Executive recruitment firm Saxton Bampfylde was already a blossoming commercial entity when, in April 2014, becoming employee-owned gave it a remarkable new lease of life. Director talks to its co-founding partner Stephen Bampfylde
Given the audacity of their company mission statement – it begins, “We exist to change the world” – it’s perhaps no surprise that the first thing Stephen Bampfylde and Anthony Saxton did after shaking hands when they co-founded their ‘executive search’ boutique 28 years ago, was seek some divine intervention. “It was 8th September 1986 ?– the Feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” recalls Bampfylde. “Our first act was to go to 8am communion at Westminster Abbey and ask for help. Each year now, to mark our birthday, the whole company goes back there for communion.”
Those who share Bampfylde’s faith (he’s a Benedictine Oblate and founding member of the Archbishops’ Council) might claim that divine powers have been more than amenable to the founding pairs’ pleas. But, regardless of one’s beliefs, it is clear that – almost three decades after that fateful morning – Saxton Bampfylde has garnered a remarkable reputation for filling top-level positions within organisations from FTSE 100 companies to blue-chip multinationals, academic institutions, foundation trust hospitals and other not-for-profit concerns.
“From the outset in the mid-Eighties, we wanted to work with organisations that weren’t doing executive searches,” says Bampfylde. “We were the first search firm to do top-end recruitment in schools, higher education, charities and so on – and underpinning that by maintaining a strong commercial practice.”
Bampfylde gradually bought Saxton out, and has since grown the business into a top-10 executive search firm with an annual turnover of £9m to £10m. Revenues have increased year on year for the last three, and by 51 per cent since 2012. “We’ve also achieved a 98 per cent success rate, in terms of satisfied clients, against an industry average of about 60 per cent,” says Bampfylde, adding that 2014 is set to be the company’s most profitable year to date.
So what’s he doing right? Bampfylde’s faith remains a core part of how he oversees the whole operation. “We’re not a religious ghetto – not everyone here is a card-carrying Christian, and any people of any faith or none are welcome to work with us,” he smiles.
“But I don’t hide my faith internally, and I never have. I’ve used The Rule of Saint Benedict as a management textbook. If you read the chapter about the character of the abbot – and bear in mind this is 1,500 years old – it reads like the freshest thing out of Harvard. It talks about the strong having something to strive for and the weak having nothing to run from. It talks about the need for leaders to know their flock – which I always encourage.”
But it’s another, more recent text that really underpins this company’s modus operandi: Lewis Carroll’s 19th century phantasmagorical novels about a girl called Alice and her adventures in Wonderland. As the imaginary kingdom’s Red Queen says in Through the Looking-Glass, “It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else you must learn to run at least twice as fast.”
Noting that this neatly encapsulates life at the top of modern organisations today, and that the Alice novels are actually packed with other neat correlations with the modern business world, Bampfylde has made Carroll’s books the cornerstone of his company’s culture. Inspired by the Queen’s quote, the firm thrives on a methodology that strives to be more vigorous, more diligent and yet simultaneously more casual, less ruthlessly competitive, than its peers.
“We have a unique research model that I’ve been talking about for 30 years and still nobody copies it, because most of our competitors just think we’re crazy,” laughs Bampfylde. “We also do some pretty unusual psychometrics, our secret weapon.”
Meanwhile, he points out that independent studies of headhunting firms by The Economist typically show that Saxton Bampfylde undertakes, on average, two to three times more research per project than any of its competitors. “We always take one person from our research team and they have absolutely nothing else to do except work on that one client,” he explains. “In any other search firm,” he claims, “a client will be one of six to 10 projects that someone’s thinking about.
So for us there’s a unique focus on covering more of the waterfront, making sure we give clients exactly the right answer rather than any old answer.” This aggressively thorough approach to what they do is coupled with a relaxed internal culture which is distinctly anti-spreadsheets.
