The Big Interview: HRC Recruitment chief executive Hilary Roberts

She may now be chief executive of her own recruitment firm with 60 staff, but Hilary Roberts started her career in insurance after ruling out her initial plans to be a schoolteacher or a social worker.

HRC Recruitment chief Hilary Roberts wants to grow the company to be the biggest and best of its kind in Scotland.

And she is amused looking back on how it didn’t prove the best fit for her skillset. “I remember my boss saying to me, ‘You’re really great with all the people side of things – but you have absolutely no idea about underwriting’.”

Roberts subsequently “fell into” recruitment, although her time in insurance had not been wasted. It gave her valuable knowledge when tasked with placing candidates in the sector, as well as first-hand experience of the importance of matching the right person with the right job.

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And it soon became apparent that for her it was “the best job in the world – I just took to it instantaneously”.

Looking to take a different approach to an industry that didn’t have the best reputation, and often followed the “chuck out enough CVs and one will stick” school of thought, she soon set up her own business with the support of her husband Stephen.

What is now known as HRC Recruitment launched in 1995 after her father loaned her the start-up funding required on the condition that he would be repaid within a year. She was able to do so in nine months.

Roberts recently picked up HR Network Scotland’s chief executive of the year award, an accolade that came after a period of major expansion. In the past year or so her company has taken 5,200 sq ft of new office space at 180 St Vincent Street, Glasgow, and opened up and then expanded in Edinburgh.

It has also moved into Dundee, and Roberts said when it launched there in June that the move came amid the city being “on the cusp of” major economic growth. “There are huge opportunities in this evolving market in our existing sectors of professional services – and new areas too,” she said. “Dundee is well known for its IT and gaming industries, but there are also burgeoning healthcare, hospitality, and construction sectors.”

The move saw HRC expand into new sectors driven by temporary projects, adding to its core specialisms that include human resources, IT, contact centres, and manufacturing and engineering. The aim is for headcount at the Dundee office to double to 12 by the end of next year.

A proper strategy was put in place a few years into the business’ journey, by which time it had grown significantly, and Roberts felt it was appropiate to “really take a step back and go ‘what are we really trying to achieve here?’”

This decision to impose a more structured approach included a push regarding the financial and professional services sectors, and its client roster now includes Clydesdale Bank, accountancy giants PwC and Deloitte, and legal heavyweights such as Harper Macleod, Dentons, CMS and Campbell Dallas.

Also on the books are food and drink players The Scottish Salmon Company, and premium spirits groups Edrington, home to brands such as The Macallan and The Famous Grouse, and William Grant & Sons, which numbers Glenfiddich, Drambuie and Hendricks’ among its portfolio.

Looking at the recruitment industry as a whole, it is inextricably linked with the ups and downs of the economy. And it was one downward trajectory that proved a salutary lesson for Roberts, who notes that the first thing people do during a lull is that put hiring plans on ice. Or more specifically, they stop recruiting permanent staff “and you see a swing to temp and interim roles”.

This lesson was learnt “the hard way” when the financial crisis kicked off a decade ago (“2008 knocked about ten years off my life”) and saw some staff laid off. But there was one silver lining in that it prompted a “seismic shift” in the organisation, which grew its temporary and contractor activity. “That will allow for longer-term stability in the business than I had back in 2008,” she adds.

The headwinds of Brexit, along with record levels of employment and the ongoing skills shortage, have resulted in increased business for recruiters in the past year, according to research from Bibby Financial Services. Nearly three-fifths of them have experienced improved business performance over the past 12 months, with 63 per cent expecting revenues to increase next year. Additionally, Clearly PR, a PR and content marketing agency for the recruitment sector, dug out Companies House data revealing how many firms are vying for a share of the market. The amount of newly registered players was higher in April – at about 1,200 – than at any time over the last six years, with the recruitment start-up economy “enjoying its fastest growing period in years”.

But how does Roberts’ business compete with firms specialising in just one or two of HRC’s areas? “We certainly are finding that we’re making real headway in the market areas where we’ve got a significant number of consultants,” she says.

“And I guess my challenge is where I’ve got one or two people, what we’ve done is we’ve gone to market, and if it’s one person we’ve got, somebody that’s really good who’s going to be the person that’s going to build the team under them. That’s really how we plan to take the lesser well-known markets for HRC forward.”

Part of the strategy of the firm, which has been “building on the momentum of the last two to three years”, was its rebranding in January from HR Consultancy. Roberts says this was because as the company moved into new areas, staff were constantly having to explain that HR represented her initials rather than human resources.

The aim is to grow overall headcount to 100 by the end of 2020, and she is seeking to complement the senior team with one additional hire. “Once I can secure that role, that will allow me to spend more time thinking and talking to people about strategic alliances and to spend more time out talking to our customers.”

Teaming up with another organisation is something she is “absolutely” interested in. “I think there are a couple [of them] in the market who would complement us extremely well. We will start conversations in the early part of next year around it.”

But after the recent geographic expansion, adding more offices is not among current targets – instead favouring a “sticking to our knitting” approach. “We’ve got plenty of opportunity, I think, to still grow in some of our key areas, and particularly in our new growth areas,” Roberts says, adding that HRC is able to “get the numbers up” without having to go to another location.

The focus is on growing the business, which supports The Prince’s Trust, to be the biggest and best firm of its kind in Scotland. As well as delivering recruitment services, it is also looking at other areas such as “helping clients build their employee value proposition – I would really like to expand that and take that to market in a much bigger way”. In March the firm flagged how companies were increasing wages and boosting incentives amid tough competition for the best business support staff.

Ultimately, Roberts wants HRC to “not just be known as the best in our specific markets for recruitment, but also adding something that’s different from your bog-standard transactional recruitment company”.

And the prospect of being taken over by a larger player is also not something she is seeking out. “It’s certainly not on my plan at the moment. I feel as though I haven’t got anywhere near fulfilling my vision for the business.”