Special Report: A question of experience

Mike Beesley tells Sue Weekes what he looks for in a start-up recruiter and why the post-Covid era will be one of great opportunity for the right people.

Mike Beesley stepped down from his role as CEO of national recruitment company Sanderson earlier this year to co-found TIMESTWO Investments, which aims to find the next big names in the sector and help people build recruitment businesses with purpose. Working with Keith Dawe, his business partner of 40 years, the company has already invested in four enterprises. 

As well as finding the next great recruiters, what do you hope to achieve with TIMESTWO?

We began in a start-up and are essentially a start-up again now, and we know it can involve a leap of bravery. We want to create a safe environment for people to move from the world of employment to the world of running their own business.

Unless you’re very young and you’ve a brand new piece of tech and someone says: “That’s brilliant – let’s run with it,” most people will have done a number of years in an employed role and accrued not only experience but a number of responsibilities that have financial implications. These can become a deterrent for living and fulfilling one’s dream. What you don’t want is an entrepreneur who is then worrying about whether they’re going to be able to pay the electricity bill or put food on the table.

Ours is not what I would call a traditional model, where you give people cash and they spend it. We back the start-up financially but also provide all of the support, so from day one the individual can focus on business development and not have to worry about things like setting up a bank account, getting a VAT number, building a website and all the things that become a distraction.

We give them the funding, emotional support and infrastructure backing and then they receive all the ongoing mentoring and support. We believe this will encourage those who wouldn’t ordinarily make that leap of faith.

We look for a slightly different person. Someone who maybe has eight to 12 years’ experience under their belt, knows their market”

What type of people are you looking to back?

As a consequence of this model and approach, we look for a slightly different person –someone with maybe eight to 12 years’ experience under their belt, knows their market, is an authority in that space and can genuinely provide value to the end-customer. That’s the basis we’ve traditionally run businesses on.

I’ve always found it vaguely amusing that in the recruitment space everyone is called a ‘consultant’. In the medical world, you’re called a consultant because you’ve acquired a vast amount of knowledge, experience and authority. In the same way, we look for people who are experienced, provide value and already have a terrific reputation in the marketplace.

Because of what was happening at the back end of last year around IR35 and with Covid-19, our timing probably wasn’t brilliant.

But equally, I believe customers will crave even more of that sort of knowledge-based solution rather than a pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap approach. They will be looking for people who genuinely know what they’re talking about.

As we come out of this awful market, I think the opportunities will be enormous because the end customer will want a different solution to the one previously provided.

What type of industries are you looking it and what drives your thinking in this respect?

You have to look at a host of things: legislation and what the governmental drivers are, as well as what’s going on globally from a political and societal point of view.

For example, one of our start-ups, Surya Recruitment – Surya is Sanskrit for sun – is solely targeting the renewables sector. If you look at the political statements of the UK government and the European Union, one of the areas where investment is going is into the green energy and renewable space. OK, we have to exercise some caution, but if you also look at what’s happening from a societal point of view, we’re going to move away from the fossil fuel era and into a whole different way of thinking and behaving.

So, the battery and car development space and, indeed all forms of transport, is also very interesting.

You also have to look at the government policy around housebuilding and infrastructure projects such as HS2, and dovetailing back to energy, the two nuclear power stations being built in Somerset, and say that it’s likely to be a growth market.

Of course, anything that is tech-based or cyber-based is experiencing growth. But it’s also important not to write off any of the traditional industries. From a business point of view, we’ve done very well out of the banking in the finance sector, and they’re not going anywhere.

Overall though, if it’s different, we’re going to be interested in it. For example, look at digital marketing. I’ve always said that one of the first people you should hire into any new business is someone with strong marketing skills. You can be the best techie or innovators with the best product on the planet, but if you can’t take it to market it’s going to wither and die on the vine.

Now, marketing in any business covers internal comms to everything you project externally about the organisation, together with the customer interaction piece, so digital and traditional marketing skills are another area we’d be keen to look at.

