Described as a ’true entrepreneur’, Paul Huntingdon is founder of the multi-million pound Havant-based Serocor Group, home to a stable of specialist recruitment companies operating nationwide, with hundreds of employees. Advanced Resource Managers (ARM), Hawker Chase Executive and Optamor are among the brands in his ever-growing portfolio and at the group’s heart is a determination for everyone to share in its success and be able to develop their potential. Constantly on the lookout for the next big idea, he purports never to have a ’down day’ and says work should be fun. In 2008 he was a finalist in the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year.
Born in Hemel Hempstead, Huntingdon’s family moved to Hayling Island when he was seven. His father was a successful entrepreneur, working originally for Thorn EMI and then buying and selling his own computer tape storage business, instilling in his son a thirst for success. Studying for a degree in computer science from the University of Portsmouth, Huntingdon joined IBM for a year’s internship – ironically on the same site where his headquarters now stands – before realising that a corporate career wasn’t what he wanted. After a spell travelling and working in Australia, he returned to the UK for his first venture into recruitment and in 1996 set up ARM, seeing it grow from zero into a £120 million business and more recently into the Serocor Group of companies.
What was your first job?
Working for IBM during my degree taught me that I needed to do something where I could use my own identity. In Australia I did all manner of jobs, one of which was taking tourists on three-wheeled bicycle sightseeing tours. I spotted a niche catering specifically for Japanese tourists, so I learned some Japanese words and did quite well at it. I realised I was good at getting on with people and saw that if you have a smile and a can-do attitude, then you won’t have to worry too much in life.
How did you make the move into recruitment?
After a year I came back to the UK, I wanted to do something more challenging. My grandfather had left me a small amount of money, so I bought a house and converted it into two flats, one for me and one to rent out and, because I needed a job, I fell into recruitment. I was successful and when the company I worked for tried to restrict my contract, I left and set up ARM, a service-led recruitment and training business. I roped in my mother to work for free on the admin and we effectively had a broom cupboard for an office but we were profitable within the first month.
I worked 14-hour days, seven days a week for a really low salary, I roped in my friends to join us because they were effectively ”cheap labour” and a lot of them are still with us. We grew very rapidly and were very successful purely by building good relationships and treating people in the way that you would want to be treated if you were a client.
How did you go on to build the Serocor Group?
In 2000, IT recruitment ground to a halt but I bumped into an old client of mine in Portsmouth who said I should diversify, so I set up ARM engineering. My goal was to get to 10 people working within our business, but I realised if I stopped there, no-one would have any career progression opportunities, so I kept going. It was never about the financial reward, it was just about being successful and making sure that I rewarded the people who had grown the business with me.
We evolved into the wider Serocor Group in March 2013, allowing the individual MDs and directors to run their businesses with the benefit of our expertise and knowledge, plus the necessary toolkit and support available when they need it.
We operate predominantly in the UK but we also do quite a lot of international business and we plan to expand both in Europe and internationally.
What drives you?
I have always been very competitive and having seen my dad be quite successful, I always wanted to outgun him.
What has been your greatest achievement?
Being listed as 54th in the Sunday Times Virgin Fast Track 100 league table has to be one of them. I was invited to Sir Richard Branson’s house and when I was talking to him I joked it was the second time we’d met because I’d seen him at Madame Tussauds.
Another highlight has to be putting an equity structure into Serocor Group which helps bind people into the business and also allows them to share in the rewards. Now we have managing directors running the different brands and they all have equity within them and the support of the group behind them.
Who has inspired you?
Probably Richard Branson, I like the fact that he is always himself. When you first get into business you think you need to blend in, you have to conform to corporate ways and you can’t project your own personality. When you meet people like him you realise it doesn’t have to be like that. People buy from people and you can have fun at work.
Did you take any business advice?
Only two books I ever read gave me any advice. One was a small booklet which said that you will only ever get so far if you don’t empower people; and the second was Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. It was very much about the culture of business and it helped me to run an organisation where candidates and clients became our friends.
What does your father think of your achievements?
He is obviously very proud. He has retired now but he had a seat on the board. It can be lonely at the top, especially as I had never had any management training and went from being a hands-on recruiter to suddenly managing people. It was good to have someone there who I trusted impeccably and who I could talk to; he was very much a safe pair of hands.
I’m actively involved in looking for other opportunities outside the group in terms of other recruitment businesses and I’ve just bought a stake in a new venture. I’m a very relaxed shareholder. I think it’s because I have done the job right through from winning the business to making the placements and I understand how difficult recruitment can be. Now I’m involved at a more strategic level, I can talk to people and give them a different perspective.
The future is very much about human capital management, anything to do with people in professional jobs, managing clients and brand talent. The size and the scope of the business are only limited by the number of good people in it and I want to encourage people to join the group and take advantage of our shared support services and experienced directors.
I’m also involved in mentoring and providing advice to start-up companies, which I’m very keen on doing.
Is winning awards important to you?
I’ve never been a person who wanted to be in the limelight, that’s not my style but it’s always nice to be recognised for what you’ve achieved.
How would you describe yourself?
I am a very, very big optimist and I totally believe in everything we go for. I’m always happy and cheerful and I treat people how I want to be treated. Humour is the most important thing for me and I never have a down day.
Are you involved in any community projects?
I’m involved in fundraising for Jacksplace at Naomi House children and young people’s hospice. We raised £18,000 recently on a bike ride and I’m talking to a friend about supporting an anti-bullying charity for children.
And finally, what do you do on your time off?
I have several hobbies, one of which is martial arts and I love water sports, snowboarding and skiing.
Resources: Serocor website