The Recruiter's Soapbox

Top Model 14th Birthday

BMR’s 14th Anniversary – Interview With Clare Barton, Founder, Director

To mark BMR’s 14th Anniversary, the team put Clare Barton, Founder and Director on the other side of the interview table for a change…..

What was the rec2rec market like when you originally set up Barton Mills 14 years ago?

In 2004 there were 3 established players in the rec2rec space and I was the new kid in town.  Unfortunately for the rec2rec industry, none of these brands are still in existence today.  The market was relatively immature and in need of a good shake up.  There were a couple of good operators, but in the main, a rec2rec consultant was seen as a failed recruiter or at best a tier 2 consultant.  I hope, if I have done nothing else, I have done something towards changing people’s opinion here.

In a lot of ways, the recruitment market was much easier. Clients tended to hire on experience rather than culture fit, so getting offers for my candidates was straight forward.  Today, I believe that my clients are much better at making hiring decisions. They do not panic hire when they stumble across someone with relevant experience.  They know how important it is to get the right person who “fits” the environment. 14 years ago, if you had a pulse and some sales history, you would walk away from a process with multiple offers.  Today I believe it is much harder to get candidates across the line, and rightly so.

What are the major changes to the industry that you have seen during this time? What has had the biggest impact on the industry?

Recruitment 14 years ago meant agency recruitment:  We were not competing for talent with internal teams, RPO’s and Professional Services businesses.  Recruitment talent today has many more options in terms of the direction they can take their careers.  If anything, talent today in agency land is even harder to come by than 14 years ago.  Obviously recent visa legislation changes are playing into this trend as well.

The Global Financial Crisis:  Possibly the most challenging and nerve wracking thing I have ever been through.  Overnight, my market changed from extreme talent shortages to a glut of redundant recruiters on the market.  Clients were not hiring, and certainly were not using a rec2rec.  We had to change the way we operated overnight to survive.  Its still one of my proudest achievements that BMR, not only kept its doors open through this period when all of my competitors either disappeared or reduced their working week to 2 days, but retained the whole team, who most of whom were reliant on the company for their visa and ability to stay in the country.  We not only survived but through partnering with a small number of key clients who saw an opportunity to increase and up-skill their teams during the down turn, we actually came out the other side stronger than when the crisis hit. 

The introduction of business networking sites: the obvious one being LinkedIn, was predicted to disrupt.  There is no doubt that the introduction of these sites has changed the way we recruit.  The role of a recruiter now includes being part marketing/social media expert with the need for a very strong online footprint.  However, I am pleased to say that with most things tech, the changes have helped us but have not replaced us.  No IT developments have replaced the fact that people still desire the human touch.  They want a person at the end of a phone to talk to and they want a relationship.  Tech has made it easier to find the people we are looking for, but it cannot make a cultural decision, it cannot influence, negotiate, think left of centre or advise.  Despite these tech advancements, I believe that the need for strong consultative recruitment consultants has only increased.

BMR has been very successful and has stood the test of time, what do you attribute that success to?

Success is subjective.  There are far bigger and arguably more successful players than BMR but yes, in terms of achieving the objectives that I had for the business when I started out it has certainly surpassed these and has most definitely stood the test of time.

What do I attribute this to?  Hmm, this one requires a bit of thought and a rather large gin and tonic, let me come back to you………

  • Hard, hard work. Long hours, resilience.
  • Motivation. Nothing focuses you more than a mortgage, a renovation and the desire to provide a good standard of living for your family.
  • Desire for success. I am not motivated by money per se (although the financial rewards certainly help!) but I am motivated by being successful and if I’m totally honest, being perceived to be successful.  I see so many candidates who have all of the right skills but lack the drive and determination to be exceptional at what they do.
  • Adapting to change and sometimes actually pre-empting the change and staying ahead of the curve. Never standing still.
  • Reinvesting in the business and the people within it.
  • Having a great business partner with a complementing skill set. Yes, I’ve been the face of BMR but not everyone realises that none of it would have happened if it wasn’t for the savvy Scotsman who’s strengths mask my weaknesses; being, just to name a few, IT, accounting, in fact anything that is not directly related to sales.  Big shout out to you Mr Mills!
  • Not being scared to ask for help. Over the years we have learned from our clients (Ethos Beath Chapman’s approach to navigating their business through the GFC, inspired our strategy).
  • I have surrounded myself with great people. Internally, I have had the pleasure of working with some great people, and getting external help in particular from Charlotte Rimmer from Aide de MD has been invaluable over the years.  Its amazing what an independent voice can do for your business, highlighting things that once spoken seem embarrassingly obvious, but you were just too close to it all to see yourself!
  • Having a plan. I had a very clear idea, when I started the business, of what I wanted to offer to the industry and everything I have done fed into this idea.  The recruitment landscape may have changed along the way but essentially, what I set out to do in the beginning, stands strong today.  Before I set up the business I spoke to every Recruitment Consultant I could get in front of.  I think I questioned over 70 Consultants and asked the same questions repeatedly.  Have you ever used a rec2rec?  What was your experience?  What did you like and not like?  What would be useful to you?  The answers all came back the same. What was needed was a rec2rec who listened, who could culture match, who understood the market inside out and could genuinely consult.  That is, someone who could match not only skill set, but career ambitions, culture fit, style and development needs rather than just flicking their resume out to the 10 companies who were hiring.  It was clear that If there was a rec2rec who did not try to “sell to consultants” who they trusted, who could consult and offer career advice, then they would use them.  These answers set the corner stone of my first business plan and has not differed over the 14 years of operation.
  • We have gone out of our way to give back to the industry whether its just a bit of fun – our Ivy Penthouse and Christmas in July client parties or our industry forums.

