Interview: Peter Jones

Alistair Schofield speaks to Extensor Associate Peter Jones, previously Argos Retail Group’s Operations Director, about his new venture in the recruitment industry.

Peter Jones began his career as a delivery van driver for Curries and ended up as the Operations Director for Argos, with around 20,000 staff and turnover in excess of £3bn. In between he was MD of various retail businesses including BT shops and has worked as a consultant to the retail industry.

Peter retired from Argos Retail Group in May 2004 and launched Barracuda Search in the August of that year.

Having spent the whole of your working life in front-line retail roles, what inspired you to establish a recruitment agency?

“In retail, as with any other business, getting the right people is key to success, so recruitment is an important part of any managers responsibilities.”

“Yet during my time in various retail jobs, I have been frequently frustrated by the services offered by various search agencies.”

“The larger companies are invariable impressive at first meeting, but I have found that the brand typically counts for very little, with the work generally being delegated to relatively junior people.”

“For example, when I was a Director at Homebase I used a large and well known agency to assist in the recruitment of a senior manager. It took them eight months to get to a short-list of candidates and, when their ‘Consultant’ came to see me to discuss the short-list, he didn’t even know where our offices were and had to phone for directions!”

But you must have had some good experiences?

“Yes. But the good experiences were always because of an individual, never because of a process.”

“I guess what I was looking for and expecting was that the agencies we worked with would have a process in place that would enable them to gain an understanding of our business, our culture and our industry, as well as the specific requirements of role to be filled. Where the consultant concerned understood these things, the recruitment process tended to be more successful. Where they didn’t, the agency concerned did little more than advertise the vacancy in exchange for a large fee.”

So what does Barracuda Search do that is different?

“First of all the are a ‘boutique’ in that we specialise in the retail market, by which we mean any company that sells directly to their customers, whether in the High Street or via the telephone or the Internet.”

“By specialising, we are able to ensure that all of our people have a thorough understanding of the requirements of our clients.”

But wouldn’t most search agencies make the same claim?

“Yes, but in my experience very few achieve it in practice. Focussing on one niche to the exclusion of others guarantees that depth of knowledge.”

Understanding the line of business though does not address the cultural differences between companies you mentioned earlier?

“No, that can only come from spending time with the companies concerned. To do this we spend time with each and ever client, sitting within the team we will be recruiting into and speaking to as many people in the business as possible. This gives a much more thorough understanding of the organisation than a briefing document ever can and helps guarantee that the candidates we put forward will possess the right cultural profile as well as the right technical profile.”

The service sounds interesting, but it also sounds rather expensive?

“Quite the opposite. We would expect to undercut most recruitment agencies for senior people. We achieve this in two ways:”

“First of all we promote the business by referrals and word of mouth rather than be spending large sums of money on sales and marketing. This, together with the modest premises we occupy means that we do not carry the overheads of many of the larger firms.”

Second, we charge our clients a fixed fee. In the past it had always galled me when I had to pay recruitment agencies a percentage of the candidate package, despite the fact that the costs associated with recruiting someone at a senior level were broadly similar to recruiting for a more junior position. By charging a flat-rate fee, our clients know that they will receive exactly the same level of service regardless of the seniority of the position being recruited for. The also get a very good deal, especially for people at the top end of the market.”

The proof of the pudding is always in the eating. Do your clients recognise the differences in your service or are you just another recruitment agency to them?

“Obviously clients are initially attracted by the flat fee, as it saves them money. Longer term we believe that our approach will prove itself in the value the candidates we place bring to their business. It is in placing better candidates, who will deliver more and stay longer that we seek to differentiate ourselves from our competitors. In this regard it is still early days – only time will tell.

Alistair Schofield is MD of Extensor.

Peter Jones is non-Executive Chairman of Barracuda Search.