In this Recruiter Spotlight, Aditi Jenkins interviews Basil Reid Thomas, Partner of Valentine Thomas & Partners, a boutique Executive Search firm specializing in Asset and Wealth Management.
In this all-encompassing discussion, Basil and Aditi cover the origins of the business, the impact of Covid-19, and how FileFinder helped grow the firm over the years.
Listen to the podcast, or read the transcript below:
Hi. My name is Aditi Jenkins with Ikiru People, and this is Recruiter Spotlight. I’m with Mr. Basil Reid Thomas with Valentine Thomas & Partners, boutique executive search firm based in the city of London, focusing on Asset and Wealth Management. Basil, I would like to know more about your background, and what brought you to this industry.
Absolutely, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having us and for all your help in recent weeks and months. Like so many people in our industry, I fell into executive search. After graduating in economics, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I tried a few very different things, like being a helicopter pilot in the Navy – they offered me navigator because I failed one the hand eye co-ordination tests. I then joined a business called Standard Life Investments, not as an investor, but in a sales and sales support role, I did that for a year or so.
And I had friends working in London in recruitment who seem to be having much more fun than me and earning much more money than me, so I thought I’d give that a shot. I joined a US, Wall Street-based business called Whitney Group in their London office. I was there for six years until 2004. During that time, they acquired an old British headhunting business called Tyzack & Partners, where I met a guy called Richard Valentine and the two of us ran the Asset Management practice there.
Tell me a little bit more about the services you offer, and how your work with clients.
All we do is Asset and Wealth Management. Within that space, we cover all senior front office role. So, that ranges from the CEOs and the Chief Investment Officers, the entire C-suite, through to senior investors, analysts, and portfolio managers and distribution people – so, heads of sales and marketing, heads of client relationship management, of products, and so on. We also do a lot around team lifts; I think we probably moved about 18 or 19 teams over the years. And this is all we do, we’re industry analysts, which probably doesn’t make us the most exciting dinner party companions, but we do know our market incredibly well.
How has Covid-19 impacted the business and the market?
It’s had a serious effect on the market, and a pretty serious effect on the executive search business as a whole. I don’t know a single business that has thrived in this market. You have some good client relationships, but there’s no recurring revenue stream. You start every year with a blank sheet of paper, you hope your clients are going to come back to you. But your fixed cost remains the same. With markets tanking, in February/March this year, and no indication of how long this was going to last, we decided to rein in our costs a little bit. We had a break clause in our office lease, so we took advantage of that, and moved to a virtual office setup. Our office, we figured, was still going to be there six months later when we needed it, and we’d probably get it at half the price. We also reduced a number of other fixed costs; we trimmed our salaries and so on.
Interestingly, all the searches that we were working on going into lockdown continued remotely, and candidates were hired without ever having met their you employers. And actually, we’ve picked up a number of interesting new searches. So it’s not been quite as disastrous as a we had thought. What has been an interesting observation is how much you miss by not seeing people face to face in the room. And what this has done has increased the importance to us and our clients of very deep 360 referencing and an increased emphasis on accurate data, and therefore, the quality of our key tool, our IP, which is our database.
Speaking of databases, you’ve been our client for a long time. What made you choose FileFinder to begin with?
I think we moved to FileFinder in 2008, we set up our business in 2004, using a kind of off the shelf software. We built our database, from scratch to just about 50,000 front office, primarily UK, but global asset management professionals. I think probably what triggered it was, in 2008, we hired Elizabeth Williamson, the head of research from Whitehead Mann and Korn Ferry.
She was incredibly data driven, she got us to pull up our socks and move to FileFinder. We realized that our key USP was the quality and accuracy of our market information, both quantitative and more importantly, qualitative. And then, when lockdown arrived we made the decision to move from server-based in the office to the Cloud and we upgraded to FileFinder Anywhere.
How do you see the impact of FileFinder over the years?
We’ve had FileFinder for 12 years. What I would say is that our reputation and our competitive edge is built around the data and how we use it. And FileFinder is the engine of that offering. It’s early days in terms of migration to FileFinder Anywhere, but our experience has been very positive. We’ve all had to go into a lot of upheaval and change the way we work. But the database update has been the least of our headaches over the last few months, and you’ve made that very easy for us.
From the technical coding and mapping side via the migration, and through to the user and admin training, it has been pretty seamless, and we’ve been very impressed by that. You’ve let us, by the hand, and shown saintly patience through that process. I think most people would have thrown in the towel by now, but you’ve patiently dealt with the most basic and nonsensical of questions, with a kind of zen-like calm.
And I think the key thing for us has been the fact that you had a number of years’ experience working with one of the world’s premier search firms. That means you have an understanding of what it is we do. You know, we’re not just recruiters, it’s a specific end of the recruitment market and for us that’s been hugely invaluable.
How has the rest of the experience been, working with our project team and support over the years?
It’s been very effective in the sense that we haven’t had to utilise your technical support team or projects too much. I suspect that will change now that we’ve upgraded, and we’re all learning a new system which is technologically far superior to the previous version. Probably we’re using about 10% of it now, we need to expand that. But I think the fact that you have a number of global offices means this covers all times of day and night. It’s been a pretty smooth process, both from a technical point of view and from a training point of view.
We don’t know when it is going to be, but what is your outlook past this Covid-19 pandemic?
Nobody has a crystal ball, right. Now, as I mentioned, Executive Search is a very inefficient business model. I think one interesting pandemic observation is around business development. Winning business from existing clients is one thing, trying to develop new cold leads, new cold relationships remotely is much harder. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, I think a lot of people have noticed that.
So we’ve had to become much smarter around relationship management in their own touchpoints. No clients want to be hassled and we don’t want to hassle them. Instead, we’ve been working hard on becoming more relevant and more visible. We’ve built an assignment on FileFinder, a distribution list of one thousand core influencers, and most important people on our database. We’ve started sending them regular newsletters. At the start of lockdown, we did one on Covid working within asset management. We’ve recently done another one on ESG sustainable themes, which is of the most important themes around at the moment. We did another one on distribution trends and how you sell in the pandemic environment. We also send monthly “people moves” newsletters to our distribution list.
So, it’s that kind of soft marketing, and that’s where data in the database has been hugely valuable to us. Beyond that, like our clients we’re just wrestling to find the right model of home versus office working for a growing business. You know, having an office is important. What’s been interesting is you can maintain relationships with people, colleagues, by Zoom, by webinars, but it’s much harder to get to know new people properly, that only comes through face-to-face contact. In terms of culture, in terms of morale, I think that sort of blend of home and office working is probably going to be the future for our business, certainly.
I think that any firm has been affected globally in every industry. Survival requires evolution. I think that’s where we all have to be, have the ability to change quickly, and then we can go with whatever Covid-19 throws at us.
Absolutely. I think that’s right. It’s about agility, it’s about flexibility and it’s that willingness to be able to pivot the business model slightly.
Well, I appreciate your time this morning. Would you like to add anything else?
No, it’s been an absolute pleasure. I think we’ve got a few more training sessions coming up, or we will need a few more training sessions as we get to grips with FileFinder Anywhere. But we really appreciate all your help. We appreciate the product. It’s a good, sophisticated product, so far working incredibly well.
That’s fantastic to hear. And I appreciate your time, and I hope you have a good weekend.
It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.