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20 Years of Harvey John

As Harvey John hits the 20-year mark, Managing Director David Waddell looks back on the journey from day one to now. From taking a leap of faith to weathering economic storms and a global pandemic, David’s story is about grit, adaptability, and confidence. His love for recruitment, focus on organic growth, and dedication to his team have driven Harvey John’s success. Dive into David’s experiences, challenges, and the key moments that have shaped Harvey John into a thriving, independent recruitment firm.

Katie Thomas (KT): Let’s start with your journey. What prompted you to start Harvey John and how did it come into being?

David Waddell (DW):  This is a bit strange – I’ve not been interviewed since 2001! Looking back, I don’t recall it being a particularly big decision to set up Harvey John. The key factor to consider was leaving a full-time job earning a pretty good commission and leaping into the financial unknown, but I’ve always backed myself and knew that there was enough business in the market for a new recruitment business – and for Harvey John to have a chance of succeeding.

I also always wanted to set up my own business. Initially, the plan was to be a recruitment solution for corporates covering several key business areas. Still, during the early years, the attention focused on the Accountancy and Legal service lines with a dedicated Tax offering in 2015, followed by Treasury in 2021.

Harvey John had a gradual start and took time to gain traction, but eventually, it built up to where we are today.

KT: Was it challenging to get started?

DW: Definitely. Day one was tough! So was day two, day three, and so on. 20 years later, the challenge has certainly not gone away, but there are different challenges. Looking back to those early days, no-one knew Harvey John. We’d constantly be speaking to businesses who’d reply with, “sorry, from where? Who’s Harvey John?” We even had a delivery dropped off to Harvey Jones the kitchen designers! 

Slowly but surely, with the mindset of winning over one client at a time, progress was made. 

And then making the first placement was a big moment. I remember it was with a Uckfield-based business called Crowson Fabrics, which is no longer operating. Banking that first cheque certainly gave the realisation that this could actually work.

KT: Can you tell me a bit about your career in recruitment? 

DW: Well like most, I stumbled into it. My first job out of university was at Travelex, a currency exchange business at Gatwick Airport. I worked every shift I could to save for traveling across South East Asia and Australia. While working for Travelex in Sydney, I had a chance meeting with one of their senior management who somehow fell for my wit and charm(!) and secured me a job at their ‘branch’ on the QE2 cruise ship! So following 20 months of living out of a backpack, I flew to California to meet the ship at the start of the 1997 World Cruise and traveled the world for the next 8 months – this time is relative luxury. And I got the chance to meet Buzz Aldrin!

Putting the cruising days behind me, I planned to work in travel and perhaps with a treasury focus, so I approached Hays for a trainee accountant role. But on registering back in October 1997, Mandy Smithson convinced me to try recruitment instead.  Thanks Mandy, for steering my life down another path!

I’m naturally nosey and love talking to people. I’m not a hard-nosed salesperson, I much prefer building relationships. And 27 years on, I still thoroughly enjoy recruitment and working with like-minded people. I recently read a quote: “If you are not doing what you love, you’re wasting your time.” Well, I do and I’m not! 

KT: What are some of the significant challenges you’ve faced?

DW:  Well as I mentioned earlier, there are always challenges when running a business let alone a recruitment business. Recruitment legend, Greg Savage, once said  ‘recruitment is one of the few industries where the product can say no!” It certainly keeps us on our toes.

But the financial crisis of 2008, Brexit, and of course, COVID were the main challenges. 

social distancing poster from hj office

COVID, in particular, was the strangest of times. At the end of March 2020, I messaged the team telling them to immediately collect all their tech from the office and work from home until further notice. When I got there at 08:30, they’d cleared out the place. It looked like we’d been burgled!

When the reality of the situation became clear over the coming days with the inevitable disruption to our everyday lives and business, it was certainly a relief when the furlough scheme was announced. Relief quickly led to high emotions! I didn’t quite fall to my knees, but I was certainly emotional and appreciative of the lifeline it gave me and other business leaders. It meant our team continued to get paid and keep their jobs.. But amongst all the gloom, business continued and, most importantly, recruitment continued. And for those of us who continued to work, we still made several placements over the following billing quarter. That gave us the motivation and energy to push through – between homeschooling and Joe Wicks!

KT: What’s Harvey John’s biggest achievement?

DW:  Our biggest achievement is that we’re still here and growing! An independent privately owned business that is clear of debt and clear of outside investment. Over several years, we’ve maintained a 75% repeat business rate across our billing quarters but with a focus on winning and securing new clients. We have a great team across the business from sales to support; it’s one that any recruitment firm would love to have among their ranks! But you can’t have them, stay away! 

What I’d say is both an achievement and a challenge is that we’ve grown organically to where we are today. It can be a slow process but growing, investing, and building based purely on our success is very important to me and the business.

