Interview with Debbie MacBeattie

Debbie is the founder and Managing Director of ROC Recruitment.

She took ROC to The Sunday Times/Virgin Atlantic Fast Track 100 League Table – in 1997 it was the 84th fastest growing company in the UK.

In 2002 she represented Britain at BAWE (British Association of Women Entrepreneurs) and was also a runner up in the Women Entrepreneurs of the World at FCEM in St. Petersburg, Russia.

On 4th July 1991 Debbie secured serviced offices in London’s South Molton Street along with two staff and an army of clients and started ROC. She had very little funding and managed to persuade her bank to make a £10,000 overdraft available to her – the offices were secured with a credit card. The business had to, and did, make money from day one.

ROC is already turning over £5 million, with the potential to become a leading brand.

Debbie has been the principal ‘rainmaker’ in the business ever since and is key in maintaining major client relationships. With a strong work ethic, she runs the business on a day-to-day basis.

Debbie was appointed in June 2011 as a Mentor for the Cherie Blair Foundation.

“I don’t really think there is any such thing as failure.  You can go through good and bad times, if you can get yourself out of the bad times it’s not failure, it’s dealing with the situation that you are in.”

Can you tell me about your background?

I started my working life as a secretary. I worked for a property company for seven years then I went to work for a female entrepreneur who was in financial services. She was incredibly inspirational, very difficult to work for and incredibly successful. She was on the million-dollar round table being one of the highest-billing financial services females worldwide and had achieved a lot of personal wealth.

I worked for her as a PA and realised that I was innocently put into a sales job because part of my job was making appointments for potential clients. I then saw the financial services sales consultant also making money and I thought ‘Well, I should go into sales’. So I knocked at lots of recruitment companies’ doors and finally one of them took me in – a company called Sarah Hodge Limited.

I started life there as a consultant and quickly became very successful. Then in the late 80s the company went into liquidation in the recession and in the early 90s I started Roc. In the morning I left my old company which had gone into receivership, and in the afternoon I walked into a new door that was Roc Recruitment – with a £10,000 overdraft from my understanding female Bank Manager.

Would you say that your previous boss was a mentor for you?

Not a mentor, she was inspirational. She didn’t mentor me. The result was the same as if she had been a mentor though. I almost think the fact that she didn’t mentor me drove me more, because I really didn’t particularly enjoy working there.

Were you a good student at school?

Yes, I was a reasonably good student. I was always in the top stream although I never went to university. I probably could have done but various circumstances just didn’t permit it. I’ve got some natural leadership skills and I was always somebody that my peer group would take towards and I was able to come up with ideas. People looked at me to start clubs and things.

How important do you think education is to start your own business – particularly in recruitment?

I don’t think education gives you the drive that is needed. There are certain skills that you need to start a company and they are within you. Some of it’s genetic, some is behavioral and some can be external circumstances that drive you. However, I do think whatever level of education you have got has got to be a benefit in business.

I haven’t got a degree or a law degree, although I did law and accounts at A-level and I am not an accountant. I think had I been either of those it would have been very useful. I am a trained secretary, so typing skills, and organisational skills are very useful.

I type at ninety words a minute so that’s useful. In terms of education, when I was at school English and grammar, the ability to write comprehensively, use a good vocabulary and written work were all pushed. Whereas now it’s more about what you are saying and how you say it, and I think that’s invaluable in business. You have to be able to compose good written work, whether you are defending yourself legally, writing a sales pitch or marketing letters, or whatever.

What was your first reaction when the company went into liquidation?

I knew it was happening so I had actually already started planning to start my own company.

Did you always want to be your own boss or did it only evolve after you knew that that was happening?

No, I think I always wanted to be.

What was the attitude of the people around you when you decided to start Roc?

I didn’t really have time to discuss it with people and I didn’t discuss the finances with people.  Most who knew I was starting my own business were quite supportive.

Were you confident when you started or did you feel it was a risk?

No, I was confident. I didn’t feel it was a big risk really or I would have just gone back to working for somebody. It’s always a risk; it’s still a risk today. If you are frightened to take the risk you shouldn’t do it, because you are expending negative feelings rather than positive.

What were the biggest challenges that you faced when you started?

