The Ri5 interview: Julie Towers and Keith Pilling, Penna

The Ri5 interview: Julie Towers and Keith Pilling, Penna

It’s now over a year since the acquisition. What was your initial reaction to the news?

Julie – ‘Keith and I always knew when we came here, that we were here to grow the business for it to be potentially sold. So you come in and, hopefully, you do a good job – which is a journey in itself – and then the day comes when you’re acquired. Naturally, you wonder what that’s going to mean.’

Keith – ‘Of course, we were aware we’d taken the Penna Barkers business and turned it into a very successful and profitable recruitment company. In doing this we had built a strong culture, so any acquisition could have been of concern to employees. When Adecco was announced as the organisation buying us we talked to the business about the news and we were very honest and open. It’s part of our culture. We felt quite confident that we could go into that relationship and continue to build a sustainable business. They are a global recruitment company, so we could see a win-win situation. So that's sort of how we looked at it from the very beginning. And that’s what we communicated to our people. But you never know and there’s always an element of scepticism.’

What were reactions like out on the floor?

Julie – ‘I suppose there was the worry that Adecco might have wanted to come in and change our culture. I certainly think some of our staff thought that might happen, but I have to say nothing's changed. And I think they’d agree.’

Keith – 'In that period of acquisition, change was certainly what everyone was looking out for. So, we kept doing what we do. We kept the annual conference, the business briefing, the directors’ dinners, the learning academy… and we kept bringing the talent in. So now, I think they've stopped looking for the change and they’ve started looking for opportunities.’

What’s the reality been like?

Julie – ‘Actually, it’s been a brilliant acquisition. You probably couldn't have asked for better in the sense that we've gone to a place that loves recruitment. We've gained huge resources, they have respected our difference and independence, and for the attraction and communications business it’s brought incredible growth and opportunity which was just what we needed. It’s a marriage made in heaven.’

Keith – ‘I was surprised at the amount of trust we got from day one. I probably wouldn't have operated in that way. I'd have sat close with the business. But Adecco are used to letting their businesses get on with it. Just look at Pontoon, Spring, Badenoch & Clark… they've all got different cultures and very strong brands and they play to that. And the reality is, we’re still us. We've retained our learning academy, we still have our graduate intake, we have our interns, we have our apprentices, we have the same values and Adecco allow us to be different as they know that we operate in a different market…’

Julie – ‘Keith and I found very quickly that because we are so different to them – in a good way – we really complement each other. There's very little that actually binds us. Adecco know how to run a temp business and they know how to run a perm contingency business. They do that really well and they've got super brands. To dabble with the area of resourcing when you've got such an established brand like ours, I think it would be potentially dangerous. I think they were very sensitive to the fact they'd bought a great brand, so they’ve left us to do what we do best. They were very supportive.’

Keith – ‘Our policy was very much to treat them as a client. We kind of said, "Look, there are some really nice efficiencies that can be built here, not people wise, but efficiency wise – such as accommodation and systems.” Then we’ve been going out and engaging with their brands like Pontoon, Adecco Retail, Spring, Badenoch & Clark. The way we position ourselves is that there are two Penna dollars available to them. There's the “what we will add to the bottom-line” dollar. And then there’s the “added-value” Penna dollar: and that’s about how we can support their brands to win business with our strong employer branding, website build and recruitment communications side of the business. There’s so much opportunity.’

‘I think if we'd been bought by a competitor organisation it may well indeed have been a different story. There's a real blessing in an organisation that initially bought us for our outplacement business, but then realised that we were just so much more than that.’

You’ve talked about how you’re adding-value to Adecco businesses, but how has that worked the other way around?

Keith – ‘We’re natural cross-sellers. It’s our way. We do it because we've got different business streams that don’t compete, which means we have a one bottom-line philosophy. I think Adecco have found that quite refreshing. So, with our cross-referrals into LHH Penna, for example, we’re able to put people in contact. We also had an occasion not so long ago with a client who’s a major motor manufacturer and we said, "Actually, we're best placed not doing this. This is more of an RPO solution”, so we passed the lead to Pontoon. We've always had that approach because of our range of complementary business areas. I don't care where it lands in our business as long as it's the right solution for the client. It’s one bottom-line after all.'

It sounds like a positive start. Have there been any challenges?

Keith – ‘As you’d expect with such a huge organisation, the corporate governance is massive. My view on that one is that that's where you can lose your innovation. By the time your idea has gone through all of the governance, you've lost interest, or it's dead, or it's not relevant anymore. We’ve had to work on this with Adecco and so far we seem to be striking the right balance.'

What are you looking forward to?

Keith – ‘I think that the biggest opportunities will come from working with Adecco. And we’ll have to work in a more global way to handle some of these opportunities that are coming through. We’re finding we’re coming across everyday challenges like arranging a call between colleagues who are typically London-based, but suddenly find themselves in Dubai and North America. That would never have happened before. But it’s also about opportunities around operational efficiencies, sharing intelligence and supporting growth, particularly global growth. We’ve got to cherry pick what's going to work for us and what isn’t. We’ve got to be conscious that while we’re now Adecco owned, we need to demonstrate that there remains high value in the Penna brand, because it’s self-sufficient, feeds itself and adds value to the other brands.’

Julie – ‘We now have the opportunity to go global. I think we always hoped that would be an opportunity. That’s massively exciting. I'm also looking forward to the potential we have to develop our relationship and brand with clients who count on us. We've had a real shift in the last few years of attracting businesses around what we do and the impact we make. That’s because we genuinely create strategic outcomes for organisations that we work with and, I think, we have a great brand with clients who trust us enough to tell us their people problems. But we’re never complacent. We never take that trust for granted – particularly in the public sector where our brand is in such ascendancy. And the opportunity to maximise that is exciting. We need to continue to be profitable, that’s essential. And we need to continue to offer a great work environment. But if you can also do something for clients in terms of making a difference for their organisations, then you can feel really proud of what you do. We Are Family at Penna, when we became part of Adecco it just became a bigger family.’

Thursday, 20 July 2017

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