Simon Taylor, CEO of The 777 Group is trying not to use the term ‘laid back’, but it is proving difficult. And so, sat in a comfortable room, within an unconventional shared office space in central London, he’s recounting his journey through his past 20 years in recruitment. It’s clear that there has been some formal, hard work along the way, but Taylor’s whole career so far appears to have been dedicated to lining up the opportunity on which he can now build. He is 18 months into making a differently-minded recruitment business, which undoubtedly delivers value, but does so through a somewhat unique setting.
Taylor began his working life at the SThree group, which he describes as a brilliant training ground. From there he ‘fell’ into the Rec-To-Rec space, finding that while on gardening leave he had both the contacts of recruitment companies looking for talent and the contacts of recruiters looking for new opportunities. In short, he was able to bring the two together without much fuss or bother. It also made a refreshing change from the highly regulated and administration heavy banking and investment finance world where he was operating previously. “This was much more rapid and transactional,” he says.
What also proved useful was that Taylor was in business at a time when certain sectors were on a rapid upward curve. He tapped into the IT sector, putting together teams for clients and working closely with rapidly expanding recruitment businesses such as Hydrogen, Aston Carter and Huntress. While his own skills undoubtedly benefitted those companies, he was also keen to learn himself and so had a ring-side seat on what it took to expand a recruitment business, monitoring their every move and studying the challenges and changes faced by those company at that time.
Taylor’s company, Drummond Recruitment, lasted seven years and was ultimately placing talent from graduate to director level. It was targeted within London and Taylor was serving around 100 clients at its peak. And then 2008 happened. “It pretty much ended the business,” says Taylor. “But I’d still made some money out of it so I had some choice about what to do next.”
That next move transpired to be working for Spencer Ogden. David Spencer-Percival was just starting out with his oil and gas business and needed a head of talent acquisition to help speed the company to a significant and international dimension. By the time Taylor left the company he had brought hundreds of recruiters into the business and learned how to launch an office in places as diverse as Dubai, South Africa, Japan and Scotland.
Taking those skills to the next level, Taylor’s next stop was James Caan’s Hamilton Bradshaw business. “At the point I met James he had 42 different recruitment companies in his portfolio,” says Taylor. “Some were distressed purchases others were profitable but he knew the only way he’d make money out of those businesses was by growing them. To do that he needed more consultants.”
Caan gave Taylor the job of managing talent acquisition across the entire portfolio of companies. It was clear from the start that some of these businesses would need a lot of help and support to grow while others would need relatively little interference. But the point was to ensure each separate business was successful rather than simply coasting. To some extent this was familiar ground to Taylor, and so rather than simply taking the job as it stood he asked Caan to make this a learning experience for him as well. “My selfish aim for for this was again to learn new skills so I told James I wanted to know about private equity,” he says. “I wanted to know about buying and selling companies so I agreed to do the job in exchange for learning about that.”
Taylor certainly received the tuition he was hoping for. Caan versed him on this side of business deals and while he was with the company, HCI was sold in a £100 million management buyout. Again, Taylor had no direct involvement but he could watch and learn from how the deal happened. Within a reasonably short space of time, he felt he had now attained the knowledge and skills he needed to strike out on his own to build a private equity company operating in the recruitment sector. The only issue now was that he didn’t have the funds required to create such a business.
In a fortuitous coincidence, one of Taylor’s personal friends from the banking industry had recently decided to take retirement from his industry. Jeremy Wright had led the integration of RBS and ABN AMRO’s Markets and Banking businesses, involving 1700 staff. Having worked as COO and CEO of RBS’ acquired Commodities business his priority was not to take on another heavy duty role, but nor did he want to retire. The 777 Group seemed to offer him the right level of investment interest within a business where he doesn’t need to take on a huge work load. Wright’s role as Chairman in the business doesn’t just mean its his money that’s going into the group, he can also attract investment where necessary, providing access to the funds required to bolster the business while it gains traction in the market and begins to take off.
Everything falls into place
With Wright in place, Taylor could finally create the private equity recruitment business he desired. To some extent the time he had spent with James Caan had left him with an appetitive for identifying great recruitment business ideas and providing the backing for them to succeed. Having worked in Hamilton Bradshaw, Taylor was aware that some ideas which were brought to Caan were rejected simply because they didn’t fit Caan’s approach and his business’ ethos. There was an element of scale and expectation that not everyone could meet, but Taylor thought a smaller-scale and perhaps more (that phrase again) ‘laid back’ approach to supporting businesses could deliver real benefits all round.
The company’s portfolio is currently made up of FinTech recruiter Ashmore Stark, Unified Resource Solutions – an outsourcing business for hard to find candidates – Higher Recruitment, operating in the rec to rec space and ESG Recruitment who specialise in graduates. In the case of Ashmore Stark, 777 bought the company while giving MD Greg Ashmore a place on the board of the group itself. As Taylor notes, it’s early days for these businesses but as time goes by and they gain a strong footing in their respective sectors, he and Greg Ashmore can take on more strategic roles for 777, appointing their own talent for the day to day running of each individual business.
As well as growing the existing businesses, naturally Taylor is after some new investments and finding potential businesses has been a priority for him. “I wanted to create a much more open door policy than Hamilton Bradshaw,” he explains. “There are two sides to that. Firstly, we become much more approachable investors. Secondly no one knows who we are and we need to be sure we’re offering something people want if we’re going to be an effective private equity company.”
One way of demonstrating that open door policy was to publish an article on LinkedIn towards the end of last year, in which Taylor offered (some might suggest foolishly) an audience to anyone who was looking for backing. He received 1600 contacts from which he conducted 150 telephone calls, 50 face to face meetings and countless email correspondences. As he says there is clearly a gap in the market for what The 777 Group has to offer.
Overall, says Taylor, they’re looking for business ideas which have something more about them than simply being strong recruitment businesses. They’re looking for the niche operators, and the niches which promise great growth in the future. “We tend to work in candidate short markets,” asserts Taylor, “But not only are we top suppliers for our clients, but when you look at the data you can see our clients interviewed the least number of people so our hit rate has to be very high.”
Culturally, The 777 Group is also not in the business of micromanaging its investments. Taylor knows through experience that if you offer someone the chance to pursue their aspiration they can generally be left to themselves to make that happen. Again it’s that ‘laid back’ approach. A strong structure of business giving entrepreneurs the chance to do what they do best.
“Saying that if someone came to us wearing a three piece suit we’d still listen to them,” says Taylor. “The door is open to anyone.”