The Monday Interview: Recruiter putting its house in order

Cork-based recruiter Berkley Group is targeting revenues of €50m, but a lack of housing for growing staff numbers is proving a challenge to its ambitions, director Paddy O’Connell tells Pádraig Hoare.

With the ambition of a turnover of €50m in the coming years, clients such as Clearstream, Janssen Bio and Zoetis, and staff speaking nine languages, it’s no wonder recruitment firm Berkley Group has international expansion in mind.

Managing director of the Cork-based firm, Paddy O’Connell bought out the company last year along with Arthur Griffin, John Kennefick and John Fitzpatrick.

Berkley, whose key focus has always been in the business and technology, life science and engineering sectors, was established in 1995 in Dublin. The Cork office was established in 2000. In 2011, the group was sold to UK-based recruitment business Rethink.

Mr O’Connell and his colleagues saw an opportunity to begin a new chapter last year, and with decades of experience, decided to go for it.

“There were challenges within the business, primarily through a lack of investment. At that stage, I was a director of operations, and I took the opportunity to engage with business partners and acquire the business back in June of last year.

“I’ve been with the business since October 2003, starting as a senior

recruiter and working my way up through the business itself as the years and various operations changed,” said Mr O’Connell.

Now the new owners have ambitious plans.

“We want to grow the business significantly over the next four years. Last year, our annual turnover was €14m. We’re looking at hitting the €17m mark this year. It’s been a good start.

“Our key objective is to have €50m turnover within three to four years. Now, we realise it won’t just be through organic growth. We are most definitely looking at acquisitions over the next 12 months.

“Since we led the buyout, part of our key strategy and ambition has been to internationalise the business. We have established an international delivery hub here in Cork. We’ve grown headcount by 60% in the past 12 months. Some 25% of our staff are EU nationals, and we have nine different languages spoken.

We have established an international life science and engineering division, and we are currently doing business in four countries in Europe — Switzerland, Germany, France and the Netherlands. Later on this year, we are establishing our international business and technology division, and already we are starting to do business there under our own business and technology brand

The Donoughmore, Co Cork, native said long-term partnerships have been key to Berkley’s success - many firms have been clients for more than a decade.

“As organisations evolved, we’ve evolved. We like to see ourselves embedding with an organisation, not just filling a job and moving on. We support them at the workforce planning stage and make sure we create a talent pipeline for them, so they have a consistent funnel to access as they scale up,” Mr O’Connell said.

However, for all Cork’s resurgence as the economy booms, the one challenge that comes up over and over again is housing.

“An EY report showed 57,000 jobs annually created for the next four years. Where is the housing going to come from? This has to be addressed urgently. We have satellite towns and certain housing redevelopment but it is not going to feed the demand.

“It already is a crisis. I talk to CEOs and heads of operations weekly and this is a common theme running through conversations.

“In the last two months alone, there are a number of people coming to the country and renting through Airbnb, and significant challenges in finding accommodation. One company hired talent who left after two months because he could not find suitable accommodation.

“We are fantastic as a nation advertising our quality of life and suitability for investment, talent but we have to close the loop as to where we are going to house people,” he said.

Cork, so long a bastion of foreign direct investment (FDI) in pharma, biopharma and manufacturing, is now a burgeoning IT region. It would be a shame to jeopardise that, Mr O’Connell said. “When you have VPs or heads of operations talking about the challenges of getting housing for their own staff, it is only a matter of time before we miss out to competitive cities.

“We’ve effectively taken on the role of estate agents. We’re supporting candidates as they strive to find suitable accommodation. That should not be in our remit. Part of our job between 5.30pm and 9pm is driving candidates around to secure accommodation for them.

“The IDA plays a key role, and nobody should ever underestimate the work that it does internationally, positioning Ireland as a technology hub, across life sciences, technology and financial services.

“Ireland as a location sells itself. Dublin is the most appealing city in Ireland or the UK in terms of quality of life. Cork is the top city in Europe for business friendliness. Ireland Inc has that accessibility of talent and work-life balance. But the huge challenge is marrying all that with shortages in housing. You cannot get away from that.”

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