Co-founder David Taylor on how he’s grown and grown in an unusual niche
Let’s face it, telecommunications engineering isn’t the sexiest of sectors. But it’s always the quiet ones, isn’t it? Telco engineering recruitment firm First Point Group was founded in 2004 and is forecasting a $60m global turnover this year. That’s up from $50m last year and $32m the year before. With 90 employees, that puts average earnings per head at $666,666 this year.
You might not be surprised to hear, then, that First Point Group has been indexed more than once in The Sunday Times’ Fast Track (which ranks the fastest-growing private companies in the UK) and the Recruiter Fast 50 (which does the same, but for recruitment firms only). It’s also won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise, and for International Trade.
First Point Group opened up its first overseas office in Dubai four years after launching, and now has offices in Hong Kong, Shenzhen in China, Spain, Texas and Mexico, as well as its London HQ on Wardour Street. It mainly recruits specialist engineers on a project basis, but has recently opened up a permanent division alongside its temporary staff one. Overall, it operates in more than 100 countries.
We talk to director and co-founder David Taylor to unearth his strategies for growth.
Q. David, how have you planned for the growth you’ve had?
The plan was for organic growth and investing in staff at the lowest level then training them, with a view that when opportunities with customers arose we could send them out into different markets. So, for example, we hired Chinese Spanish, Portuguese speakers who are are now running our offices around the world.
We’d always had a mind that we would try to take the company global as quickly as we could. Early in the business we were recruiting individuals with particular skills who we could then send around the world to grow our brand and grow our offices.
Q. A lot of your growth has come through international expansion. How do you identify new markets to move into?
There’s always an opportunity with an existing customer in a new region first – we wouldn’t normally go in completely blind and devoid of any business. We’ll invest on the back of that.
We tend to do business with customers from the UK for a period of time and when there is a certain level of business in a business or zone, we invest in opening an office to support that locally.
Q. How much business in any given market warrants setting up an office there?
It can really, really vary. In China we were doing a reasonable amount, at least $500,000 to $1m [turnover in a year]. In Hong Kong we were doing less than that when we first started, but Dubai we were doing about the same as China.
Q. What’s the process for setting up shop overseas? How do you build teams there?
We invest in people [based in our UK office] that could have the potential to go overseas and lead offices.
There’s normally at least one or two [managers] in a new country who have come from UK offices – they maybe nationals [of the country in question who have been] living and working in the UK who then go out.
After that we recruit locally. That helps us with a more low-cost growth model – not paying European salaries. In Asia there will be one or two of those [on European salaries] and everyone else will be Asian.
Everyone speaks English in the entire company, in every country.
Q. Many mid-market companies seem wary of entering China because of the corruption and different legal system there – how have you handled those aspects?
To date, I’ve never come across any bribery and corruption, ever. I would say in reality it depends on the type of customer you’re dealing with. We’re dealing with major telco companies so they have very, very strict rules in China for the big companies on bribery. For them it’s a massive offence – if you cross that line once, you’ll never work with them ever again. So we have a zero tolerance policy.
I would say that China is massively paper-rich. Everything has to be done in person, with company chops [an official stamp]. Every document you sign has to be chopped [i.e. stamped] in person. So when we set up our bank account, we must have had about 100 to 150 pages to stamp, and we were in the bank for four-and-a-half hours!
It’s exceptionally good to have locals or language skills [working for you in China]. I personally wouldn’t do it without those skills – it’d be nigh-on impossible to set up in China without.
Q. How have you funded your growth? Have you ever taken external finance?
We’ve had HSBC as a funding partner – we have an agreement with them for financing. We’ve never taken external finance [other than that funding partner agreement].
We’ve retained almost all of the profits in the business since we started, and that’s obviously massively helped our funding position.
Q. In a fast-growing business, the role of leader is constantly evolving. How have you continued to equip yourself with the skills needed to manage an even-bigger company?
For the first six or seven years, I did a dual role of still selling and managing. The time came that I felt I wasn’t doing justice to the customers because I was pulled from too many directions. So I stopped selling and focused more on management side of things.
I recognise now, actually, I’m better off not doing maybe what I’m best at. My time is better maybe coaching and bringing on others in the business. I can only go so far with just me – I need others that are then going to carry on the flag.
I now have 13 direct reports around the world in seven different offices – that’s quite a lot to manage. It becomes very muddled – there’s a lot going on, a lot of “what do I do first”. So we’ve invested in an executive coach. That’s me investing in my continued development, to try to assist in the knowledge of how organisations work and how multiple management streams react.
The coach also works with our management team so that’s investing in our organic growth again. One of our ethos of growth is to bring people through that have been with us for good number of years. Our finance manager Adrianna Wronska, for example, has been with us since year two, and started as an assistant administrator. She is now running finance across the globe.
Q. You’re in a very defined niche. Do you plan to focus just on telco engineers indefinitely, or will you need to diversify to achieve further growth?
I think it’s a strength that we specialise in one vertical, and at the moment we have no plans to open up in, say, oil and gas or other areas. There are still multiple areas within telecoms itself, as it’s merging with several other areas. Telecoms is becoming more IT-based, for example, and vice versa. Then you’ve got mobile money, M2M [machine-to-machine] – both massive growth areas.
I think we’ll still specialise in telecoms and then add in these other areas as we continue to grow.