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Interview with First Recruitment Group's Founding Directors

12 Jul 2017

This is an interview with Steve Farthing (pictured below right) and Andy Cartledge (pictured below left), co-founders of First Recruitment Group, as they look back at the 20 year journey the business has been on and what has been the key to its success.

Read more about our 20th anniversary by clicking here.

Why did you decide to open the business?

Andy: “The idea of a new challenge drove us the most. We didn’t do it for financal reasons – in fact it was extremely hard in the beginning - but we did have this sense of needing to prove we could ‘go it alone’.”

How did you meet each other?

Steve: “We actually met at a recruitment company called Hitec back in about 1988. I started as an Office Junior and Andy joined 12 months later on a graduate scheme. We worked for John Urpi, who later became CEO at First Recruitment Group, and as our careers intertwining over the years we became good friends.”

Andy: “As a 23 year old straight out of uni, I remember my first impression of Steve was that he was full of energy with this competitive edge, and John was a great boss - calm, sensible and realistic. Back then you have no idea how life is going to turn out and that you’ll all end up working together 29 years later.”

What was business like in the beginning?

Steve: “In the beginning business was tough, as a recession had kicked in. We were working within the Nuclear and Petrochemicals sectors and could only afford for one of us to work full time, so I worked alone in my box room at home, until we had enough business for Andy to join too. I remember talking to one of my engineering clients, Simon Carves, in the summer of ’98, and an ice cream van drove into the cul-de-sac and parked right outside my house with the music blaring out. I laugh when I think of rushing to close the window as the music was so loud, deafening the conversation and professional façade I was desperate to portray.”

“Thankfully after about 9 months’ business picked up, Andy joined the business full time, and we were able to move into a ‘proper’ office, above a bookies in Sale. We’d go from really busy to really quiet, so to relieve tension we used to have a plastic football that we would head to each other across the office. Many times the manager from the office below would bang on the door and ask what we were doing and our standard answer would always be, ‘we’re moving filing cabinets.’ ”

Andy: “That time really stretched our abilities, learning to multi-task everything from admin and financials to business development and recruitment. Despite the steep learning curve we always had fun working together, but it was our competitiveness and determination that kept us going.”

Who were your first clients?

Steve: “Our first clients were incredibly significant for us. I had a good relationship with Simon Carves from a previous job and they decided to continue to send me work even when I set up the new business. There was a potential spanner in the works when they put their work out to tender, but through hard work we managed to get onto their PSL, beating some huge competition.”

Andy: “Waiting for the decision on that tender was incredibly tense, so on the day of the tender decision I decided to play a prank on Steve. Back in those days we had a dedicated fax machine just for Simon Carves jobs so that we could instantly tell when one of their jobs was sent over. I was alone in the office when they faxed over the news that we had been successful. After sitting there smiling for a few minutes, I had an idea, took the sheet of paper and made a copy that said we were ‘unsuccessful’ and put it back on the fax machine. I waited for Steve to come back and discover the note. He walked into the office smiling nervously, walked over to the fax machine and I saw his face drop as he read the note. I only let him stew for a few minutes, before I told him what I’d done. The look of pure relief and annoyance was priceless. Needless to say we had a big celebration that day. It really was a significant moment.”

Steve: “Yeah thanks for that Andy. That moment definitely aged me a few years.”

“We also worked with BNFL and because both businesses were busy at the time, we were able to meet their resourcing needs and grow our own business taking on admin staff, other recruiters and also Anna Machin (nee Rayment) in payroll (pictured right), who is still with the business to this day.”

When did you start to expand into other sectors?

Steve: “We took on some really important members of staff after a few years, in Evelyn (Lyn) Broomhead and Dave Long who brought a great deal of experience within the Water sector. This led to us winning work with one of the largest businesses within the North West at the time, Montgomery Watson. We became their biggest supplier with around 120 contractors at the time.”

