Meet the talent management trio with a £10m turnover whose disruptive firm – now the largest privately owned HR company in the UK – helps others recruit staff, train rookies and find convicted armed robbers on the payroll
Fluffy bloody women? We’ll show you!” Lyndsey Simpson is relating the misogyny she faced when deciding to join two other women in talent management company The Curve Group, founded in 2004. Apparently the notion of three females heading a company was so alien, clients would “head-tilt and say, ‘Oh, you’re starting your own little HR business with some female colleagues’. Or they’d pat my head and say, ‘You’re obviously taking a back-seat’, as if I’d lost my focus.
“Even today, when I mention the nature of our business, people still talk to us as if we don’t have the intellect. And I’d be like, ‘Seriously? Working 90-100 hours a week, do you think I’d be doing that? I’m not a numpty!’”
Numpty isn’t a term you’d use to describe the trio behind a business that has gone from a garden summerhouse to a £10.1m turnover. Simpson and fellow co-owners Della Wolfe and Jeanette Ramsden have built The Curve Group into the UK’s largest privately owned HR firm, helping the likes of Santander, BNP Paribas and PayPoint attract, train and retain staff. With their disruptive-but-principled ethos shaking up a maligned industry long associated with company hitmen, The Curve Group’s rapid growth has been part-driven by “people assuming because we were female, we somehow lacked ambition and intellect. It gave us the energy to prove them wrong.”
On The Curve Group’s website, you’ll find lots of superhero imagery, all cartoons of power-suited, cleft-chinned crusaders and photos of staff ripping their shirts open, Clark Kent-style. And a superhero analogy is probably the best way of describing what The Curve Group does. “We’re like Batman,” says Simpson. “We put on our superhero capes, sweep into a new customer and take away their recruiting pain.”
This pain-removal includes everything from pre-employment vetting to exit placement and usually involves assigning a dedicated account manager to work with the client in-house. “Then, once those things are resolved, we move ourselves back into the shadows, put the client on the pedestal and make them the superhero.”
The “shadows” for The Curve Group is a barn on a working farm in Northamptonshire, surrounded by cattle. It’s less the Avengers peering out from their Manhattan eyrie, more Old MacDonald mucking out in wellies. Around 40-45 Curve Group staff are based here with chickens running into the office a common sight (“Sometimes we’re chasing them out,” says Simpson).
The odd poultry intruder notwithstanding, the farm HQ is still a long way – if not geographically – from The Curve Group’s origins. Having met while working at Trusthouse Forte in the 1990s, HR manager Ramsden and graduate hire Wolfe forged a friendship. While Ramsden went on to become HR director for business management consultants Liberata, and Wolfe operations director at Leicester City FC, one thing united them: recruitment struggles.
In 2004, Wolfe, now pregnant with twins, began brainstorming with her former colleague in the summerhouse of her Northamptonshire garden, eventually stumbling upon the idea for The Curve Group. Dipping into savings and denying themselves high salaries by reinvesting revenue into the firm, Curve Recruiting (as it was then) was a traditional recruitment firm, with the pair drawing on former leisure and insurance contacts.
During this time, Simpson worked for Barclays. By 2007, she was in Madrid as western Europe business development director. She was also one of Curve Recruitment’s first banking customers, impressed that the quality of candidate the firm offered meant she “wasn’t coffee-chatting people who weren’t right”.
Tired of catching six flights a week, Simpson wanted to return to the UK, phoning Ramsden to ask if she’d come across any commercial director roles. The reply was simple: “How about us?”
After initial reservations (“I thought, ‘You’re HR/recruitment and I don’t like you for those reasons’”), Simpson came on board in September 2007 in a role she never anticipated: co-owner. “It was a big move of them, very brave,” she says. “Many business-owners have an ego about giving up titles or shareholding and wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
The first few years were hardly smooth. Simpson found that without her Barclays business card, “My phonebook was cut in half. People stopped returning my calls. People I’d worked with for years assumed I wanted to sell them something. It’s quite common when people leave large corporates and start on their own. In their mind, you no longer add value.”
Then in September 2008, within 24 hours of the Lehman Brothers collapse, every single one of The Curve Group’s financial services customers – which constituted roughly two-thirds of their business – cancelled their recruitment. “Having built this monster, it was frustrating to have two-thirds of our business wiped out overnight,” remembers Simpson. She estimates it pushed the company back three years, losing “£2m at least”.
