THE SCOTSMAN: The Big Interview with Denholm Associates chief Nicki Denholm

Denholm Associates chief Nicki Denholm explains why finding the ‘sweet spot’ in the skills gap is key to recruitment success.

Nicki Denholm was a keen tennis player growing up, competing against Judy Murray at one point and spending most of her youth believing she was going to win Wimbledon. However, by her mid-teens, she reached the conclusion that she would never be triumphant on Centre Court and, while her fondness for sport remains, she is now serving up suitable candidates rather than aces as chief executive of recruiter Denholm Associates.

Her own career started in brand management for the fast-moving consumer goods sector, before she was offered a job in recruitment. She rose to the role of director with the company, then decided to set up a business doing things differently – operating like a professional-services firm rather than a recruitment business, and focusing on customers over financial targets. Denholm Associates, headquartered in Leith, was founded in 2002, concentrating on executive search, recruitment and talent attraction for roles in sales, marketing, creative, data and digital communications.

It celebrated its 14th anniversary this month, but Denholm says it has plenty more to do. “Over the course of the next few years we have some fairly ambitious targets to hit,” she says. The chief executive says the firm stands out from other recruiters by exclusively focusing on marketing commercial roles from second jobs to the likes of chief marketing officer, marketing directors and chief executives.

She says the market in which it operates has changed “hugely” over the past few years as digital becomes an ever greater force to be reckoned with. “A lot of the work we’ve been doing has been with our clients around their digital transformation and helping restructure their teams so we’re in a pretty buoyant space, but equally one where talent is scarce.”

Scotland has an oft-cited annual requirement for 11,000 digital workers, while a UK government study published earlier this year found that 72 per cent of large companies and 49 per cent of SMEs are suffering tech skill gaps. Denholm says: “Where the mix of marketing and technology meet there’s a lot of gaps. Nowadays, to have an element of both is really quite critical, so that’s where the ‘sweet spot’ in the skill gap is.”

She stresses that gone are the days when a job ad would be placed, and you’d simply expect a response. “Every role is now about searching – we have to go out and find the best candidate, and that candidate is not necessarily looking because if they’re good they’ll be being looked after by their employer. “People say there is a shortage of certain skills, and there is, but I believe they’re out there. You’ve just got go out and find them, and then you’ve got to be able to attract them to your client’s business, and that is a fundamental part of what we do,” she says. Denholm says that while companies are often good at marketing to their consumers, they don’t necessarily consider their brand as an employer, and a disgruntled worker can now air their grievances to a potentially global audience via social media.

To help clients showcase their employer appeal, the recruiter has launched BrandBox, an online “talent attraction tool” enabling them to build a bank of candidates “warmed up to” their company, cutting the cost and speed of future hires. The service is “beginning to get some traction,” she says, with clients using it including tourist agency VisitScotland, Famous Grouse maker Edrington and drinks distributor Maxxium.

She says companies are often not sure what their attractiveness as an employer or “employee value proposition” is, and so Denholm is increasing activity in this area, talking to employees and finding out about what people “brag about to their friends” about a workplace. A lot of her day-to-day work is focused on this part of the business, with CEOs now taking their reputation in the marketplace as an employer “hugely seriously”.

She says she’s learnt that companies actually share many similar problems regardless of size, while popular attractive qualities for candidates include companies that make it clear to an employee what their role is in “bigger picture” of its activity, with personal development also important. “Also, I think employers are having to pay so much more attention to things like flexible working. I find it hugely frustrating that there are so many talented women who go off, have a family, come back and cannot find the right role because they want work-life integration. They want to be able to do both, and why shouldn’t we be able to do both?”

A study published in May by Glassdoor Economic Research found that in the UK, the gender pay gap jumps by 14 percentage points for women when they have children. Other key employment issues flagged by Denholm include health and wellness in the workplace. As an employer herself she says she has to practise what she preaches, with a focus on output over input and offering flexibility.

“I actively don’t encourage people to be sitting doing what, in the old days they used to do, which is [sit] there from nine in the morning till nine at night. That’s completely unhealthy.” She studied business administration at Heriot-Watt University, working as a tennis coach during the holidays, and said that the academic course provided “good grounding”.

“I can’t say I was one of these people who had their career mapped out and I knew exactly what I wanted to do – I didn’t – but somehow I’ve landed on something that I think plays to my strengths.”

She does admit that a difficult point was the aftermath of the financial crash, steering the business through choppy waters with three children under the age of two at the time. Nevertheless, she says: “I’m glad I survived through what was a very tough time in the recession, and actually we’ve come back stronger because it’s made us much more focused.”

She notes that in the firm’s search for fresh talent, candidates can be outside the UK, and admits she had “a bit of a sinking feeling” when the Brexit vote result was announced, “but actually in the last two months we’ve had the best summer we’ve ever had from a sales perspective… I’m feeling optimistic.”

The firm’s roster covers financial services, with the likes of Standard Life and Clydesdale Bank owner CYBG, as well as AG Barr, Skyscanner and agencies including Whitespace, and the Leith Agency, which was co-founded by her husband John Denholm. “We’re involved probably in every sector in some way, shape or form,” she says, also flagging “FinTech” as a key growth area for the business.

More active business development in the north of England is also targeted, with the firm saying in June that it was targeting the “Northern Powerhouse” cities of Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool. “One of the things that we will definitely be considering over the next year is an office down south,” Denholm adds. “We just need to be sure that the timing is right and that we’ve got the critical mass to do it.”

Also on the cards over the next year is growing the firm’s headcount, currently 25, by about half a dozen. However, while the firm has “reasonably ambitious” targets, she doesn’t ever see it growing beyond 40 to 50 people.

The recruiter reported a 20 per cent jump in fee income to £1.5 million in 2015, and by the end of this year looks set to grow this to almost £2m. As job candidates are often asked where they see themselves in the next five to ten years, where will Denholm Associates be?

Its chief executive says that she would like to see it “in some shape or form, whether I’m there or not, as a really successful business. “If Denholm is surviving and thriving that would make me really proud. The next five years are going to be critical for us. Things tend to be cyclical. I’m hoping that there’s probably a window of three to five years where the market will hopefully remain fairly strong and we need to capitalise on that.”

Curriculum vitae

Born: On a farm in Kirkgunzeon, a village in the southwest of Scotland.

Education: St Margaret’s School in Edinburgh.

First job: Tennis coach.

What car do you drive? Land Rover Discovery. With three kids and a dog, we need the space.

Favourite mode of transport: My feet. I love walking and running.

Music: An eclectic mix. Billy Joel at the O2 to Justin Timberlake on my headphones when I’m out running.

Kindle or book? Kindle.

Reading material: Autobiographies/business books.

Can’t live without: Apart from my family, exercise has to be top of the list.

What makes you angry? Women not supporting other women in business.

What inspires you? Talking to people who are passionate about life.

Favourite place: Pre-kids, The Cliff, Barbados. Post-kids, Kippford, Dumfriesshire.

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We are a search, recruitment and employer brand consultancy that specialises in commercial marketing, sales & digital opportunities. If you'd like to find out more, call us on 0131 554 6191 or email connect@denholmassociates.com.