target of £9,000 by the end of December, I would get a £1,000 bonus and miraculously I hit the target, placing part-qualified accountants, credit controllers, and accounts clerks.

Moving Up The Ladder

I was swiftly promoted to a fully-fledged Recruitment Consultant and moved to the newly opened office in New Bond Street in late 1984, where we were given a new piece of technology to aid our work, namely a fax machine! At the beginning of 1986, I was promoted again to Senior Consultant and was asked to focus on a new discipline, Direct Marketing. Fortunately, I had gained some experience in mail order,  when I was a young teenager, helping my father sell leather jackets ‘off the page’, so understood the concept. 

At the time there were very few recruiters specialising in DM at that time, and a new magazine was being launched, specifically for the industry, so job adverts attracted both clients and candidates. To demonstrate my understanding, I ran an advert in the back pages that resembled an off-the-page ad. The first few editions were distributed free around the country and compared to the other recruiters’ advertising, my ad stood out, as a result, not only did I gain dozens of specialist direct marketers as candidates, but I also got called by many agencies and companies asking for assistance to fill roles. As direct marketing became an increasingly important part of the marketing mix, I grew a team of 3 people, and so did my managerial responsibilities, running the West End office of 20 people and the company I was working for was also growing, opening offices in other parts of the country and I became responsible for the hiring and training of recruiters in several offices, whilst retaining my duties as manager of the West End office and eventually a team of recruiters across the UK. 

One story of the 80s always sticks in my mind. In 1984, British Telecom was privatised to allow competition and companies to use equipment from suppliers outside BT. In 1986 I was given the responsibility of choosing a telephone system for the office and I selected a new business that was an agent for a new modern system. They duly installed it, up to the point where it connected to BT’s line that connected to the exchange but BT point blank refused to connect the system.  My Managing Director was furious and gave me 48 hours to resolve the situation. Calls to BT’s Head Office, and District Office, proved fruitless. I had a brainwave – I’ll contact my MP!

The Influence of Politics on Recruitment

My MP at the time was none other than the architect of privatisation, and one of the most influential politicians in the world – Mrs Margaret Thatcher. I rang the Constituency Office, explained my dilemma and was told Mrs Thatcher had just left London on Concorde to fly to Washington to meet President Reagan to discuss Salt 3 (nuclear weapon disengagement with Russia) but the constituency secretary assured me that she would get a message to her once she landed and would ring me the next morning with an update. The next day at 9.30 am, one line into the building rang and it was the Constituency Secretary calling to say she had interrupted a working dinner that Mrs Thatcher was having with Ronald Reagan and that Mrs Thatcher had dictated a letter to her, with some help from President Reagan, addressed to the then Chairman of BT and was sending via Prime Minister’s Messenger (a man in a uniform) to him. At 11 am, the phone rang again. The General Manager of the Westminster District of BT said he would be at my offices at 1 pm. At 1.03 pm, he arrived, with 3 others. The District’s Engineering Director and two phone engineers. He said, he’d worked for BT (GPO) for 30 years and had never spoken to his Chairman but got an angry call to say to be here at 1 pm, not leave until the problem had been resolved and for me to explain the problem which I duly did. He spoke to the Engineering Director, to sort it who duly instructed the engineers to connect the exchange to the line. (They were all in the same room). He looked at me with a degree of hostility and said “Who are you”? I just said I wrote to my MP to ask for the line to be connected. He snorted and left. The engineers went to the basement and by 3 pm the new phone system was working and connected to the outside world.  

The 80s was a good time to be in recruitment, the economy was expanding, direct marketing was growing exponentially and I got to work with some of the pioneers of direct marketing. I also made lifelong friends, many of whom I am still in contact with 40 years later. The next decade, the 90s, was a period of personal development and further growing my influence across direct marketing and again pioneering the recruitment in ‘new media’ as the internet became an important element of life. 

Circumstances beyond my control led me in 1989 to The Lloyd Group, then one of the pre-eminent marketing recruitment consultancies in the UK at the time. This will be covered in Part Two.