The Big Interview: Nick McVeigh-Crabbe, founder of Star Recruitment

'I love where weve got to now but Im really excited about where were going as well,' says McVeigh-Crabbe. Picture: Phil Wilkinson'I love where weve got to now but Im really excited about where were going as well,' says McVeigh-Crabbe. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
'I love where weve got to now but Im really excited about where were going as well,' says McVeigh-Crabbe. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
While Nick McVeigh-Crabbe believes Star Recruitment will benefit from post-Brexit stability, he says fresh blood is urgently needed.

Born into an entrepreneurial household, somehow Nick McVeigh-Crabbe always knew he would start his own business. The founder and co-director of construction and property headhunter Star Recruitment – formerly BBR Services – thanks a youth full of weekends “stocking the bars, cleaning the cellars and washing the bins out” in his father’s pub for inspiring his healthy attitude towards work.

“Genuinely one of the best things that my parents ever did for me was to get me working from a young age,” he recalls. “It was nothing glamorous and my dad probably paid me in bacon rolls or something, but I loved it. I’ve always liked having that strong work ethic.”

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That sense of a good job well done propelled him to establish what is now Star, a Leith-headquartered recruitment specialist with satellite offices in London and Glasgow, which completed its first acquisition just a year after launching in 2014. McVeigh-Crabbe describes the boutique firm as “pretty much the number one name” recruiting for housebuilders in Scotland, with ever deepening links across the rest of the UK.

Star Recruitment co-directors Alistair Robin and Nick McVeigh-Crabbe. Picture: Phil WilkinsonStar Recruitment co-directors Alistair Robin and Nick McVeigh-Crabbe. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Star Recruitment co-directors Alistair Robin and Nick McVeigh-Crabbe. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Targets this year include accelerating growth south of the border, rolling out a new website, boosting headcount by half a dozen consultants and moving into a larger Edinburgh office. The agency is also eyeing fresh takeovers, particularly of firms with a strong London and south-west presence, with McVeigh extolling the virtues of acquisitive alongside organic expansion.

He is anticipating a “huge amount of work” in both London and Glasgow, and he is keen to fully develop a consultant team at each base. He says: “There’s a lot of work in south-east England and we use that London office really as a base for our English clients. The plan is to get it fully staffed over the next few years. Clients like Cala and Barratt and Stewart Milne are UK-wide so we like to work with them both north and south of the border.”

'The acquisition propelled us'

Sourcing permanent and temporary staff for the new homes market is a tailored offering that fell into the company’s lap in 2015, when McVeigh-Crabbe was approached by the owner of West Central Staff. The addition meant that the recruiter was, practically overnight, working with almost every housebuilder in Scotland, plus a significant number across the UK.

“We jumped at the chance. It was quite a small company but it just fitted into our team easily and gave us another avenue to work in. We call it property recruitment but it’s really a niche within the new home sales market.”

The acquisition of Star Placements, and a subsequent rebrand to reflect the new addition, followed in 2018. It was this transaction that “really propelled us to be the dominant force in housebuilding recruitment”, says McVeigh-Crabbe.

The entrepreneur had sampled various industries before settling into a career in recruitment. He attended Rannoch School in Perth and Kinross and read sociology at Abertay University in Dundee, taking on a full-time role in the family retail business post-graduation. His parents, at the time, owned Morgan McVeighs, a shopping complex in Aberdeenshire. They have since sold the site and retired.

'My office was the dining table'

McVeigh-Crabbe moved down to Bath and worked in a variety of roles, including hospitality and car sales, before being headhunted to work in recruitment. He lost this job in a round of redundancies during the 2008 financial crisis. After settling in Edinburgh in 2010, he worked in hospitality recruitment with Reed. He has nothing but praise for the business, hailing it as a “well-run, family-owned firm” but knew the it was time for him to strike out on his own.

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He established a hospitality-led recruitment agency which fairly swiftly shifted its focus to construction. Alistair Robin, now his business partner and co-director, joined about eight months after the initial set-up and spearheaded the change in direction.

