Q&A with partner Nick Irving
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What’s your background and how did you come to work at Howgate Sable?
After graduating from the University of Liverpool with a degree in Geography, specifically volcanology, I joined a graduate scheme at a major supermarket group. I’d worked at store-level for another company while at university and had my interest piqued by the world of retail, so the programme was a natural progression and gave me great insight into how a major business works from the inside to its end customer interaction.
In my third year, I took a role working directly for one of the retail managing directors as his project manager, which, amongst other things, involved some headhunting. After this, I moved into the central HR team as resourcing manager for logistics and supply chain. Ultimately, I decided that recruitment was the best career route for me so I secured an opportunity with a global recruitment consultancy. I worked there for six years placing HR professionals, before deciding to move into executive search as I’d focused on more senior appointments during the majority of my career to date. I met up with Neil Humphreys, now another partner here at Howgate Sable, and began working for the firm in August 2011 – meaning I’ve just celebrated my sixth anniversary!
Why are you so passionate about executive search?
I find it hugely rewarding to see companies flourish as a result of the people I’ve hired for them. It’s also a commercially challenging, deadline-centric working environment, which I thrive on – and the thrill of winning a new customer never fades.
What’s been the most satisfying moment of your career so far?
I’d have to say being invited to join the ownership group of Howgate Sable as it gave me the opportunity to continue the day job of finding great people, but also allows me to help decide the strategic direction of the firm. When it comes to specific pieces of work, I was especially pleased when the CEO of a high-profile business in the aviation sector issued a press release citing their delight at being able to attract and recruit a new senior executive – an employee I’d found for them.
If you weren’t in executive search, what would you be doing?
I think I’d have gone into academia, or commercial aviation.
Who would be your dream client?
All of my clients are a dream!
What do you consider to be the biggest challenge affecting the search market currently?
Economic and political uncertainty – issues such as Brexit, the economy in general and consumer confidence are all major influencing factors on the executive search market.
How do you predict the search market will change over the next decade?
Technology will continue to play an increased part in executive search. It’s likely that a more sophisticated screening tool with intelligent algorithms will be designed to more accurately identify appropriate candidates. Social media will be utilised more effectively, too.
I also expect that firms will consolidate their activity and turn to more direct sourcing in middle management, with in-house teams increasing over the next 10 years. However, the senior end of the market will remain reliant on executive search firms – after all, you can’t make a confidential senior appointment via social media or direct sourcing; you need an executive search firm to handle the approaches, assessment and delivery.
Your particular specialisms are retail and aviation. How have these industries developed during the time you’ve worked in executive search?
When it comes to retail, the recession of 2008 and 2009 had a major impact on the market. The rise of the discounters – both food, with shops like Aldi and Lidl, and non-food, with the likes of Home Bargains and B&M – has led to increased pressure and competition and the multiples have struggled as a result. Online retailers like Amazon and Asos have also changed the game and put more pressure on the high street. Multi-channel retail is where it’s at and those that have stuck with just one way to shop have suffered.
What we’re left with are key decision-makers who are less confident about commissioning executive search work due to tighter margins and are therefore advertising more jobs directly and creating in-house search teams. It’s a very congested market, with a lot of search businesses operating within it, so you need a particular niche and impressive experience to stay ahead of the game. Having said this, the very senior end of the market such as PLC board appointments typically always has search firm involvement due to the nature of the work.
With aviation, I’ve operated in the sector for around five years and seen huge changes even in that time. Again, the rise of low-cost carriers – such as Ryanair and easyJet – has disrupted the market, leaving national carriers trying to compete, but their ageing fleets and various legacy issues can create real barriers to delivering significant commercial change. Aviation is incredibly economically sensitive as margins are tight due to high costs (on things such as fuel and maintenance) and increased price pressure at the front end, so companies have had to be nimble to remain competitive. Equally, there is much debate regarding the impact of Brexit on the UK passengers and the major UK carriers will continue to lobby the government for a solution, but there is a general recognition that it will not be easy.
When it comes to executive search and aviation, we hold a very prominent position within the market, with a history of filling highly technical and complicated positions, and a network of contacts that we believe is truly unmatched.
Which individual has inspired you most in your career and in what way?
My dad. He gave me a very good piece of advice early on in my career and it’s stayed with me ever since – focus on performance; the rewards will follow. It’s simple, but a huge motivator for me.
What’s your claim to fame?
On a particularly turbulent flight back from Malaga, I had to reassure a very nervous passenger about why the aircraft was making the noises it was – it was a member of a leading UK girl band and she mistook me for a pilot!
Which conversation do you wish you’d been a fly on the wall for?
The conversation between Captain Richard De Crespigny and his team on the flight deck of QF32 about what to do when faced with multiple warnings and system failures on a new Airbus A380 after it had suffered an uncontained engine failure rendering the aircraft near impossible to fly with over 300 passengers on board. This is where leadership, technical knowledge, training and art of flying meet in a life threatening situation and their collective experience averted a certain catastrophe.
What’s your elevator pitch?
I am relentless in my mission to secure the best possible candidate. I know my markets extremely well and know exactly where to look for talent. I also know how to engage and attract that talent, so that the best possible candidate ends up in their perfect role and delivers excellent results for the hiring company.