Turning a new page

Steve Ingham, CEO of PageGroup, has watched the business flourish from a specialist national recruiter to a global giant.

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Steve Ingham admits that the story of his own career could be bad for business. Having worked for recruitment giant Michael Page for 26 years, the last seven as Chief Executive, the 50-year-old has never once used the services of a recruitment consultant himself.

“The one thing I have to be careful about is not telling clients to grow their career in one company, like I have,” Ingham jokes. After a brief stint as a graduate trainee at precious metals group Johnson Matthey, Ingham took a friend’s advice and moved to recruitment, having decided that an industry with people at its core was a more attractive option than life in the lab.

A career based on strengths

"I realized that one of my better skills is communicating, rather than analyzing alloys," he explains. "I learnt early on that you have to look at not just what you're good at, but also the type of environment that you're likely to flourish in."

Clearly, this is wise advice, as Ingham's career did flourish. When he joined, the eponymous founder Mike Page had been running the business for 11 years, and had grown it into a specialist UK financial recruiter of 200 people.

Swift promotions followed Ingham's initial hire as a recruitment consultant in 1987, from Operating Director to Managing Director of Marketing and Sales, to Head of the UK division, and then, finally, to CEO in 2006.

"I always had clear goals and targets in certain time frames — a 1, 5, 10, or 20-year career plan," he says. "I like to think I have lots of drive, energy, enthusiasm, and passion, and I certainly work hard every day."

Respected for his commercial intelligence, Ingham's vision and communications skills have been significant factors in his rise to the top.

His strong competitive streak would appear to be a family trait; his wife, with whom he has three daughters, is a professional dressage rider; Ingham himself used to play rugby for Guildford and Godalming, and he still runs before work whenever possible.

A long-term commitment

When he took over as CEO, Ingham looked to create the same career experience he has had for the rest of the company. As a result, long-term commitment to the business is a trait held by managers across the company in an industry often noted for ruthless individualism and "job-hopping."

Experienced senior managers are often relocated at some point in their career, taking their expertise and understanding to another region while, crucially, building their own credentials. Ingham explains: "It's essential to have the right leadership in place — people who have grown up in the business with the right values and right experience."

Another important move under his leadership occurred in 2012, when the business rebranded from Michael Page to PageGroup, signifying a departure from the pure recruitment business of its founder to new service areas spanning executive and clerical hires, temporary work, outsourcing, interim resources, and assessment and talent management.

But the culture that has retained Ingham for so long has fortunately remained strong. The recruitment business's incentive structure differs markedly from those of its peers.

Employees are rewarded on a profit-share basis, rather than using the more commonplace commission model, driving up team unity at the expense of individual gain. Ingham explains: "We give teams a fixed percentage of any profit that they generate quarterly and we give the manager that profit to be distributed within the team, based on each individual's performance.

It's very meritocratic, very motivating, and creates a type of peer pressure that forces people to ask themselves: whom can I trust most to perform? And how can I perform better?"

Growing by going global

Successfully underpinning the people, the infrastructure, and the service offering changes is Ingham's growth strategy and his approach to globalization. "We don't drive 90% of our profits out of two countries; we drive all of our profits out of all of our countries," says Ingham of the global strategy.

"Apart from the new high-investment countries where we're running fast and investing heavily, we're profitable everywhere."

Volatile market conditions have seen many big companies suffer in recent years, none more so than recruitment businesses. But, despite the poor conditions, the PageGroup CEO says that emerging markets are providing "extraordinary" levels of growth for the recruitment firm.

"Today, half of our fee earners are in fast-developing markets. Businesses in rapidly expanding economies traditionally rely on internal HR or smaller, local recruitment suppliers, which don't possess the scale or experience that a big name like ours has," Ingham explains.

The business is changing to reflect the new geographies we work in and their needs.

PageGroup employs more than 5,000 people, covering all professional disciplines in 34 countries around the globe, and that reach is helping the London-listed business steal a march on its competitors. "In the UK, we're competing with around 30,000 other recruitment companies," says Ingham.

"But when we opened our first office in Brazil 13 years ago, we didn't really have a competitor. It's not much different today. We're in Chile, Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico; we've got 600 people in Latin America, whereas our nearest competitor probably has 100.

"In Asia, there is some competition in Hong Kong, but in Shenzhen or Guangzhou there's hardly any. One of our clients in Shenzhen has 300,000 employees.

One vision: grow organically

A lot of management is needed to run a business that size, and we're sourcing it." Uniting the various strategies of PageGroup's regional centers has been Ingham's greatest challenge and, he says, his greatest success.

"As CEO, I inherited several regions operating to their own strategies, with different cultures and different levels of ambition. I'm proud to have turned that into a company with one clear, concise strategy and culture behind a management team that all believe in it."

PageGroup is unusual in the world of recruitment in that it is unencumbered by the politics and organizational hangovers of multiple mergers and acquisitions; the business has simply got on with steady growth. "It has been organic.

We want global consistency, so we haven't made any acquisitions," Ingham explains. "Because we haven't acquired we don't need cash to acquire, so we're cash strong.

We don't go to places then close them. If it's right to go somewhere, it's right to stay there, even if there are issues in the short term.

"We're fortunate our competitors don't act in the same way. They chop and change. They acquire. They constantly change their CEO and with that comes changing strategies.

I'd like to think that the next CEO here will be someone who is currently working for me and, if they've liked what I'm doing, they're likely to do something similar." That cultural legacy is Ingham's priority, behind today's success.

"I want to be known as the person who led the business through a period where PageGroup became the dominant world leader in our industry and, in doing that, created long, rewarding and outstanding careers for our best people," he says. "They deserve them."

When the time comes to appoint a successor, there should be plenty of candidates to choose from. Ingham's senior management team is made up of long-term employees, who have worked their way through the ranks like he has, from recruitment consultants to directors, then managing directors before reaching the boardroom.

He says the culture of promoting from within offers junior employees a long career and high aspirations. Ingham concedes that the recruitment industry has not always had the best reputation in terms of customer service.

But he maintains things have changed radically in recent years and, at PageGroup in particular, everything leads back to trust. He concludes: "This business is about long-term relationships, in terms of candidates, clients and colleagues alike.

That has to involve trust. It's a great quality to promote and helps us to stand out above the rest of the industry."