“An awful lot of search firms measure how much work partners sell and pay them accordingly,” says Bampfylde. “We’ve never actually measured how much anybody has sold in this business. The entire emphasis of the firm is on brilliant execution. We just reckon that, if we do enough good work, it’ll bring its own rewards, will get us enough clients.”
And yet, despite a singular ethos being adhered to, this company only really came of age recently – last April, to be precise.
Saxton Bampfylde has undergone two major transformations over the last decade. Firstly, in 2005, 70 per cent of its shares were sold to the then AIM-listed services company Hatpin. It wasn’t a successful move. “We ring-fenced it by keeping some of the company private, but still, the quarterly earning pressures, the pressures of the City, the need to pay out dividends to external shareholders – all those things began to impinge on [our ethos],” says Bampfylde. “We didn’t like the effect it was having on our culture. Everyone was starting to count and measure things.”
As a result of these misgivings, Bampfylde bought the company stock back at the beginning of 2008 and began thinking about how to make the business successful, sustainable and complicit with its founding principles long into its future. “It became a case of, ‘What is the right structure for our kind of business, our morals, our ethics, our ways of working?’”
The answer, he realised, was to adopt a business model which is now growing at an annual rate of 10 per cent. “A couple of our clients were employee-owned,” he says, “and we became interested in what that could do in terms of the energy it could give people and so on.” However, before even considering such a radical plan, “we embarked on a two-year process of consulting other firms. Employee-owned firms tend to become quite evangelical, so they’re more than happy to talk about it.”
The company also sought help from specialist firm Baxendale Ownership and the Employee Ownership Association, while undertaking in-house preparation with its own accountants and lawyers (“You need to make sure that, as far as the tax authorities are concerned, it’s not some clever wheeze,” he continues).
The conclusions? “We realised we had to devise a model that fitted our culture, our people and what it is we want to achieve,” he says. The business came up with a model whereby a board continues to manage, while a trustee body made up of seven people holds the shares. Three of these are elected by the workforce, from three “communities” within the organisation – consultants, project co-ordinators and research. The board of trustees is effectively custodian of the company’s values, and also approves strategy plans and profit share schemes, as well as carrying the power to get rid of directors.
“Democracy is a wonderful thing,” says Bampfylde. “In this instance it came up with some unusual outcomes, including huge confidence votes in some of our younger people. A 25-year-old was elected – given that trustees can actually fire the board, you’d have expected them to go for the oldest heads around. In fact, they put their faith in the people who they felt most live the company values. We’ve also got three women out of seven.”
So how has the change affected the company? “It doesn’t mean we’re all fluffy, non-profit-making lentil-eaters,” he says. “But it means we can work more collegiately, without saying, ‘Well, I’m not going to tell you who my best candidate is because I want to get paid for him rather than you,’” he says. “We’re that kind of place anyway, so it’s always felt right – like a well-cut suit. Also, everybody is much hotter on cost-control because they now know it’s everybody’s money. Of course, they still take the mickey out of me, telling me they’re going to fire me…”
Does he have advice for SMEs thinking of taking the plunge? “You must be willing to let go,” he says. “You can’t partly let go.
I went to bed one day the majority owner and woke up the following morning as one of 70 partners. That’s what all the advisers you’ll speak to are concerned about: are you playing at it or are you serious about it? It’s a huge emotional leap.”
What about preparation? “Cudgel your brains about what sort of culture you want to institutionalise. If you currently have a cynical, hierarchical model managed by fear, it won’t work. Also, don’t be greedy – you’re going to get slightly less money than if you sold a company on the stockmarket or to a trade competitor, almost certainly. Think long-term – this is something to be committed to for the rest of your life.”
The sheer aura of positivity that glows from him indicates he’s become employee-ownership’s most ardent evangelist. “It’s been like a big miracle cure – a ‘Buck-U-Uppo tonic’ as PG Wodehouse would call it,” he laughs. “It’s an idea whose time has come – capitalism for the 21st century.”