It’s always nice to find success stories from Kingston University, although I never met Jamie or knew of him during his time at Kingston; I couldn’t help but be filled with some kind of pride and happiness from watching how well he has done over the past years. It’s like ‘we made it’ or ‘one of us’ is killing it – that kind of thing. Anyway, I wanted to find out more about him especially on his latest New York expansion so I invited him onto YHP to discuss.
Could you quickly give us some background information about yourself?
I grew up in North Devon, graduated in 2004 with a Business degree from Kingston University, and went straight into a small financial recruitment company in London. I stayed there until 2007 when I set up JCW out of my lounge.
Tell me how you got into business? Were you exposed to entrepreneurship as a child?
I wouldn’t say that I was exposed to entrepreneurship as a child, but I can distinctly remember always having wanted to go into business. I’ve never been drawn to a specific vocation, but have always known that I wanted to be successful in my career and financially – business seemed the most assured way of achieving that.
What is JCW and how does it work?
We’re a recruitment company – effectively clients approach us with any employment vacancies that they’re unable to fill themselves, and pay us a fee on any introductions that we make which result in the vacancy being filled. We’re a specialist in that we will only work on vacancies in the risk management and governance sector, primarily on behalf to financial firms, currently.
What were you doing before you started the company?
I spent just over two years with Eames Consulting, a financial recruitment firm - they were a 6/7 man business when I joined but grew to several times that size before I left. During my time there I learnt not just the ‘trade’ of recruitment, but also a considerable degree on how to run and grow a successful business – experience that I feel I could have only picked up in a small company and am extremely grateful for.
Tell me about the early days of JCW, especially starting the business in the middle of the recession - what difficulties did you face and how did you get through that period of hardship?
The first year was certainly a lot tougher than expected – I knew that starting from scratch with no clients, no database (of candidates) and relatively little experience was going to be difficult, but underestimated just how difficult . However after 12 months things were going relatively strong despite a declining market and we were doubling profits almost quarterly.
The recession did finally take its toll, when Lehman went bust in late 2008. Within 2 weeks, all of our clients had put a freeze on recruitment and things were looking relatively bleak. We made a few operational changes to up the rate that we were bringing new clients on board, a tough undertaking bearing in mind how few firms were willing to increase headcount, but ultimately made it through due to determination and hard work.
What is your business model?
Our business model is not hugely different from the majority of recruitment businesses out there in that we seek to generate revenue through placing our candidates at client organisations for a fee. Our focus in the implementation of this relatively simplistic model is to ensure that throughout all our interactions with clients and candidates, we maintain extremely high levels of customer service (an aspect that sadly can be lacking in many firms). Therefore, if we’ve got no news to deliver or bad news, we’ll always communicate, thereby ensuring that we maintain integrity. This has yielded direct dividends in the past, an example of which would be the candidate that I had forwarded to a vacancy in the early days of the business and even though I had no feedback for him after 3 weeks, because I kept him regularly updated, when he did get a job off his own back and was in a position to hire his own team, I was the recruiter that he called to source the candidates to populate his new team…
What makes JCW different from any other recruitment service out there?
Recruitment is well known within the industry as being a sector that rarely if ever sees a genuine ‘USP’. I could run through a number of different elements of what makes us good at what we do, but for the most part what actually makes us different is that we do all of these things very well, and we do them more than everyone else! As a business that didn’t exist 5/6 years ago, and competes regularly against firms more than ten times our size, we’ve had to work incredibly hard for what we have – we’re known in the industry for having an incredibly strong work ethic, and in my view this really separates us out from the rest. Clients want to work with a firm that really wants and needs its business – it’s hard for our much larger competitors to get that message across with any kind of credibility. It’s not unusual for our Consultants to be in the office at 8PM still most evenings or to come in during the weekend to work on an assignment – clients appreciate that level of dedication and service and it gets us noticed.
What are the most crucial things you have done to grow your business?
We’ve put an unusual amount of faith in young people (for the most part, university graduates) – trainees make up the bulk of our hires in any given year, and the majority of our current management team is made up of individuals who joined JCW as their first role in recruitment. As someone who was successful in recruitment at a young age, I’ve a lot of faith in the ability of good people to go very far very quickly in this industry, if they’ve the right outlook in life and of course the right level of support and development from us as a business.
The alternative favored by most of our competitors in this space – hiring experience staff from elsewhere in the recruitment sector – is in my view a less effective option. We’re effectively in a sales industry, people are paid according to performance, and thus the natural dynamic in the experienced hire ‘market’ is that most candidates are only looking as they’ve not been successful where they are. There are exceptions of course, and we certainly look to hire the top 5% of the experienced market as and when we can find them, but for the most part my view is that growing a business in this sector through primarily experienced hires is a more costly and less effective route, with good experienced people being very hard to find – thus restricting growth.
Would you say the business has changed from the first initial idea?
We’re a fairly self-critical business so are always making changes operationally, so the environment and our internal processes have changed considerably. The founding principles of the business, however, I’d say are largely the same as they were in the very beginning.
I know you company has just launched a New York branch, how has the process been so far and why an office in New York?
New York was a no brainer for us – it’s one of the largest financial centres in the world (the largest depending on who you ask!), was a market where we already had a degree of presence, but perhaps most importantly is where most of the competition weren’t going and is a market of huge scalability.
Most of our competitors jumped into the Asian market at some point in the last five years, usually with openings in Hong Kong or Singapore. Our view was that the US market was much more scalable than an Asian business would have been for us…and that the market dynamic in the US (arguably less competitive, in recruitment terms, than Asia) would be favourable. Many other firms looked with surprise at our move to New York…I guess time will tell who was right!
The process so far has been largely as expected – expensive but exciting. We’re happy with that start that we’ve had, but it really means nothing until we have some real scale over there. The years ahead are looking positive for the US business without a doubt.
Who are your competitors?
Whilst there are quite literally thousands of recruitment firms out there that work in the financial space specifically…very few of them are competitors in a true sense of the word; most are much more generalist than us. As far as a genuine competitor, Barclay Simpson is probably the largest in the risk/compliance recruitment space now. They’re about double our size (at the time of writing).
How have you been able to fund the business?
We have been entirely funded by our own profits throughout the entire lifetime of the business.
What can we be expecting from your company in 2012?
Aside from continued expansion in our existing markets, we’re looking to move in to Europe and away from financial services in 2012. Whilst there’s plenty of space in the financial market for continued growth for JCW, this won’t be the case forever and there’s an obvious strategic driver to diversify our revenue streams across a variety of industry sectors. Despite Europe’s current woes, it remains a huge market for our services and one where we’d anticipate our offering well received.
What has been your most memorable moment so far?
Videoconferencing with the management team in London from our Wall Street office, with a busy sales floor in the background, was a pretty cool moment.
What three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
Make sure you genuinely want it; if you don’t then it’s likely to end up being an expensive waste of a few years of your life. Learn the importance of cash flow as soon as you can. Don’t do it by yourself if you can help it.