March 2012 | By DeeDee Doke
Deedee Doke spoke with Randstad’s CEO for UK & Middle East
To an outside observer, Mark Bull has a habit of taking the reins of challenging situations when the chips are seemingly down.
Nearly five years ago, Bull, then the newly-anointed managing director of construction recruiter Hill McGlynn, had to refocus and expand his responsibilities to embrace both the company’s domestic and international operations when executive chairman Stephen Hill died suddenly. Now as chief executive of the UK and Middle East for Randstad, he’s faced with an even bigger job: reshaping the UK’s fortunes for the international recruitment giant.
Recruiter met with Bull in February in Randstad’s London City offices on Blomfield Street to discuss his new job. Given the enormity of the challenges, had he ever asked himself, “What have I got myself into? Why did I take this job?” Bull laughs and says no. “I never thought that. I often thought, ‘Blimey, this is a big role’.’”
That’s an understatement. When Randstad bought the smaller, specialist-focused recruitment organisation Vedior at the end of 2007, the larger company’s aim was to beef up its revenues from the professional sector recruitment for which the multi-brand Vedior was much respected.
Particularly in the UK, where about 35 companies are being streamlined into 12 business units, the merger-integration remains a work in progress — following a large-scale set of rebrandings, the departures of most top senior leaders of the former Vedior companies and rumours of widespread staff dissension.
YOU’VE GOT TO AIM HIGH, BE OPEN, BE HONEST – YOU GET THINGS WRONG AND YOU GO DOWN THE WRONG ROAD SOMETIMES WHEN YOU THINK IT’S THE RIGHT ROAD
MARK BULL’S PHILOSOPHY
Not helping the public perception of the state of play in Randstad’s UK operations were the company’s recently announced 2011 Q4 and annual financial results. Among other points, they revealed the UK contributing only 5% of Randstad’s worldwide revenues in 2011.
Bull’s appointment as UK CEO was announced in spring 2011, but it was actually into the summer when the former MD of Hill McGlynn, later rebranded along with Beresford Blake Thomas as part of Randstad Construction, Property & Engineering (CPE), finally took on the new job. He had no predecessor as CEO; executive board member Brian Wilkinson had been responsible for the UK in addition to carrying out a variety of other responsibilities.
So not only was he stepping into a brand-new role with a complicated set of organisational issues to address, but as Bull acknowledges, “it was a huge change of horizon for me on a personal level”.
He continues: “I knew the senior people but in all honesty, I couldn’t say I really knew the details of each business stream fully enough like I needed to. And coming from an operational MD role in a market I understood very, very well and had been in a long, long time, to really understand how the education market works, or how the social care market works, or financial services — it was a huge intake of understanding.”
The most important decision he has taken since stepping into this role was to understand what Randstad UK was, he says. And that’s how he spent his first three to four months in the job.
As any CEO or MD knows, developing an intimate understanding of an organisation has to be ongoing; the immersion course cannot end after three or four months. However, the long-underway drive toward building, shaping and refining Randstad UK, along with advancing the aim of increasing its marketshare, had to progress. Bull says that the dual effects of the change of ownership from Vedior to Randstad and the turbulent global economic conditions when, as he puts it, “the world went mad”, combined to cloud the picture for the company’s employees.
“I think we’ve gone through a long time of getting our ship in order,” he says. “The way Vedior worked things was great, and at times worked very well. But the world is changing, and I think any recruitment organisation needs to be in the right shape for the market. And I think we are getting there.
“And I think people understand that we need to be in the right shape, driven by what the market, the client, the candidate base requires from us as a service provider — rather than the shape of us due to our legacy.”
The legacy he speaks of refers to the independent nature of the companies that made up Vedior — a variety of different brands with specific specialities, run as unique businesses by individualistic leaders of whom many had been part of their enterprises for a long time. Diversity and autonomy were key to the Vedior strategy. In Randstad UK’s new world order, the 12 streamlined business units are intended to operate in a much more joined-up, cohesive structure while still offering the diversity of specialist service and expertise.
“We’re not constrained by our legacy,” Bull is quick to point out. “Our legacy is a two-edged sword, as everything always is. Our legacy gives us some challenges but the other side of that coin is it gives us a huge advantage because we’re not going through a set structure so we can flex it.”
Does it bother him that most of his former counterparts who led the individual businesses during the Vedior days have left the company? “When I look around the room, it is a different team,” he says. “But I’m comfortable with that. And we’ve got really good people joining us, bringing different experiences with them — not better, not worse, just different … The team that we have in the UK now are here because they want to be here or because they joined to be here.
This is where they see their future, and I think that’s a huge thing.”
And as for that future, the plan for moving forward is ambitious. It calls for strengthening Randstad’s business in the UK’s regions. It’s also about achieving greater brand recognition in each sector and about earning greater marketshare. For example, Bull says: “We want to have a well-defined top 20 client list for the UK where we have a minimum of eight business lines supplying to each of them — which is a huge change from where we are.”
One recent such success involves a single client being served by Randstad Financial & Professional, Technologies, Business Support and Major Players business units, he says proudly. “And we’ve done that in eight weeks. There are some really good successes starting to come through because we’re working collaboratively. Everyone’s starting to see the benefit.”
He adds: “If people can see that by working in a smarter way in a difficult market, to maximise what’s already under our hands in terms of client relationships, it’s the best way we can move this business forward.”
Bull also has “some ambitious GP [gross profit] targets”, he confides. “I focus very much on GP within our business lines. Revenue is great and a good indicator of marketshare… but equally I’m very focused on the margins we are achieving. In a world of quite challenging margin pressures, you don’t want to get into a situation where you have a big top line and very little at the bottom.”
Ultimately, Bull says, “it’s about value. We’re trying to get the constant linkage back, so everything we do, lessons we’ve learned, how is that underpinning where we’re trying to get to. And my thing, if you like, is always aim high. If you aim high you’ll stretch. If you aim low, you’ll probably go under it. If you’re always thinking, ‘we do well but we could always do so much more’. I think that’s really powerful.
“It keeps people motivated, engaged, thinking and being self critical, which I think you’ve got to be,” he says. “The day you know it all, you’re in trouble.”
Secret of Success
“I’m very goal-orientated, which I think helps. I’ve always been very focused on getting somewhere. A high ambition level is very important — not just for yourself but for the organisation, the people, the team”
April 2011: CEO, Randstad UK andMiddle East
Oct 2009: Hill McGlynn and Beresford Blake Thomas merge to become Randstad CPE with Bull as MD
May 2007: Bull appointed MD, Hill McGlynn
Jan 2005: Bull appointed joint MD, Hill McGlynn
Oct 1994–Jan 2005: Hill McGlynn, roles included UK operations manager, freelance consultant
Education: BSc (Hons), Psychology, University of London
Randstad was formed in 1960, with the first UK office opening in 1966
By 1997, Randstad had 1,000 offices worldwide
2007: merged with Vedior to become the second largest recruitment agency business worldwide, present in over 50 countries
Financial year 2011 results for Randstad worldwide showed revenue up 14% (9% organically) to €16.2bn (£13.5bn) and adjusted net income up 19% to €400m (£333.1m)