I first came across Sandra Lawler, co-founder and director of the Alternatives Group, in 2006 - when our companies were both finalists in the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year programme.
Set up in 2000, by Sandra and her long-time friend, Aldagh McDonogh, the Alternatives Group had, by then, established itself as a leading resourcing and recruitment company specialising in placing marketing professionals in businesses throughout Ireland. Now almost 10 years on, I revisit Sandra and their new group managing director, Charley Stoney, in their offices in Dublin to see how both time and the changing fortunes of the Irish economy have shaped their business.
"Things have evolved more than changed," explains Sandra. "We have added a number of different strands to the business which adds additional revenues, while at the same enabling us to offer a more complete solution to our clients," she adds.
While Alternatives remains the leading provider of marketing talent, they now also place staff across other key functions including sales, business development and digital and online.
"Our target market includes companies of all sizes. Some contact us when they are looking to recruit just one person while others want to hire or outsource a whole team," explains Sandra. "The area of managed teams is something many new companies and particularly foreign direct firms have really begun to embrace," she adds.
A managed team is often recruited where there is an urgent need to kick start a new project within an existing company or to help launch an entirely new business. Here a group of people with the right mix of skills, including sales, marketing and management, are all recruited at the same time. For some companies, it's about saving time, or bringing in specific skills, while for others it's more a case of not wanting to have their existing teams distracted from existing projects or core business operations.
The company's customers include a mix of indigenous Irish companies and multinational firms across a broad range of sectors, such as financial services, consumer goods, technology, professional services, retail, and tourism. These include an impressive list of well-known names such as AIB, Bank of Ireland and Ulster Bank, Vodafone, Three and UPC, Kerry Group, Glanbia, Irish Distillers and Electric Ireland.
In addition to its core business, the company also recently launched Alternatives Elect, an international executive search service that helps clients find the best global talent to help grow their businesses.
Aimed at finding talent to fill C-suite positions in companies, such as chief executive, chief operations and chief financial executive, the company has successfully partnered with international research firms in London, Brussels, the USA, and Sydney, as well as tapping into the vast global network that is the Irish diaspora.
Sandra Lawler grew up in Blackrock, in Dublin, where her father was the commercial manager of a successful food business and later a health and beauty business. She vividly remembers how he would often bring home samples of products for the family to test. She recalls too, countless conversations about business - and how sales and marketing in particular were the cornerstones of any successful business.
Her mother too, was an entrepreneur who, throughout Sandra's teenage years, ran a number of small businesses including an office supplies business.
It was while attending secondary school that she met up with fellow class mate and now life-long friend, Aldagh McDonogh. Both later went on to graduate with degrees in international marketing and languages from Dublin City University before embarking on their individual careers.
Sandra spent much of the next 15 years working throughout the UK and Europe with great Irish brands such as Kerrygold and Jameson. Her experience taught her about the power of having a strong brand, and also about the need to have the right staff and talent to build such brand recognition and deliver sales and business growth.
On her return to Ireland, she found herself looking to recruit a marketing consultant to help with a short term project she was working on for Jameson whiskey. Try as she did, she couldn't find a suitably qualified person who was willing to work on a short- term basis. She contacted Aldagh, who by this time had also returned home to Ireland only to discover that she, too, had a short-term vacancy for a marketing professional on her team (as a result of maternity leave cover) which she couldn't fill either.
While they had each enjoyed careers working for others, both became increasingly attracted to the idea of starting their own business.
Drawing on their experience of not being able to find suitably qualified marketing candidates on a flexible basis, they handed in the keys of their company cars and decided instead, to create a new venture that would fill this gap. They would source and place marketing talent in a more flexible or alternative way. And so Alternatives was born.
For the first year, the pair worked from tiny offices in their own homes. Much of that time was spent building up a panel of candidates who they could offer to companies looking for flexible staffing arrangements.
"Glanbia became our first big client," recalls Sandra. "At the time, they were merging two separate divisions and needed a new and ready to go marketing team. From there, things began to build, client by client," she adds.