“I felt responsible,” says Simpson. “Having skewed the business towards financial services, I felt it was my responsibility to come up with the answers. We all agreed nobody shrinks their way to greatness. We wanted to do something. Quickly.”
By the end of the year, The Curve Group was ploughing cancellation fees into a sparkling new website and implementing Simpson’s idea of an outplacement business – corporate programmes for staff undergoing redundancy. Or as Simpson puts it: “Rather than helping companies recruit, we helped them lose people in a caring, ‘Curvy’ way.” Their first customer, Pizza Hut, came on board the following January. This also helped spawn The Curve Group’s HR consulting practice, helping the company gestate into the multi-faceted business it is today.
“I wouldn’t want to live through December 2008 again,” says Simpson. “I spent Christmas Day on the phone to America building a website. But if we hadn’t had the recession, we’d just have a mono-line recruitment business which did permanent recruitment, nothing else.”
Today, The Curve Group assists companies on every stage of an employee’s journey, from recruitment, vetting, induction, training and development through to exit outplacement – all conducted via the company’s Outsource Solutions and Talent on Demand services.
It’s a business that’s grown rapidly too, aided by the firm’s first bank loan in 2011 and a distinct lack of competition. The Curve Group occupies an advantageous mid-market position nestled between American FTSE 100-targeting behemoths (Manpower, Hay) and smaller outsourcing companies with one senior account.
“At the moment, we’re that annoying fly buzzing around your head,” admits Simpson. “We’re not a threat to their [Manpower et al’s] core markets, but annoying enough that we do things disruptive to their business and damaging their profitability – we get the odd swat-down now and again.”
This disruption is key to the firm’s ethos. “The Curve Group are the most disruptive company I have seen in the recruitment outsourcing industry in the last 20 years,” says Ann Swain of APSCo (Association of Professional Staffing Companies). “They are taking a stand on ethics, quality and innovation that is going to shake up the sector for the benefit of the customer and the wider recruitment industry.”
Possibly abiding by the Spider-Man maxim that with great power, comes great responsibility, The Curve Group promotes better transparency and refuses to have contractual clauses (for example, non-assignment of debt), believing they inhibit growth of smaller companies.
“Having been a banker myself, I find it utterly unethical that companies aren’t prepared to play on a level playing field and allow good companies to grow. It’s the Branson methodology – if there is a fairer way of doing it, you should be competing on your service and delivery, rather than cheeky little clauses that prevent their market [from growing],” says Simpson.
A new strand of The Curve Group’s business is pre-employment vetting, which offers checks on criminal backgrounds, financial history, alias checks, identity/right-to-work verification and press analysis.
Existing employees are also subjected to these checks too. The Curve Group’s pre-screening led to one company discovering one of their long-term employees, who had serious financial responsibilities, had a criminal conviction for armed robbery. The company also provides social media scans and is assisting firms with the DVLA’s switch to paperless driving licences so that “poor old Joe Bloggs in HR doesn’t have to do a photocopy of everybody’s car insurance”.
The world of HR and recruitment has changed drastically over the last decade, not least the shift from feared company bogeyman to a department concerned about employee welfare. Technology is also changing recruitment, especially the role of big data.
“With the data you have around your people, you’re no longer making guesswork especially with diversity,” says Simpson. “The data doesn’t lie when a company’s 90 per cent female workforce earn less than their male counterparts in the same role. [Because of this] big data, HR is a profession that can have much more strategic input with the CEO about what they need to do to make it shipshape and ready for the future,” she notes.
Currently writing a book on recruitment process outsourcing (“I googled and found there was no Dummies’ Guide to Outsourcing”), Simpson has lofty plans for The Curve Group.
“We want to become famous,” she says. “We want to be a business that lives and dies by its quest and values: extraordinary people solutions that leave you feeling ‘Curved’. That’s our target, our metric, how our staff measure themselves.”
And once the clients are satisfied, these three “fluffy bloody women” retreat to the Batcave (well, their Northamptonshire farm) to await the next Batsignal. Holy guacamole, indeed!
HQ Hinton-in-the-Hedges, Northamptonshire
High point The Curve Group’s recent growth from a £400,000 turnover in 2008/09 to £10.1m in 2014
Low point September 2008, when The Curve Group lost two-thirds of its customers overnight after the Lehman Brothers collapse
Did you know? Curve’s social media scans can help you spot those photos on Facebook of ‘unwell’ employees picnicking in the park
To find out more about Curve’s disruptive HR and recruitment business, visit thecurvegroup.co.uk
Lyndsey Simpson is a member of IoD London