Graham's get-up-and-go

Greythorn's driving force has his sights set on global expansion — and no one doubts that he will carry it through. DeeDee Doke reports

Those who know Graham Palfery-Smith say they've never seen him as focused as he is now in his year-old role at the helm of the Greythorn Group.

One of the most colourful personalities of the UK recruitment industry, Palfery-Smith has been known nearly as well for his love of gloriously extravagant cars as he is for his cat-like ability to unerringly land on his feet during his 25-year career.

From Badenoch & Clark to HW Group, then to TMP, on to a mergers and acquisition consultancy — gjps.net — and followed by a stint as regional UK and Ireland director for Robert Walters, Palfery-Smith is no stranger to big names in recruitment.

But perhaps the restless Palfery-Smith has truly found his own ultimate job match this time. "I've done some things I'm very proud of in the past; I've built some great businesses," Palfrey-Smith acknowledges. "But I've never done the one thing that I've wanted to do, which is build a global recruitment business. This is my opportunity to do it.

"So I am genuinely more excited now than I have been for many, many years."

Since he led a management buy-out of IT recruiter Greythorn in September last year, backed by Englefield Capital, Palfery-Smith and company have kept the momentum at a fever pitch, hot on the acquisition trail. To date three companies have been brought into the fold: banking and finance recruiter WH Recruitment, legal recruiter Lawrence Simons International, and finance and accountancy recruiter Marks Sattin. And the trail is by no means intended to get cold after those three purchases.

His plans are expansive and ambitious.

"The plan is very simple, and we're very public about it. We're not secretive at all," says Palfery-Smith. "We're doing a 'buy and build'. We want offices and footprints in a lot of different countries… in energetic, edgy, commercial cities that people want to work in.

"I don't want to be opening in Scunthorpe when I could be opening in San Francisco."

He's also looking at widening the group's current line-up of sectors served. "We're looking at a number of different niches and a lot of different vertical markets," he says. He mentions IT, telecommunications, environmental, "the energy stuff", and new media. Although Greythorn already operates in the creative, design and publishing arena, Palfery-Smith has singled out creative, marketing and communications specialist Aquent in his line of sight as a key potential competitor.

"Aquent is a phenomenal business, a remarkable business. It considers itself to have no competitors. Now we will be a competitor," he says. "I like a market with a very strong player that does extremely well, because that means there's room for at least one more — and generally, those sorts of players can get complacent.

"I'm not saying for a moment that Aquent are," he adds quickly, "but if you are No. 1, and you have no obvious competition, it's hard to keep yourself motivated. We all need competition."

Even the company branding is getting a thorough going-over, under Palfery-Smith's aegis. "Our aim is to protect and further develop the undoubted strength of the individual company brands, whilst creating a more cohesive group identity for the years ahead," he says. "It's a big project with a variety of implications and angles, and we haven't yet made any firm decisions. However we expect to do so sooner rather than later."

Why Greythorn? Palfery-Smith has characterised Greythorn as "a foundation business" from which he could launch a global presence for a specialist recruitment company. Elaborating on this, he told Recruiter: "I've started on the journey more than once, and for one reason or another, not got to where I wanted to get to, or thought I could [get to]. So this time, I'm doing it in a different way. I'm doing it in a 'buy and build' way. I'm going for a business where I'm building from a series of component parts — companies which we can group."

The model Palfery-Smith is using to build his global empire means those who sell their recruitment businesses to Greythorn literally buy in to the new group. "When we buy a business, we buy the whole business, all of the shares, and then we invite the people we're buying the business from to roll over a proportion of that equity into the group. So we're all investing in the same company," he explains.

Not only are Greythorn's investors buying into a multi-faceted recruitment company; they are buying into the legend of Palfery-Smith himself, whose influence has helped create an industry dynasty of 21st century chief executive officers. Among the CEOs who have at one time or another worked for or with him are Tony Goodwin of Antal International, Brian Hamill of Imprint, Chris Hermannsen of Ochre House and John Rose of Berkeley Scott.

Palfery-Smith recruited Goodwin to work at Harrison Willis from the world of accountancy. "I just enjoyed the whole energy field he had. And what I noticed was, the energy that he had, he was looking for in the people he wanted to hire," Goodwin told Recruiter.

