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Ella Snowball - MD Recruit4health - Insider Magazines Entrepreneur of the Month Jan 2012

Recruit4health’s growth has been phenomenal over the last five years, but it hasn’t been easy. Ben Pindar hears how hard lessons have helped to secure a bright future

Entrepreneur of the month - Ella SnowballAs one of Yorkshire’s most prosperous specialist recruitment agencies, it’s surprising to hear that Recruit4health’s biggest challenge is finding its own staff. It’s a frank admission, but it embodies managing director Ella Snowball’s direct and open business approach.

In just nine years, Recruit4health has become an international agency with ten staff and a turnover in excess of £3m. But Snowball admits she’s had to learn the hard way. She started the company in 2002 specialising in the recruitment of healthcare professionals. Snowball – supported by husband Phil – operated from a bedroom in her house and made enough for a “decent salary”. However, in 2007 she decided to “put all her eggs in one basket”, leased an office in the centre of Harrogate and recruited a handful of staff to take the business further.

The company has grown at a frenetic rate, with turnover increasing 695 per cent and profits by 557 per cent, and Snowball has built up a database of 10,000 professionals and attracted more than 250 customers. However, she admits her passion for rapid growth very nearly threatened the future of Recruit4health two years ago.

“In 2010 the business was growing rapidly and we thought ‘this is brilliant’. We became totally focused on growth and we made a few mistakes that could have cost us everything,” she says. “We were rapidly expanding and bringing in new staff, but we lost focus on our cash flow and profits and we had to make some big changes to the way we ran the business.

“We had a big turnover of staff that year and we learnt a lot of lessons. We realised that we needed expert advice and we’ve learnt from our mistakes.”

The fresh strategy meant a more focused and hands-on approach for Snowball, the recruitment of a part-time finance director to keep a watchful eye on cash flow and profit, and efforts to widen the client base to ensure the company was not over-reliant on a few big customers.

The plan proved effective and this year Recruit4health has grown by 20 per cent, with profits in excess of £250,000. Snowball has a new mantra: “Profits for sanity, turnover for vanity.”

She says: “We are going into this year in a very strong position and we’ve got our cost base to exactly where it needs to be. We are also working to make our existing consultants more profitable, rather than just aiming to get more bums on seats.”

While Snowball is working to increase efficiency, she aims to recruit more consultants in summer, but that’s no easy task. She says: “Despite our skills as recruitment consultants, finding the right employees is a nightmare. People think you can make a lot of money in this job without having to do much work, but the truth is that it’s very hard work.

“Our consultants have to sell in both directions, to the candidate and to the company. No other sales job also has the added concern that people – the product you are selling – can change their mind and that can be very hard to deal with.”

With a close-knit team in Harrogate, Snowball is aware the candidate must not only be skilled in healthcare recruitment but must also work well with the existing staff. As a result, she has developed an innovative recruitment strategy.

“It is very important that any new member of staff works well with the existing team so I interview them first to see if they have the skills we need. Then, if I like them, the entire team interviews the candidate and it’s their call as to whether we hire them or not,” she says.

Snowball talks passionately about managing and motivating staff and takes time to speak to every member of the team each morning to set out targets, address issues and provide inspiration.

However, she believes the constant barrage of information about the gloom shrouding our economy is one of the biggest challenges any manager faces at the moment. She says: “The negative press about our economy is a big issue for companies as it demotivates staff and causes a lot of concerns about job security. The hardest thing is keeping staff motivated and convincing them not to worry about their jobs. We’re lucky because we have a good business and we aren’t really affected by the recession, but I have to keep reminding our staff about that.”

While the business has been relatively immune to the economic downturn, Snowball says it has affected some of her customers and there has been a big increase in the number of competitors.

She says: “A lot more competitors are emerging because medical recruitment is seen as a safe bet, and because they are small operators we have lost some customers because we weren’t willing to compete on cost.

“At the minute the big companies are cutting costs and they’re just going for the cheapest option. However, they soon realise there’s a big difference in the standard of service they receive and a number of them are already coming back.

“We operate nationwide and across a number of specialisms and we have a substantial number of customers as a result. We also take care of all the Ministry of Defence’s healthcare recruitment.”

Snowball plans to grow business further by recruiting for new specialisms, including pharmaceutical staff, physiotherapists and GPs, and she is confident about winning new customers.

“There’s a lot of business to go at and come June we’ll be increasing our staff numbers,” she says. “We are growing and we’ll use our current clients to help us get a foot in the door with potential new customers. The success we’ve enjoyed so far gives us a great platform to target new sectors and we’re building all the time.”

Snowball says she has received offers for the business, she has no intention of selling it. She adds: “We have set the business up so it can be sold off in parts, but we’ve no interest in leaving yet. We love what we do and are very hands on. I live and breathe this business and I’ve no interest in letting go.”

While ambition clearly burns brightly, Snowball has a clear idea of where her business is going and is keen not to repeat the mistakes of the past. “Being an entrepreneur is all about having the ideas and believing in yourself, but you have to treat them with caution. If you chase every idea and dream you can quickly run into problems,” she says. “You can easily spread yourself out to thinly, so you have to rein yourself in and build a business slowly. It’s all about having a strategy and then sticking to it.”


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