Monday Interview: Steve McCutcheon, PRG

When you are looking to take your business global it helps to have seen a bit of the world. Steve McCutcheon, founder and chief executive of recruitment firm PRG, can reel off a list of locations that reads like the travel section of a Sunday newspaper. Thailand, Sri Lanka, Australia, Africa, the Caribbean – there aren’t too many corners of the globe that this Glaswegian hasn’t visited.

Steve McCutcheon travels the world to expand PRGs international operations, and its reputation

These days, many of those exotic destinations relate to the business he set up more than a decade ago. PRG provides specialisms in a number of areas, including oil and gas, financial services and corporate change, and McCutcheon will find himself racking up the airmiles to meet a client’s needs, or to drum up new business.

The bread-and-butter hiring and placing of workers takes place across the firm’s core Edinburgh, Glasgow and recently opened Aberdeen offices, but PRG and its well-travelled boss are thinking big, with aspirations to grow gross revenues from last year’s £10 million to £50m by 2020.

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That five-year plan will involve some geographic expansion, with bases likely both south of the Border and in key overseas locations – Dubai and Houston, Texas, have already been mooted. However, McCutcheon still sees plenty of opportunity for organic growth within PRG’s back yard, with revenues set to top £16m to £17m in the current year.

“Most of our growth to date has been organic, and that will be helped by the opening of the Aberdeen office,” says McCutcheon, whose first degree lies in law – an area of practice he confesses to “not being especially good at”.

“We are a pretty big player in Scotland now for the markets that we serve, though there probably comes a point where it becomes difficult to grow your share much further,” he adds. “Over the next few years we will be looking to open in other countries. While acquisitions are not a core part of our growth plan we are very much alive to the opportunities out there.

“The medium-term goal is to build a £50m business. When we do launch into a new location we won’t be putting in 12 different specialisms on day one – instead building up over time and letting the operation gather momentum.”

Since it was founded in 2002, PRG has broadened its offering beyond accounting and finance. It now has a specialist energy division, for example, helping to place staff not only in the UK but across key hubs in the Middle East, the Gulf of Mexico, Africa, south east Asia and “the Stans”. As well as placing folks overseas, the firm can find itself helping workers switch from one international location to another.

McCutcheon admits that the North Sea sector has been “difficult” over the past few months, and talks of the differing messages coming from experts regarding its recovery hopes.

“We have had to react,” he says. “But the oil price will be what it is and we can’t influence that. The cost of extraction in the North Sea is probably about $60 a barrel, but there are plenty of locations in the world where the cost base is much lower.”

McCutcheon came into the recruitment game in the late 1990s, having initially studied law and working in a legal firm for a couple of years. His brief spell in the profession was followed by a period within the manufacturing sector, starting as a business analyst before ending up in a general operations manager role. Those itchy feet then took him back into the service industry and with an MBA now to his name, McCutcheon worked for a national recruitment firm before deciding to take the plunge with PRG.

He concedes that recruitment is a fiercely competitive industry with “very low barriers to entry” and one that is probably ripe for consolidation.

“We are not lawyers, accountants or dentists, we don’t need a practising certificate and there is no regulator, but you do need a very specific set of skills,” says McCutcheon, whose firm’s current headcount of almost 70 is likely to be approaching 100 by the end of the year.

“Technology has had an impact, of course. When I joined we were only really getting to grips with e-mail and were still faxing documents. There were no job boards.

“People predicted the end of the recruitment industry when they started appearing and there has been the same conversation with the advent of 

“I am sure there will always be a place for a niche boutique firm in the likes of law, accounting or corporate finance, but I think LinkedIn and some of the efficiencies it can bring to employers might drive consolidation.

“The UK is one of the most fragmented recruitment markets in the world. There are ten times as many operators in the UK compared with the US, relative to the size of markets. We might see some of the smaller players get out.”

Despite the many challenges facing the sector, the milkboy-turned-CEO retains a zeal for the jobs business.

“When we bring new recruits into the operation the one thing I always say to them is ‘you can’t email a handshake’. Because we recruit in high-knowledge, high-value areas the people that we place in jobs need to have a high level of skill and experience. But employers also want interpersonal effectiveness.

“There is a lot to be said for seeing the whites of somebody’s eyes. Technology will help with the communication and engagement, but it’s never going to replace human judgment.”

30-second CV

Job: Founder and chief executive of PRG.

Born: Springburn, Glasgow.

Education: Local schools, University of Strathclyde.

First job: Milkboy.

Car: Porsche Cayenne GTS. Lovely performance and handy when you have five sons.

Favourite mode of transport: Emirates first class. Or boat. Or tuk-tuk. As long as I’m travelling somewhere then I’m pretty happy.

Music: Really mixed. Dance and pop, funk, even country.

Can’t live without: Knowing that those I care about are safe and well and happy.

Favourite place: Maybe my kitchen at dinnertime with the family. Overseas, maybe Thailand.

What makes you angry? Lying, lack of perspective, nitpicking. Politics and bureaucracy.