Alistair Cox

DeeDee Doke interviews the chief executive of Hays

Alistair Cox bristles with an intensity that is almost tangible. Even in a business suit, this is clearly an athlete, a man of action, for whom either sitting still or turning off his thought process is surely an unnatural act. Likewise, the concept of distraction would seem to have no place in his universe, where there is no wasted movement, and precision is the order of the day.

Perhaps the laser beam-like focus the Hays chief executive exudes comes from his days as an engineer, first working in the military aircraft division at the then-British Aerospace and then for oil & gas giant Schlumberger. But under a massive transformation programme underway at Hays, Cox is now engineering a very different kind of beast.

When Cox joined Hays in 2007, two issues were apparent. First, the technology deployed in the business wasn’t delivering the benefits that Cox thought it should, including helping the company “to access markets in new and different ways. The technology was a bit of an inhibitor to that. So we needed to better articulate what was the role of our technology in our business and design what the technology landscape should be and do something about it”, says Cox, the technology expert emerging at this point in the conversation.

Then there was the enticing bit, the potential of a glittering prize in filling a sizeable gap - a gap in the role of recruitment world leader. “There was a glaring opportunity, frankly, to develop a brand that was seen as the leading light in the industry because nobody else had done it,” he says.

Cox’s philosophy on recruitment I think it is a pretty noble thing to be doing, to be honest

Today, the Hays mission is clear: “Our mission is to build the undisputed leader in the world of professional and qualified and technical recruitment, quite simple,” Cox told Recruiter in a conversation at Hays’ nondescript head office in London’s Euston area. “I think we are probably up there, or towards the front, but there is no undisputed leader today and our challenge is to put ourselves in that position, with the reputation and global coverage to match.”

The recession hit, but Cox decided that neither investment in technology nor revitalisation of the brand could wait. “They were so fundamental to the position of the business for the next five to 10 years,” he explains.

Adding greater depth to the entry level training and development programme was also a priority. “Training our people to sell effectively and develop worthwhile services in a recessionary environment was absolutely paramount because if you are under 35, you have never worked in a recession, not a proper recession,” he says. “So you wouldn’t expect them to know what to do in a difficult marketplace because they have never experienced it.”

As a result of such considerations, he says, “we invested a lot of money in training them” into creative thinking, recessionary style. What were the services which could be provided to clients who might not be recruiting at the moment? What could be done to build client relationships and continue to do business with them, through bad times as well as good?

“So we did spend quite a lot of money on that, to again get on the front foot and build marketshare,” Cox says.

Secret of my success You’ve got to start with having a very clear view of the team you want around you because you can’t do everything yourself, so you have to get the right people — otherwise, frankly, you’re not going to get anywhere. You can’t compromise on that

Even without the recession, Cox viewed the creation of greater depth in the firm’s training programme as vital. Expertise is Hays’ core product, yet expertise is not a word that is often associated with recruitment outside the industry itself. But as Cox sees it, his company’s ability to assert specialist and geographic expertise will set Hays apart in becoming the world’s premier professional recruitment company.

“I’m a strong believer that regardless of what you’re buying, whether you’re buying a TV or a car or a holiday or recruiting somebody, you want to buy from an expert. So by positioning ourselves as ‘we are the experts in what you need, by geography, by discipline’, that is at the very
core of how we run the business,” Cox says.

Under the Hays transformation, Cox and company are investing heavily in staff training and development to build new recruits’ ‘expertise factor’ in their individual industry sectors. “Most of the new recruits we have are either from university or on their second job. So it is understandable they are not going to be an expert in what they are going to be doing on day one,” Cox says.

“Maybe in the past we may have unleashed them onto the marketplace quite early,” he concedes. “So how do we get people to a level of expertise as quickly as we can? We are fundamentally changing the way we develop our people over their first six months in the company. There is a certain level of capability that they must demonstrate and be accredited for in a formal way before we will allow you out into the marketplace to talk expert to expert.”

What we haven’t necessarily got in our DNA is an ability to think through strategically where our market is going, how is our market going to evolve

Cox has obviously been listening to clients, who contend that in-depth sector and market knowledge, from necessary qualifications and salary levels to insight into clients’ competitors, is what they really, really want. “Unless you can have a conversation at that level, then I’m not convinced you are adding value to the client. Why would the client use you exclusively unless you can add that sort of insight to help them frame the issue, and then go out and deliver a good result against it?”

Beginning with induction, the bespoke training programmes include online work and external visits with senior consultants. The self-examination Hays has done in connection with its training, and linking the training to the desired business result and its branding has led to the realisation of some home truths. “What this has done is brought out what we must do, as opposed to, well, we’ve sort of known it deep in our hearts but have never been able to articulate it properly,” he says.

“If you think about it, it is very energising internally to say, ‘Look, the challenge for each of you on the front line is: what are you the expert in? If you are not the expert in something which is very fundamental to your marketplace, then actually you are not being the ambassador for Hays that we want you to be’,” Cox says.

“The aspiration for each and every person is, you’ve got to become the local guru of what you do. That will allow us to grow marketshare.”

Some might suggest that the choice of Cox himself to lead a leading recruitment company was surprising, given his professional background. However, from the international nature of his career (about half of his business life has been spent outside the UK) to his tenures in consultancy, engineering, research, and technology, each have given him critical insight into the opportunities and challenges in building the new Hays. Nimbleness, he believes, is part of the company’s existing identity. But other characteristics must still be bedded down.

“What we haven’t necessarily got in our DNA,” he says of Hays, “is an ability to think through strategically where is our market going, how is our market going to evolve, what disruptive technologies might come along that could knock us off course, where are the opportunities for leveraging? That’s a skillset we have traditionally not invested in, so I think we need to do a lot more of that.”

Unsurprisingly, the CEO side of Cox suggests something of the fine-tuned athlete player-coach who continually ups their own game, adjusts smoothly to different terrain and weather conditions, and challenges his team to do the same.
His approach is not just about the here and now - it’s about the future, where the Hays of days to come “adapt[s] to the world changing,
as opposed to just doing the same thing in the same way forever more”.


Curriculum Vitae

Education: Graduated in aerospace engineering, University of Salford; Master’s in Business Administration, Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, US.

Military aircraft division, British Aerospace
Various roles at oil field services provider Schlumberger
Consultant, McKinsey & Co
Group strategy director, Blue Circle Industries
Regional director-Asia, Blue Circle Industries
Regional president- Asia, Lafarge
CEO, Xansa
CEO, Hays

Company Profile

1969 Specialist recruitment business was founded as the Career Care Group (CCG), 1969, by former CEO Denis Waxman
1986 CCG acquired by commercial and logistics firm Hays plc
2004 Hays transformed into pure-play specialist recruitment business
2007 Waxman steps down and is succeeded by Cox
2009 4,000 consultants, 340 offices in 28 countries, 17 specialisms
2009 milestones — Launched presence in India and Russia

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