I’ve always said that one of the first people you should hire into any new business is someone with strong marketing skills”

What key characteristics and personality traits are important to lead a start-up?

Other than the obvious demonstrable entrepreneurial skills and behaviours as well as a strong work ethic, we want to work with people who have a genuine passion for what they do. I don’t want to work with someone who is only interested in getting rich and moving on. Clearly, there has to be sound commercial thinking underpinning it all, but we also need to see a strong, identifiable moral compass. They must also regard recruitment as a profession, not as something you do on the way to something else.

We also look at how committed and authentic individuals are around policy. I learnt a good lesson many years ago in the days when corporate social responsibility (CSR) was first emerging, and you needed a CSR strategy when filling out tender documents. I went to an APSCo event where the speaker read out the CSR strategy statements from the websites of each of the companies in the room. Fortunately, I recognised mine, but no one else did.

If you have these policies you need to take them seriously, and not just pay lip service, for example, in areas like diversity and inclusion.

Do you think recruitment is becoming more of a career profession than previously?

I came to Bristol as a student and, in theory, I should have gone into the IT industry, but it was in a recession, I needed a job and went into recruitment. I took it very seriously, and it’s been my career ever since. I still work with the business partner I met 40 years ago. It’s been our chosen career all of that time, and we try to engender this type of thinking with the people we employ.

Unfortunately, there are still too many models out there that are exclusively driven by revenue and KPIs [key performance indicators], which can often crash and burn people. The behaviour of suppliers is more than 90% down to what the customer will accept. The reality is if they continue to accept it, the supplier will only behave that way.

The customer may want great service but if one of their KPIs is who gets the CV there first, it is not going to make for a quality-led service. People will cut corners to get the CV there first, even if that includes not speaking to the candidate – which is an appalling practice but still goes on, sadly. I’m ever hopeful that people will genuinely see the recruitment industry as a proper profession – and things have become a lot better. But, equally, at the same time as trying to achieve that goal, the industry has grown exponentially. I’m ever the optimist, though.

Recruitment is a simple process if done properly. Ultimately, one of the differentiators is your ability to build fantastic relationships with your customers and keep them”

With the coronavirus pandemic responsible for many redundancies, is there a danger the wrong kind of people will decide to start their own businesses?

Yes and no. You could argue that if the entire market and economy is flying, there are going to be more dubious start-ups. What you get is people saying, “This is really easy,” and they don’t end up provisioning for difficult times. They take all the profits out, they’ll probably invoice discount, have overdrafts, borrow and spend and then the moment the market gets difficult, there’s no cash left in the business and they risk going under. I would say that boom markets are more likely to generate poor business ethics and poor business behaviours and practices than this current market.

What are some of the life lessons you would pass on to those wanting to set up on their own?

Develop your listening skills. Recruiters don’t tend to make great listeners. What they want to do is tell you about themselves and their candidate. The reality is that if you can demonstrate that you really are prepared to listen to the person who has a problem, you’re more likely to be a success.

Also, culturally, to run your own business, remember that there’s a big grey area about when we are at work and when we are not at work. For me, it’s not a hardship to get that right.

Recruitment is a simple process if done properly. Ultimately, one of the differentiators is your ability to build fantastic relationships with your customers and keep them. The cost of sales of winning a piece of business is enormous, so why on earth would you throw it away? Whatever you do, enjoy it and if you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it. Finally, be kind. No one ever benefits from people not being kind. 

Career snapshot

1977-80: Studied business studies at Bristol Polytechnic

1980: Began working at a small Bristol-based IT specialist recruitment business with partner Keith Dawe; They went on to buy and develop the business before founding other brands.

1995-2005: Chairman, Resource Solutions Group

2008: Led the creation of a unifying non-trading corporate brand called Resource Solutions Group (now rebranded as Sanderson) for the numerous companies operating under the same board

2015: Launched the HR World thought leadership platform

2020: Steps down as CEO of Sanderson to launch TIMESTWO Investments

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