“We were working independently, each from our own flats. My office was the dining room table complete with a £10 Asda phone and a five-year-old laptop. He was working from his place, probably in boxer shorts and T-shirt,” he jokes. “Over time we hired more consultants, moved into a tiny office – it was ridiculous how small it was – before moving where we are now.”

Currently Star is based in a Leith office it is soon set to outgrow. McVeigh-Crabbe is now looking to build on the successful takeovers of West Central Staff and Star Placements, using them as a springboard to buy up other companies.

He says: “We can see big projects that we would love to snap up down south. Although we’re quite small-time at the minute, I think that with our market knowledge and the team that we have we can take someone over, be that a large or small company, and really expand down south as well.

“We’re never going to be a Reed or a Hudson or a Hays, that’s just being a bit silly, and we’re not looking to be. But I’m ambitious and I want the company to get to a really good size so that we’re known nationally.”

Dissipating political uncertainty

Plans for the 20/21 financial year include boosting revenues by around 25 per cent to £3 million. The group fell shy of its turnover target for the current year but increased sales by around a third and pushed up earnings – McVeigh-Crabbe feels strongly that if it weren’t for market instability related to Brexit, the figures would have “almost certainly” been higher.

He gratefully reports that the sentiment which had been badly damaged by lingering political uncertainty appears to be starting to dissipate in the wake of December’s more decisive general election.

“I think whether people voted to Leave or voted to Remain, it doesn’t really matter as we are leaving now and Boris Johnson and the Conservative government will organise that. The market has a bit of confidence in what’s going to happen now whereas before nobody knew. We had housebuilding clients in Glasgow saying that nobody wanted to buy a house because they didn’t know if we were leaving the EU without a deal.

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“Our concern was that we’d had a really tough period with Brexit and uncertainty there… what we don’t need now is another indyref, and I don’t think people realise what the magnitude of us leaving the UK would be. Brexit would be like a piece of cake compared to that. If we did have another indyref it’s going to cause real problems. That will again hit industries, from retail to services to hospitality.”

Recent political and economic upheaval has not only affected Star’s clients, it has impacted its candidates, too – something which the construction industry as a whole could do without, given the ongoing dearth of skilled workers. Here McVeigh-Crabbe points to the benefits of being based in Scotland.

“About 30 per cent of our workforce on the construction site are EU citizens,” he says. “They’ve been a really good workforce for us but a few did say they were heading back home now because of Brexit and they didn’t feel welcome. I guess it makes a difference in Scotland where the majority of people did vote to Remain.

"They know it was a largely English-dominated vote so fewer feel that they are being pushed out of this country. If our company was based in the north of England maybe that would be different.”

Fresh blood

Star is working to encourage construction industry partners to increase apprenticeships, a step he feels is “desperately needed” to open the doors to more young people and help tackle the significant skills shortage. “We’ve been very fortunate we have a lot of EU citizens coming over here and doing a good job for us. But we’re not too far away from where the number of skilled labourers or joiners really just falls off the edge of a cliff. They can pretty much charge what they want at the moment – some of these guys are making fantastic money because there’s such a shortage of them.”

Ultimately a concerted effort is what’s needed to effect real change, with government, academia and industry coordinating to bring fresh blood into the sector, he says. For its part, Star is forging new relationships with schools and colleges and encouraging students to seek out summer internships or labouring work during the holidays, as McVeigh-Crabbe once did in his family’s pub.

He hints at plans in the pipeline to develop Star’s offering by establishing a venture serving the estate agent, lettings and property management sectors, although it is still early days, he stresses. “We are feeling very positive about the market. The housebuilding industry has been flying for the last 12 or 18 months and the acquisition of Star Placements obviously put us right at the front of helping our clients expand their teams on a permanent and temporary basis.

"I love where we’ve got to now but I’m really excited about where we’re going as well.”

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