Business World

Thursday 22 March 2018

Radical transformation: a new work order taking shape

Dubliner Rosaleen Blair has built a global business that works with some of the biggest companies. But her world domination mission is just getting started

Rosaleen Blair illustration by Don Berkeley
Rosaleen Blair illustration by Don Berkeley

Roisin Burke

There's a thunder of tiny footsteps from down a corridor and then this petite blonde dynamo flies into view to greet me at the door of Alexander Mann Solutions' light-filled posh offices in central London.

A tube strike has paralysed London, "but Rosaleen will be there at 8am" her secretary said when I checked the previous day that she could still make it.

The chief executive of the €315m recruitment empire is here on time, in a well-cut black dress and Chanel-style jacket, holding out a coffee in greeting and talking a mile a minute. Transport gridlock across the metropolis only momentarily held her back.

She usually gets the ferry from her home in Putney to headquarters in central London, but today there was fog and the ferry was grounded. She joined a line of people waiting for a bus, but befriended a girl in the queue who Hailo'd a cab and, along with several others, she chipped in to get into town.

Naturally by the end of this journey Rosaleen Blair is friends with everybody and has already been chatting on Twitter to one of the commuter gang.

She is all about people, and constantly on the lookout for talent. Several staff from very non-HR backgrounds have thrived in the company in different ways after having met Blair and had her take an interest in them.

It is about seven years since she last did a print interview. She says she never does them, she wants the business to speak for itself. It's talking volumes at the moment.

Alexander Mann Solutions (AMS) has just won two huge new global contracts, one with energy giant Statoil and one with an as-yet-unnamed international banking giant – and then there's a big technology multinational client win about to close.

What the company does has completely transformed recruitment at blue chips such as Vodafone, Credit Suisse, Deloitte Rolls-Royce, healthcare giant Covidien and defence multinational BAE.

AMS will now go into Statoil and embed about 85 of its people at its offices from Angola to Norway and take charge of every aspect of its global recruitment operations. Or as Blair would say, its 'talent management'.

She and her team carry 'talent' cards. "They say: 'We've spotted you, you're talent.' It means you can be anywhere and meet somebody really interesting and you may not have the obvious opportunity in your mind for them straight away, but if you think that they're a great person then you're finding a way to reach out," she explains.

"We've got some great people through it. I think you always need to think differently about talent. The more interesting hires normally come from people who don't necessarily have the obvious background."

She didn't have the obvious background herself when she started out. Fresh off the boat from Ireland, she joined Dragons' Den star James Caan's recruitment business in the Nineties. She hadn't been to college, she wasn't very corporate, she had come over from Dublin where she had run her own nanny agency. But she built up a business that eventually made her a millionaire (though she'll tell you the money aspect means little to her).

She was then as she is now, a one-woman powerhouse of enthusiasm and determination. She's worth close to €60m based on her stake in a €315m leading international business operating across 70 different countries with 3,000 staff.

Most critical in her view is this talent factor, both finding it and, more importantly, keeping it. "It's easier to leave an organisation than get promoted within it," she says. "Often hiring managers will sit on great talent. So actually making sure the first port of call within an organisation is the talent they've already got is important. That it has been really nurtured and moved around the company."

One of her particular phrases is that people don't leave companies, they leave managers. "Ultimately when you really focus on exit interviews, managers are the root cause."

Inevitably her company also helps manage people out of companies as well as within them. "Where an organisation is looking to restructure we'll help support that, helping them potentially move people on.

"The business is 18 years old now and many of our contracts are fourth generation. We've been on such a long journey with so many clients that we've been through the growth phase, through the downsizing, through the restructure, through the merger and acquisition, so it's just a journey."

Blair got her big break with James Caan by spotting an opportunity to go into big companies and run everything to do with HR for them. She was about to up sticks to set up that business, but Caan persuaded her to stay with AMS and do it there. This idea of being an entrepreneur within a big company – she calls it intrapreneurship – is close to her heart.

The first winner on the British TV series The Apprentice, a guy called Tim Campbell, now runs one of these internal business offshoots for her. He said 'no way, I'd never work for anyone else', but she persuaded him that you could work for a corporate and still be an entrepreneur.

"We want people to have the opportunity to fly inside the corporate. I hope our people will go on to do that; ultimately I'd love to inspire them to start their own businesses.

"We've moved well beyond that entrepreneurial stage, our processes are very institutionalised, but we also have endeavoured to not lose that ability to be agile, which in the period we've just been in here is critically important."

She anticipates growing revenues 20 per cent to €600m this year again and has been adding more staff. Still though, this recession was "certainly the hardest I've had to manage through", she says.

"As a CEO going through that period and running my own business as well as supporting our client organisations, I think the big lesson for me in that period was making sure you also own the bank relationships and communicate with banks all the way through. That's absolutely critically important."