If this is my pitch to support privately owned, independent businesses then this is it! We have the best people, who have the best recruitment tools and resources at their disposal. A team that not only loves what they do but also truly cares about their work.

Every client who trusts us with their recruitment and every candidate who trusts us with their job search are making a difference to our business. Recruitment is a rollercoaster, we don’t over-celebrate a fee and we don’t over-commiserate when things don’t go our way. As best we can, we stay on an even keel. Well, maybe apart from that first Crowson Fabrics cheque! 

KT: How do you plan for the future at Harvey John?? 

DW: The planning for the future question, tough one! But to plan and to build, we need strong foundations.

First and foremost, we need to retain our current team and keep bringing in new talent. We’ve never had a hiring approach of getting a ‘bum on seat’ but with each new hire, we look to raise the team average. We want to grow and will hire when the time is right for the business or when we meet the right people.

The recruitment sectors we operate in – accountancy, legal, tax, and treasury – are stable compared to other markets. Still, it’s key that we maintain the strong relationships we have as we explore new clients to work with.

We also need to ensure that the team has the best tech and tools to be super efficient and ultimately successful in what they do. This is continually evolving and rarely stands still.

As I mentioned earlier, our plans are born out of our success. So we plan with a common-sense approach and manage our expectations to a sensible growth rate. We have ambition but we are realistic. The financials are in a good place and the MI that we analyse allows us to make sound judgment calls for the short, medium, and long term.

Recruitment is all about confidence: the confidence for a business to hire and the confidence for a candidate to change jobs. A lot of what we do is out of our control. But ultimately, to plan for the future? We keep doing what we’re doing because we’re good at it.

KT: What has been the most rewarding aspect of leading the company?

HJ Team Beach Clean 2023

DW: Blimey, where do I start? For the sake of the length of this interview, I’d say one thing: the HJ team.

I’ve mentioned before that we have a strong team. A team of highly credible recruiters and business professionals who don’t take themselves too seriously, a team where there are no egos. As an independent, we have to back ourselves but we’re not arrogant. It’s a fine line between the two but we walk it well.

We have a strong core and the whole team deserves a mention. Georgina joined in 2010 and Alex in 2014 both straight from university. I’m humbled to think they’ve never worked anywhere else – and hopefully, they never will! Hayley joined in 2013 as a solicitor and leads our legal offering, all with the experience of someone who’s been in that seat. Plus she’s my wife so it’s awesome to work with her everyday (keep that bit in!). Claire, our Head of Finance, joined in 2015 and provides some of the best MI that a business of our size can only hope to receive. Some of the team are at the start of their professional journey but so many are at the 3, 4, and 5-year mark. I’m grateful for their loyalty and commitment, which is never taken for granted.

KT: If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice when starting Harvey John, what would it be?

DW: Start the pension earlier, but that’s boring. Don’t include that!

If ‘2024 David’ were to spend five minutes with ‘2004 David’, I would say don’t worry about going bald, it’s gonna happen. But, seriously, I’d say ‘Buckle up, it’s gonna be a ride!’.

KT: What have been your top 3 Harvey John highlights?

DW: That’s an impossible question. Off the top of my head, I would say:

  • When we first broke amillion turnover came with a real feeling of pride.
  • Seeing Alex and George not only become recruitment legends in their own right but also becoming parents. Along with new parents Callum and Georgina, the future stars of HJ are already in place! 
  • Our summer socials. I love our summer socials, we do different activities every year, followed by a beach clean the next day. It’s something the whole team looks forward to.

KT: If Harvey John had a mascot, what would it be and why?

DW:  Our mascot would have to be a non-aggressive seagull. As a Brighton & Hove Albion fan, I had a toy seagull as a kid (it’s still in the attic somewhere!). Seagulls are resilient and adaptable, much like us at Harvey John… but we don’t eat tin foil!

KT: If the team was stranded on a desert island, who would be the first to build a shelter, and who’d be first to organise a rescue party?

DW: It’s a tough call because our team is full of problem-solvers. I used to be an Air Cadet and a Scout, you know, so it might be me! But I’ll say Sandra. She’s pretty cool-headed (most of the time!) and gets us organised.

As for the rescue party, well, everyone in our team is a doer. We work in a competitive space, we all just get things done. But first, let’s find a coconut tree, sit in the shade, and just chill for five before we build the raft.

KT: Any final thoughts?

DW: Are you sure Michael Apsel is not about to come out with a red book? 

I’m proud of what we’ve built. I often refer to Harvey John as my ‘third child’ but without the trauma of going through GCSEs. We’ve created something special, and I’m excited for what the future holds.

And yes, I’ve buckled up. Let’s go!

harvey john team

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