Goodwin also recalls that Palfery-Smith could cut directly to the heart of the matter when dissecting field reports from his managers — with occasionally mortifying results. Goodwin was the manager of Harrison Willis's Bristol-South West region office at the time of a call to Palfery-Smith that remains clear in Goodwin's memory today.

The less experienced recruiter regaled his boss for several minutes with news of promising calls that had taken place, "and he just let me talk", Goodwin recalls. "At the end, he said, 'How many interviews

have you got?'" The question, and Palfery-Smith's ability to slice through the niceties, stunned Goodwin into speechlessness.

Years later, the lesson still sticks, Goodwin concedes with a laugh. "I've actually used that line so many times. It keeps coming back to me even now!"

Palfery-Smith admits: "I like people to have fun, I like them to enjoy themselves, but I like people to work hard and I'm not a great fan of people who won't put the effort in. I'm always wary of consultants who say, 'I can't make any money because the clients aren't there, the candidates aren't there', or whatever, and they go home at 6.30. And you think, well, hang on a moment."

Some recruiters who have worked for him say he's the most inspirational manager they have ever worked for. He listens. He gets others to share their ideas. He lets those who work for him make mistakes.

Berkeley Scott's John Rose told Recruiter: "I learnt so much from his energy, belief, passion and can-do attitude, and he clearly still possesses all of these in abundance today."

Asked to describe his management style, Palfery-Smith says that honesty and consistency are his predominant traits. "People inspire themselves; it's not me inspiring them, it's what they feel inside them," he argues.

What he looks for in others are imagination, innovation and willingness to take risks. And part of what he finds exciting about his latest venture is the opportunity to dip into new talent pools, such as the staff and management of Greythorn's new acquisitions, to draw upon to move to other parts of the group. "People want to be challenged. They want to know they're in a company that's going somewhere rather than a company that's been somewhere. They like a bit of edge," he says. "Equally, they want to know they can make a contribution."

The Palfery-Smith era at Greythorn is still in its infancy and by no means is its future trajectory clear at this stage. However, there is the possibility of a flotation at some point. The ultimate exit deadline for Greythorn's backers is 2018, Palfery-Smith says, adding: "We have some time."

An analyst who requested anonymity says that Palfery-Smith is "well suited to do what he's doing" with Greythorn. "He's a great guy to do it, very energising." However, the analyst adds, "the biggest challenge is what one does with it [Greythorn]".

Englefield, the private equity house backing Palfery-Smith, "clearly want an exit at some stage", says the analyst. "My sense is that it's going to be quite difficult to sell to a trade buyer — it's quite a difficult group to digest. There are lots of little bits of this and that. There's not a critical mass in any area. It's quite a broad, not a particularly deep business."

Palfery-Smith says there's a need to recognise the global market. "Globalisation exists, it's real, we should embrace it, enjoy it and use it. You have to concentrate on what's going on around the world."

Today's recruiters also need to recognise that "they can do what they do anywhere in the world. There's no limits to where they can go", he adds. "If they're sitting in Reading, that doesn't have to be their universe. Their universe is much bigger than that."

But setting aside Palfery-Smith's appreciation for globalisation, John Rose probably comes closest to the truth of the matter in determining the Greythorn global CEO's motives for creating this latest commotion. "Why's he doing it again?" asks Rose. "He just wants to have fun and be successful."

The unedited Graham Palfery-Smith

On former boss Robert Walters: "I have a huge regard for Rob obviously; I've known him for many years, I'm very fond of him. But his business is not what I want to build, and I've no compunction saying that."

On Pertemps Group chairman Tim Watts: "Now there are lots of things Tim talks about which are complete nonsense, but there are some real nuggets in there — he doesn't let his nuggets out easily, trust me, but sometimes he comes up with some that are just brilliant."

On being the boss: "There's an attendant frustration of working for somebody else that I can't live with now. I've worked for the two people I have the highest regard for in the business — Andrew Banks and Robert Walters — and I've worked with everyone now that I think I want to work with. Now it's new people. It's finding that new talent."

His greatest personal strength: "I don't actually care what people think about me personally. I really don't care. It's never concerned me."

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