I think the biggest challenge was when I took two members of staff with whom I had previously worked. It was a flimsy flat management structure so you had very little authority as a manager. It was quite difficult getting them to work as employees. I was the employer and they didn’t want to take any of the risks. They didn’t want to work for no salary and they didn’t want to put their own money into it. So it was quite difficult to manage then.

It was also not difficult to convince clients. Clients were very happy to give me the business, but once they had given it, it was up to me to ensure that clients had that degree of comfort – that I was able to deliver everything I said I could, even though I was not much more than a one-man band. I didn’t have a big accounts department, or admin staff.

Is there anything you would say is the most important lesson that you have learned since you started?

You learn a lot as you go. I suppose there is no point in getting into litigation with somebody.  If you can settle anything litigious as quickly as possible then you should – even if it’s a matter of principle. There are no winners when it comes to litigation. I think planning is very important and so are sales.

One lesson is to stay very close to the customers and it’s very easy to be pulled away from that. There is no business without the customers, so I suppose looking back I should have stayed a lot closer to them. I perhaps should have identified my own contribution to the company, which is putting a lot of business into the company, and it’s about nurturing and developing that rather than saying ‘I bought that one in and now I am running a business’.

Did you start making a profit straight away or was there a loss initially?

We started making a small profit straight away.

Was recruitment as popular a profession then as it is now?


How different did you find running your own recruitment company to working for somebody else? Is there a huge change in the amount of input?

Absolutely. Working for someone else means your role is very insular. The interests of the business are really not your concern – your concern is your job. Whereas running your own business means you’ve got so many different aspects to consider, plus the responsibility.

Do you think the current market is saturated with recruitment companies or do you think there is more room for growth in the industry?

I don’t think it’s saturated. I think there is still an opportunity for growth in the industry.

What type of person would you say is suited to being a consultant?

Money motivated, driven and someone who is able to multitask.

Would you consider taking on someone who hadn’t gone to university or college, but who was able to demonstrate that they were money motivated and driven, literate, and numerate?

Absolutely. It’s about who they are and being driven.

Is it a tough industry to work in?

Very. It is very competitive.

Is there any way in which recruitment differs from other sales roles?

I think it does because you are selling people and people are unpredictable. Matching your product to the client’s requirements is obviously more challenging than selling someone a car.

What do you attribute your fast success to?

Focus, drive, motivation and a very good team of people – it’s not just me.

Have you ever had any downtimes in the business and if so how did you respond to this?

Yes, we have had difficult periods. After 9/11 we reduced in size and how we generally respond to this is by looking at costs.

Do you feel that you get treated equally to men?

Yes, I’ve never had an issue at all.

How important do you think attitude and perseverance is to achieve success?

Crucial and essential.

What is your attitude to what some people refer to as failure?

I don’t really think there is any such thing as failure. You can go through good and bad times. If you can get yourself out of the bad times it’s not failure, but it’s dealing with the situation that you are in.

Do you have one life principle that you live by?

Do it now.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you feel that young people should know before they get into recruitment or start their own business?

You get out of it what you put in and I think you need to have a very positive attitude, be enthusiastic and try as best you can to always look at the bigger picture.

If someone wants to get into recruitment how should they do it? Does somebody get placed in a team or do they choose where they work?

I suppose if someone naturally has an interest that would be a starting point. Also experience of a particular industry helps but it really depends on the policy of the company that they are applying to as to whether they take trainees, in what capacity and what the company is going to provide for them. Trainees here generally work as a resourcer and then we move them into more of a trainee sales role.

What is the natural progression for somebody starting as a consultant? If they do really well, in five years’ time where are they on your scale?

If we have really good sales people and really good consultants then they are very precious and we try to keep them in the sales role. If you take a big legal practice the most senior person is still dealing with clients and dealing with the highest net worth clients. So it doesn’t mean that because you are a good salesperson you are going to be a good manager.

People go into sales because they are money motivated and driven by success. Then they take a step back going into a management role in comparison to what they can earn as a salesperson. So our objective is to take someone who can do any administrative role and if they have got sales skills we develop them to be a salesperson. Once they are a successful salesperson, they have achieved our objective and we would want to retain them in the business to become more and more successful.

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