Rosaleen Blair was an RPO pioneer. And she still is.
By Katie Kuehner-Hebert
Rosaleen Blair, who helped forge the recruitment process outsourcing industry when she founded Alexander Mann Solutions in 1996, has had the entrepreneurial bug ever since she can remember.
“I’ve been starting businesses since I was too young to be starting businesses—I’ve always liked building things and making things happen, and I have an entrepreneur’s heart in everything I do,” says Blair. The chief executive of the London-based outfit helped launch it just six months after joining the traditional recruitment firm, Alexander Mann.
Blair says she actually “fell into recruiting” several years before that, by starting a nanny staffing service in her home town of Dublin, Ireland—but even that was happenstance. “I actually thought of starting a different business—so many people were leaving Ireland for the UK because there were no jobs for highly educated people there at the time, and I was thinking of how to match talent with the right employers.”
To make ends meet in the meantime, Blair on a lark put out an ad in a newspaper on the north side of Dublin, with the words, “child minders wanted”—and another ad on the south side of Dublin, “child minders available”—just to see what would happen.
“Overnight I had a nanny business,” she says. “I couldn’t believe the amount of families wanting nannies and the amount of professional nannies seeking work, so I just stumbled onto a gap in the market.”
That initial venture into the recruitment industry made Blair “really hungry” to learn more. She sold the business in the mid-90s and moved to the U.K. At 29, she joined Alexander Mann where she thought she could gain additional knowledge about the sector—as well as how to structure her own recruitment business in the future. “I wanted to build up the professionalism of recruiting,” she says. “At that time, the recruitment roles were often filled by HR generalists or people from the outside, so I saw a huge opportunity.”
Actually, it didn’t take long for Blair to realize a need existed for an even more specialized recruitment firm—one that would handle the recruitment duties for corporations.
“I probably had the idea three weeks into the job, but it took me that long to share it,” she says. “It was a complete shock to them—they thought I was mad.”
Mann and his team were initially skeptical that the corporate world would have enough interest in outsourcing recruitment services, but Blair found at least one firm willing to try it—ICL, an information technology services company that in 2002 was bought by Fujitsu Services in Tokyo. As a result, Mann offered to partner with Blair in a joint venture, and Alexander Mann Solutions (AMS) was born. “If it were not for the customer, there was no way I would have gotten the backing,” Blair says.
Blair says her new company grew “exponentially” in its early years, backed further with an investment by Advent International, which in 1999 acquired a minority stake. In 2000, AMS began acquiring other recruitment firms across Europe and a year later opened an office in Australia. In 2002 AMS launched its TalentSource talent management service offering, and in 2003 it secured its first RPO contract for the Asia-Pacific region. Three years later, the company opened an office in New York and in 2006, a new international hub in Kuala Lumpur.
In 2007 Blair led the company through a £100 million ($159 million) management buy-out, and in 2008 she led the acquisition of the second biggest pureplay RPO provider in the UK, Capital Consulting. As a result of that pivotal year, Blair was named the Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year, Britain’s premier award for businesswomen.
Today, AMS generates annual revenues topping £350 million (US$556 million), employing 1,000 people in more than 60 countries. Global RPO clients include computer maker Hewlett-Packard, mobile phones group Vodafone, investment bank Credit Suisse, insurer Prudential, and business advisers Deloitte. Blair and her team are currently focused on expanding the firm’s global RPO operations and strengthening its professional services offerings as well, she says. The goal is to build on AMS’ position as a leading and stand-alone global RPO provider.
“We are in the fortunate position that we don’t have a legacy of staffing business or executive search business—we’re a provider of talent and resourcing, and our whole way of doing business is in an integrated way that enables us to offer the most appropriate solutions for each client,” Blair says. “So we’re not driven by needing to sell something we’ve already got—we can genuinely build something based on best of class. That’s a position we really value and want to retain.”
Blair adamantly squelched any rumors that Alexander Mann is up for sale, or looking for a partner. “We are not in conversations with anyone about being bought,” she says. “We genuinely believe that we have just scratched the surface in bringing innovation to the industry.”
AMS will continue to expand its geographic footprint, particularly in Asia. The company has transferred a number of senior people to the region and made some local hires, and is just about to add a senior partner there. “We want to switch our focus away from Europe, and continue to build out globally,” Blair says.
The company is also continuing to expand its professional services offerings for those companies that want to retain their recruitment functions in-house:
- Resourcing communications, which includes sourcing “optimization,” or sourcing the most appropriate strategies and technologies, media planning and buying, online copywriting and advertising, digital communications, optimizing agency use, and account management, creative agency experts, and branding consultants;
- Operations consulting, which analyzes, designs, implements and improves clients’ internal recruitment operations;
- Technology consulting, including the design of appropriate recruitment technology, procurement support, implementation, training, maintenance, audit, and improvement;
- “Business intelligence,” which helps measure the effectiveness and efficiency of internal recruitment processes;
- Assessment and selection, which helps clients better identify needed talent;
- “Graduate” recruitment and emerging talent, which includes recruitment on college campuses for entry-level professionals jobs;
- Executive resourcing; and
- Outplacement and career transition consulting, which helps to redeploy or find outside jobs for outplaced employees.
“I think some organizations have an outsourcing mindset, and for some organizations, their whole business model is to own everything and build everything themselves,” Blair says. “We started the company to provide organizations with measurable long-term solutions to talent, and it was happenstance that our first few contracts were in the outsourcing space. But as we got bigger and bigger, we moved away from just purely outsourcing, and now we go to an organization and listen first to find out what are their issues, which leads to building long-term solutions that are not always about outsourcing. A lot of companies can enjoy many of the benefits of outsourcing without having to go the whole way.”
Blair says the RPO industry continues to face many challenges. “Technology is moving at such a pace that we need to insure that we’re keeping clients abreast of the newest technology, so they can leverage it the most appropriate way,” she says. “I do think organizations more and more are recognizing the true value of transparency of information intelligence, common systems, common platforms. We need to get global solutions, but we’re a long way from that. The understanding of the complexity and geography is not always there, and most organizations still have a one-size-fits-all.”
The RPO industry can help its clients by not only consulting on emerging technology and operational processes, she adds, but also on outside forces that might affect hiring practices. Those might include governmental legislation or changing demographic patterns affecting where to find the best talent. Moreover, particular industry sectors have particular challenges, such as the rapidly-changing rules in many countries on bonus and compensation pay for investment bankers, which could result in an even greater mobile workforce in that sector, Blair says. For RPO firms such as AMS, it’s critical to keep up with emerging legislation, not only on this issue, but on other labor issues such as diversity, work schedules, geographic registration, and temporary staffing requirements that could affect hiring practices in different countries. “In the engineering sector, the big issue is where the talent is going to come from,” Blair says. “There are graduates in China, but the question is whether are they aligning with the culture of other countries. It’s fair to say that’s one of the challenges.”
As the RPO industry continues to mature, Blair is confident that outsourcing firms such as hers can meet these challenges. “I think the industry really is professionalized now,” she says. “We’ve got more professional advisors coming into this space, which is a very positive thing for this industry.”
Blair says the most surprising thing to her is that she hasn’t tired of the field. “If anything, I’m more passionate than ever,” she says. “When you look at the prospect of providing solutions for every level inside of an organization, from entry to just below board level, in every sector and in every geography, it’s hugely exciting. For me, the most exciting thing is that there is so much more to do in this space. I could never be bored in this space, and I can’t imagine doing anything else in my lifetime.”