Recruitment expert Jo Hand’s journey in business has had its challenges but the growth of The Human Group is evidence of her survival instincts. PETER BARRON reports

ALL the way back to her days as a schoolgirl on Teesside, Jo Hand could never bear to be beaten.

She was desperate to come out top in class, loved being tennis captain, as well as playing in other school teams, and took particular pleasure from outmaneuvering the boys to become Cleveland Junior Chess Champion.

And that competitive streak has served Jo well throughout the ups and downs of her adult professional life in the challenging recruitment business.

“I just hated it if I didn’t win – and I’m still the same,” says the mother-of-two, who is founder and managing director of recruitment company The Human Group.
“You hear people say it’s not about winning, it’s about taking part, but I disagree. I’ve always told my kids that it’s about winning.”

Had it not been for that instinctive resilience, Jo might easily have crumbled under the pressure of trying to survive during the bad times when she became one of the many local businesses brought to their knees by the catastrophic crash of the SSI steel company at Redcar.

Three years on, she has emerged from that nightmare with her integrity intact and a recruitment business with a strong and growing customer base.

She was always ambitious, even as a youngster growing up in an ordinary working-class family in Eston, the daughter of a rigger and a stay-at-home mum. “I always wanted to make something of my life – to be someone,” she says.

Jo recalls her enthusiasm for business coming to the fore during commerce classes at school. The teacher regularly told her to sit on her hands because she was always eager to answer questions and the other kids needed a chance.

When she left school, she got a job in classified advertising sales on the Evening Gazette newspaper – with the unlikely help of Margaret Thatcher. The candidates were given a scenario in which they were in a hot air balloon that was plummeting to earth and they had to argue their case for not being thrown out.

Jo, a natural mimic, fought her corner in the voice of The Iron Lady and the job was hers. The interview panel thought it was a masterstroke, no one had ever done that before, she intrigued them.

After two impressive years at her local paper, Jo was head-hunted by the biggest global recruitment company and quickly rose through the ranks as she generated millions of pounds of revenue. Awards came her way, with the highlight being Best UK Branch Manager out of 360 branches. She was made the company’s Public Sector Champion after creating and initiating workshops to train consultants in how to generate business from the public sector – an idea that produced £18m in additional sales over two years.

After two years as Regional Manager for the North East and with her personal profile sky high, the time came when it made sense to break away and launch her own company, so she took voluntary redundancy and founded Jo Hand Recruitment. She initially worked from home and her first client was Bulkhaul, the company established by Middlesbrough Football Club chairman, Steve Gibson.

That early success was quickly followed by Calor Gas and Cleveland Fire Brigade and, within six months, Jo had taken on two staff and moved to an office in Dunedin House in Stockton. As the business kept expanding, the company moved to bigger offices in the building three times before uprooting to more spacious premises in Albert Road, Middlesbrough.

The company became the biggest recruitment agency on Teesside, with 13 staff and a turnover of £13m, servicing more than 700 customers, spread across a wide range of disciplines.

One of those customers was Tata Steel and, when that company’s human resources director moved to Sahaviriya Steel Industries (SSI), she wanted to take Jo Hand Recruitment with her as a key partner.

It was a time full of initial optimism for Teesside, with SSI seen as the savior of the steelworks that had for generations been a vital source of jobs for the local community. Jo’s company set about building up the workforce, quickly recruiting more than 300 contractors and employees, including engineers, office staff, labourers, and caterers.

“I made sure I was very visible on the site during that period, holding weekly open surgeries personally to nip problems in the bud, and relationships with all the contractors were really positive,” recalls Jo. “I also had a fantastic service team behind me supporting this contract from the office”.

In 2013 Jo won the coveted Susan Dobson North East Female Entrepreneur of the Year award, the only Teesside business woman at that time to have ever won the award in its 15-year history.

For the best part of four years, SSI paid its commitments to Jo Hand Recruitment in advance but towards the end of the fourth year, the alarm bells began to sound. SSI didn’t pay up for two months and, with Jo still responsible for paying the hundreds of contractors on her books, it doesn’t take a mathematician to work out that it couldn’t go on.

Along with lots of other businesses in the supply chain, Jo’s company was caught up in the collapse of SSI. “I was left in an utterly powerless position, having done nothing wrong, and the consequences were horrendous,” she says.
With feelings running high, Jo doesn’t hide from the fact that the collapse took its toll on her own health.

Even though she too was a victim of SSI’s broken promises, she received what she describes as “a personal battering” that she found particularly painful.

She admits there were times when she felt like walking away from business but that in-built determination not to be beaten kicked in, just as it had during her school days. It would have been far easier to go bankrupt but instead she chose to fight back so that she could pay creditors.

“What happened broke my heart, but I was determined to put it right,” she says.

Desperate to keep her team intact, she was advised by administrators to set up a new company, called Jo Hand Recruitment and Consultancy Ltd, and a year later, that evolved into The Human Group following a re-brand.

She has always believed that recruitment is about building lasting relationships, getting to know candidates and clients helping both to achieve their personal career ambitions and business goals. And she was buoyed by the fact that the customers she had who were not linked to SSI remained loyal, and new clients also put their trust in the newly-branded company.

“I couldn’t just walk away because I felt a massive responsibility, even though the problems all stemmed from SSI not paying the bills,” she says. “I care passionately about being seen to do the right thing because my integrity and what people think of me are massively important to me.”

She gave priority to ex-SSI workers, finding them a lot of jobs under the radar, and the process of repaying creditors continues to this day.

Two years after the re-brand, The Human Group, has emerged from the ashes of Teesside’s steel disaster as a developing force in the recruitment sector. With a head office in the Cleveland Business Centre in Middlesbrough and a smaller office in Northallerton, it has grown 20 per cent in the past year and expects to grow by around 30 per cent next year.

The company has customers across the UK and is fresh from winning a national contract to provide hospitals with clerical and domestic staff. It has also just started helping the BBC with its recruitment and the fact that Jo has returned to acting as the recruitment expert on local radio is a clear indication that she has rediscovered her confidence after that personal battering.

“We are at the coalface of the employment market, so we are the first to see the trends and that puts us in a good position to comment about what’s happening with the economy,” she explains.

There have been dark days, but it’s time to start banging the drum again. “It has never been about money for me – it has always been about being the best I can be,” she says. “It’s been a very difficult journey, but we’ve worked really hard to get back on a good path, we’re still here, and we’re growing again.”

Her ambition for the years ahead? “To make The Human Group the biggest recruitment company on Teesside, like we did with Jo Hand Recruitment,” she declares without hesitation.

Just like she was determined to outmaneuver the boys in the chess club at school, Jo Hand remains fiercely determined to be at the top of her game.

• To find out more about The Human Group, go to www.thehumangroup.org.uk, email info@thehumangroup.org.uk , or call (01642) 242777