Do you have clients today who were with you from the start?

Absolutely.  Today, I have national and multinational clients who are now leaders in their field whom I started working with when they were looking to make their first hires.  Many of my client relationships go back to the beginning or certainly further back than a decade.  These relationships are amazing.  They are where you can have the most honest conversations and be the most effective.

If you could go back again and start again, what would you do differently? 

Honestly?  Not much.  It’s been a fantastic ride.  Obviously, there are ups and downs along the way, but overall, I have felt blessed to work in such an interesting sector. I have met some incredible people and personalities and had a huge amount of fun along the way.  Laughter has been at the cornerstone of BMR for as long as I can remember.  There are obviously lessons to learn along the way and I do really try to learn from them.  I have learnt to accept that I am human and not infallible, so like everyone, I have made some humdinger of mistakes.  Managing sales people is a tricky one and I’ve not always got it right.  However, all these experiences have made me a better person and manager in the long run.

After the changes to immigration laws announced over the last few months, where do you see this leaving the Australian recruitment industry?  And what do you envisage for the next 12 months? 

I wish I had a crystal ball for this one.  It all depends on whether the current legislation stays in place and remains unchallenged.  The current status quo has the industry at “check mate”.  On the one hand the Government has taken us off the 4-year scheme and onto the 2 year scheme, which has put an immediate stop to senior, mature, executive overseas candidates applying to positions in Australia.  There is no way they are going to uproot themselves and their families for a 2-year commitment with no residency options.  On the other hand, the Government has put in a caveat of $90K + Super because the only candidates they are interested in us sponsoring are……. you guessed it……senior, mature, executive operators.  Go figure!!!   My hope is that our industry bodies work together and continue to fight this on our behalf.  If nothing changes, then I envisage big changes for the industry.  The quest to find talent will become even harder.  Salaries will be pushed up and may force the industry to overhaul the way it remunerates.  The cost to hire will increase, with less candidate flow. Eyes will turn again to how we attract new local talent to the industry, something we have struggled to do in recent years.  This again, may require an overhaul of the way we do business, as the current offerings are seemingly not attractive to the new generation of Aussies coming through.

Many people get to the point where they want to set up their own agency, what advice would you give to anyone considering such a step?

  • Be extremely self-critical and acutely aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. Don’t be afraid to bring in external help or a partner who can complement your skill set.  It is a rare person who has it all.
  • Be conscious that being a good or even excellent recruitment consultant does not necessarily translate into being a successful business owner.
  • Make sure you are going into it for the right reasons: If its just about making more money, be aware that in the early days, you might actually go backwards in your earnings..
  • Running your own business is not just about making placements. It’s about how you are going to build a business.
  • The highs are amazing. When things are going well there is nothing like it.  The lows can be horrendous.  You are totally accountable.  Everyone will look to you for the answers.

You have recently had a major “Tree Change”, relocating with your family to the South Coast, how has the adjustment been?  How hard has it been to step away from something you built from the ground up?

Barton Mills is like my first child.  I am passionate about it and for many years have put my heart and soul into it.  However, after 14 years, with a great team in place, I have the opportunity for the first time to focus on and put my 3 real children first.  Once my team got over the shock of my decision, they started smirking.  They thought it was hilarious that I was deluding myself that I could let go of the BMR reins.   Imagine their shock when on making the move, they literally did not hear from me for the first 3 weeks!!  They thought I could not step away, but it seems that I can!  I am lucky, I can do this because it is in the hands of people I trust.  The change has been amazing from a family and personal perspective and I am in no doubt that it was the right time and the right thing to do.  However, I do miss the recruitment highs.  The celebration when things are going well, the laughs, the camaraderie, that feeling when you know you have absolutely nailed it for a candidate or a client, when you have literally helped to change someone’s life.  The beauty of technology these days is that you can make these changes if you really want to.  I’m answering these questions from the communal work space in Berry, surrounded by other entrepreneurs who have made the similar tree change.  I can be in Sydney in 2 hours when I’m needed, and I’m only ever a skype or phone call away.