Andy: “We used to call Lyn the pocket rocket from Manchester. She loved what she did and had an infectious enthusiasm and energy, which was great to be around, so after a while we invited her to become a director. My favourite memory of her was her terrible singing in the office and her favourite saying, when someone tried something and failed - ‘God loves a trier.’ I believe that hiring the right staff during that time was vital to our success, freeing up Steve and I to concentrate on areas of the business that we were more suited to.”

When did you really start to see success in the business?

Steve: “When we decided to enter the Oil & Gas sector in 2006, business really started to grow. We could see the potential, so we put together a research team to look into the industry, its clients and candidates, and came up with a strategy that no one else seemed to be using at the time. While our competitors were waiting for new jobs to be sent to them, we worked hard to grow our database with excellent candidates. By focusing on the candidate relationship, building upon our knowledge and their expertise. We then carefully selected the clients that we approached based on the candidates’ desires and the clients’ needs, which worked very well. This candidate driven marketing campaign took us from a £35 million turnover to £57 million and ultimately to over £100 million turnover.”

Andy: “It suited the market really well at the time, and was executed with tremendous success, but I doubt this technique would work in today’s environment, as procedures and communication links have been tightened in terms of HR and internal recruitment processes. It created a big buzz around the business as candidates promoted our business for us through word of mouth both to clients and their fellow contractors.”

What kinds of challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?

Steve: “Market conditions proved to be our biggest challenge. There were times when the Nuclear and Water industries quietened so job requirements would reduce. It was particularly hard when the financial crisis hit in 2008, and we had to learn to diversify to get through it. Another challenge we faced was around the year 2000 when our office was robbed. They stole all of our computers as well as our server and tape drive. We had all the data securely backed up but the tape drive itself really caused a problem. They were surprisingly difficult to find as the software that ran it was specific to the tapes we had, but we ended up managing to find one on eBay, and meeting a “dodgy guy under a bridge” to pick it up. In hindsight we should have always had a backup tape drive, as our business went down for a week. We learnt our lesson though and have taken hardware and software security extremely seriously ever since.”

What has been the key to your success?

Steve: “One of the main factors in our success has been looking after our staff. We use to (and still do!) call them our ‘crown jewels’, aiming to make working with us so attractive that they would never want to leave. We trained them personally, taught them how to find their own work and fill the jobs too. It felt like a family and people would stay with the company for a long time. We very rarely lost any member of staff we wished to keep.”

Andy: “I completely agree! It was an incredibly satisfying part of growing the business, to see staff succeed to fulfill their potential. When we started the business we were good recruiters, and over time had become ‘jacks of all trades’ to ensure its growth. By investing in the right talent, we replaced our roles with specialists, who ultimately added much more value and achieved much more than we could have done by ourselves. We were also great at embracing change. We were confident in our own ability and were bold enough to try different ideas. While other companies stayed the same we were looking for the next opportunity and market to enter.”

Why did you both decide to step back from the day to day running of the business?

Steve: “After about 10 years of working tirelessly to set up the business and make it a success, we slowly reduced our hours in the business. We heard that John Urpi had made the decision to leave a big recruitment company, and we persuaded him to join our company. We had known each other for years, trusted each other and were friends, confirming the agreement for him to join on a gentleman’s agreement and a handshake; he’s been with us ever since.”

“The experience of setting up a business and watching it grow was made all the more special by doing it with my good friend Andy. His determination, plethora of ideas and positive attitude makes me look back at that time with a great deal of happiness.”

Andy: “I have the fondest of memories from setting up First Recruitment Group and that was made so much easier by working with Steve. He’s a Liverpool supporter and I’m a Manchester United supporter, and we both have very strong personalities so it could have been a disaster. However, I can genuinely say that over that time we hardly had a crossed word, learning to compromise and work together in a way that suited us both. It was the best decision to step away when John had really settled in, taking over the day to day running of the business, and we both stay interested in the company and its future success.”

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