Last year American private equity house New Mountain Capital bought most of AMS for €315m.

Blair remains as chief executive and holder of a circa 15 per cent stake in the business. She and her senior team reinvested. "We didn't have to, but we all did. I reinvested substantially back in because I really believe in the business – we all do."

Powered by this new backer, the company is gearing up for an assault on the North American market and the fast growing Asia Pacific region.

Private equity money can bring pressures that take the focus off what's best for a business long term, but Blair has found it a "really positive experience".

"At different stages you get to a point where you're both looking for different things, one is looking to realise their investment and you're still looking at the growth agenda, so it's about getting the timing right for when you then look at the next investment."

She does a lot of homework before partnering with investors. She spoke to the chief executives and chief financial officers of other companies where Mountain had invested, especially those where it had exited to check what their experience was like.

"What was it like in the good times, but more importantly what was it like when things were difficult? At any stage in any journey there are going to be times when there are challenges, and actually it's much more interesting how they react in those times.

"You may learn things that you might not like but as long as you know things you can manage yourself through that experience. I really think it's about communication and not losing control."

The next big area of focus for AMS and, she predicts, for the whole area of talent management is data analytics. That is, measuring the returns an employee makes to the business.

"If we can really start looking at the return on investment on people employed in the organisation, performance and how the board looks at that, that's a real area of interest. I would hope we would really own that space in five years."

Not many of Blair's clients have significant Irish presence to date. AMS has some people based in Vodafone Ireland and a small team in Citibank and in Deloitte in the North, but something bigger is coming, with AMS setting up a big project in Ireland for a global client.

"I'm really excited about it. I've wanted to do something in Ireland for a long time but it's had to make commercial sense. It would be great to have something at home, to be contributing here. And we've got so many great people at every level who are Irish who at some point might love the opportunity to go back, so to have roles senior enough to go back to, to complete the circle would be great."

She sees the whole world of how we work radically transforming. "With roles today it doesn't matter where you are, it's about outcomes, not presenteeism. With technology and working with global clients, frankly you could be anywhere. Geography shouldn't be a limitation on where you can actually operate." Blair has senior staff that commute across countries to work.

"I do think companies are getting much better at understanding that it's about outcomes and output. When we get to that place it will make such a material difference to peoples' lives."

Blair didn't go to college and thinks other routes to success are often underestimated. "There has been a legacy negative view around apprenticeship. Trades, which are incredibly valuable, trade skills instead of professions. A personal passion of mine is youth unemployment and education in schools and I think it's such a great opportunity that kids just don't think about.

"I go and talk in a lot of schools and it's incredibly disappointing – particularly around girls. This instant gratification: I want to be a popstar, I want to marry a footballer.

"Giving young kids coming through different choices and different role models so they can think about their careers in a different way is critical."

And most importantly, "the opportunity to be an entrepreneur and own your own destiny. And with technology the ability needed to start a business is so low today. Frankly, if you have an understanding of a balance sheet and bottom line there is nothing stopping anybody today building a business".

In her spare time she escapes with her family back to Ireland, to Cong in Co Mayo where she has a retreat on Lough Corrib with no phone and a shed full of bicycles. She's also involved in several charities including the Prince's Trust and one called Tomorrow's People, which focuses on getting people back into employment.

Before she had a family, she admits, she was that nightmare boss who was there early and late and had to learn to pull back. But she's as driven by the business and as immersed in it as ever.

"At every stage in the journey you think 'I'm not sure I could ever be excited about the future as I am now', but 18 years in, I still feel in terms of things that we want to do and also in the industry that we're in, I feel so young. I still feel for our business that we're just scratching the surface and we've so much more to do."

Next stop world domination? I suggest.

She beams.

'My old Paul Smith suit takes me everywhere'

If I weren't doing what I do, I would be ... "I would relish the opportunity and the time to bring to fruition so many of my other business ideas."

The last meal I really enjoyed was ... "at Gordon Ramsay, Royal Hospital Road – brilliant customer experience."

If I didn't live in London, the place I would live in is ... "Dublin or New York."

My greatest indulgence is ... "Making time."

My favourite websites are ... " – essential for a seven-year-old."

The one artist whose work I would collect if I could is ... "As many Jimmy Lalors as possible."

The best gift I've given recently was ... "Family sleepover at the National History Museum – for the dinosaurs."

The people I rely on for personal grooming are ... "My PA, and Groom in Selfridges – in and out, transformed in an hour!"

My favourite piece of clothing is ... "A 12-year-old Paul Smith suit – takes me everywhere."

An unforgettable place I've travelled to in the last year is ... "An unexpected, amazing day out at the Midleton Distillery, County Cork."

The last music I downloaded was ... "I love music but have no time to download anything."

The books on my bedside table are ... "'Silos, Politics and Turf Wars' by Patrick Lencioni and 'Gone Girl' by Gillian Flynn."

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