By 2005, the pair had moved into the permanent recruitment space and had established themselves as leaders in the provision of marketing talent nationally. However, their greatest challenge came from something they had not expected and which lay outside their control - the downturn of 2008.
"The recession hit us fast and its impact was severe," admits Sandra honestly. "While we were working really hard and had a hugely motivated team and great clients, companies everywhere began slashing their marketing budgets and contract staff were among the first group to be cut," she adds.
While being specialists in marketing had helped them build a strong business, now, it alone would not protect them.
"We suffered the double whammy of being overly reliant on one niche - that of marketing - and on only one market - that was Ireland," she continues.
During this time Aldagh decided, with Sandra's blessing, to move on from the business to a full-time role working with one of the company's long standing clients.
Facing up to the challenges of this new environment head on, Sandra began to branch out beyond just marketing and into other associated areas. She realised that the whole area of digital and online was beginning to explode as companies everywhere grappled with the urgent need to build capability in this area. Alternatives responded with a new division called Alternatives Digital which provided talent with digital expertise in everything from digital marketing and social networking to online sales, UX design and data analytics.
In 2011, business began to grow again as companies began to emerge from the shock of the downturn. However, many firms still had a freeze on headcount numbers within their organisations and being able to hire individuals or team talent on a more flexible basis again became an attractive option for many. It was this that prompted Sandra to set up the company's managed team division.
"From large blue-chip clients to emerging online and e-commerce companies, we were able to offer our clients the flexibility of being able to flex up or down their staff numbers as they were needed," explains Sandra. "For example, one large financial services business was able to fully insource its marketing communications team from us and access great talent immediately but with no headcount implications. For another company, in the telecommunications sector, we were able to provide a complete insourced team to manage their loyalty programme," she adds.
They then added sales and business development resourcing into the mix and also began building opportunities outside of the country.
Introducing these new strands in the business brought about increased growth and turnover and staff numbers in the company have now doubled since 2012.
Charley Stoney joined the company in 2014 as the group's managing director. Originally from Mayo but having worked in marketing in London, she had developed a long track record of leading large field sales and outsourced teams for brands that included Mars, Pepsi, Nintendo and Sony. She was also responsible for forming McConnells Fusion, a Dublin-based marketing, PR and below-the-line agency.
A good combination, she looks after operational issues and driving growth while Sandra focuses on developing the overall vision and strategy for the business.
I ask what the plans are for the future of the business.
"We are now working to an ambitious plan to triple our revenues over the next three years," explains Sandra enthusiastically.
"This will see us continue to evolve and develop both our marketing resourcing solutions as well as our commercial, digital and managed services offerings. And we see considerable growth potential too in our Alternatives Elect - our international executive search business.
"Overall, things are going well and it sure beats the hell out of being in recession mode," she adds cheerfully.
Sandra Lawler is a bright and hardworking entrepreneur who is passionate about growing the success of her own business and those of her clients. Having qualified in marketing and languages, she gained considered experience working abroad with leading international brands.
Spotting a potential gap in the market for flexible staffing, she concentrated firstly on the area she knew best, marketing, and built and evolved her business from there. As the needs of her clients changed so too did her company's offering. And having successfully navigated her way through the downturn and emerged intact, she seems not to have lost any of her drive or enthusiasm.
If you were to look up the definition of the word 'alternative', you'd find that it refers to the art of employing or following non-traditional or unconventional ideas to achieve a result. And that's what Sandra and her team at Alternatives are doing for themselves and their clients.
Contact Alternatives at Little Fitzwilliam Place, Dublin 2. Tel: +353 1 6618889.
www.alternatives.ie and www.alternativeselect.ie
1. Seek outside inspiration
"One of the best ways for leaders to remain inspired is to network with other business leaders or owners. Being part of such a group will help keep you motivated while also providing opportunities to learn."
2. It's all about the team
"All business owners rely on their team to grow and deliver for their customers. To truly succeed, you will need to invest in attracting and retaining great staff. Developing the right culture and staff engagement is also critical."
3. Do the right thing
"Short-term thinking seldom leads to long-term success. When you focus on taking the correct long-term decisions for your business, your clients and your team, you will increase the likelihood of success."
Sunday Indo Business