First impressions can be deceptive. Toby Simpson looks more like a retired rugby player (which later turns out to be true) than the head of a hotshot recruitment firm. But beneath the guileless exterior churns a razor-sharp brain. Toby, 35, the managing director of The Gulf Recruitment Group, is a deep one.
He’s a closet workaholic – he averages 12 to 14 hours every day – but once he’s out of the door he switches off totally. “There’s no way I can come back the next day recharged if I am always thinking of work,” he says.
For all that, Toby’s not a number cruncher and just wants his staff to give 110 per cent. “We don’t aim to be the biggest, just the best.”
In my mind the only reason to start a business is because you have a superb idea that has been burning a hole in the side of your head for a while, and it might just be terminal if you don’t get out there and give it a vehicle to succeed. So many businesses are started out of a desire to be your own boss, for a lifestyle or purely money, but without the idea you’re less likely to break new ground or have the passion that gives you the energy to make something work.
We came into the recruitment industry with a core idea of what we wanted to do. The industry is a perfect breeding ground for good business to grow. Yes, it is one of the most volatile sectors in the market, but it really hasn’t done anything different since the advent of email and therein lies the opportunity.
Our domain is that of people’s careers, so there can’t be many industries that matter more to people. We have a responsibility to be better than we have been, and if you find yourself in a business whose processes could easily be replicated by a sweatshop somewhere in Asia, market forces will kill you in the end.
My management style comes less from all the seminars I’ve been on, than simply being a rugby captain. If you can motivate young people to turn up and train day in day out in snow, sleet or sunshine, then get out there and win, even though on paper you’re not the better side, that has to stand you in good stead in business.
Building a culture where people wilfully put their bodies on the line for their teammates and a greater goal is such an important bonus in a people-driven business, no matter how good you have become systematically.
My basic principle is to work smarter. I think a lot of sales industries are very focused on getting their consultants to just hit numbers, do as much as they possibly can and hope that something will come of it. Our approach is to do whatever you do to a fantastic standard and you are far more likely to get a result in accordance with that standard. Our work style is based on common sense.
I started in the recruitment industry just a year after university. With the advent of email things changed between the personal meeting and interview to a lot of back and forth communication. The recruitment industry evolved over the period, and that set the tone for the work ethic; get as much done as quickly as possible. Our work ethic comes from embracing technology and what we can do to improve our candidates’ chances, as well as our clients’. Searching for a job is one of the most emotionally draining parts of your life. Most people want you to stand by them, listen to them, and understand them. That is what we aim to provide.
I graduated from Durham University in the UK with economics and politics. I wasn’t very career-fixated then, just focused on enjoying myself. I joined a pharmaceutical consultancy – it was very nine to five, mostly number-crunching. There was no excitement, no bite.
The recruitment industry offered interaction with people, the work you put in and how it affects the company directly affects your growth. That appealed to me.
I’m very happy to work 12 to 14 hours a day, but once I leave the office I refuse to think about it. I switch off totally, which enables me to come back refreshed the next day.
I work better under pressure, with deadlines staring at me. I am very goal-orientated.
I take after my late father, Barry, in terms of looks, personality and sense of humour. He started off as a war correspondent for Reuters before moving up to managerial positions. I respected him enormously – he was very intelligent, and his example has given me the ethics and values I live by. My mother, Sally, too is very bright, Oxford-educated, who’s perhaps given me creativity, charm and a sense of fun.
I had a really exciting childhood. I was blessed by my father’s international career. I was born in Hong Kong, moved to Singapore, and have lived in Bahrain, Kuwait and Cyprus. At the age of 18, I left on my own to do a year and a half of charity work in some rural areas north east of the capital Harare, in Zimbabwe.
I helped in schools, and also helped raise funds to build schools and libraries, and dig wells.
The school was light years away from my life in the UK. No tarmac roads, no electricity; I was the first white person the children had seen. They would shout ‘Murungu’, which means white person, initially when they saw me.
It taught me patience and humility. What amazed me was the kids would run 11km every morning to go to school. They felt privileged to be having an education, which is so unlike most children in the West. Resource wise you may say they were deprived, but on the whole they were a lot happier than a lot of people in pressurized, stigmatized western society. It was a big learning curve for me.
While in the UK I’d have been very angry if the bus didn’t turn up on time – in Africa I learnt to enjoy watching the sunrise, the baboons, at peace on the side of the road, waiting for a bus that may or may not turn up. That’s when I learnt what actually makes an individual happy.
Sadly for my waistline one of my favourite things is the combination of great food, great company and a great setting. I love Dubai as it is perfect for all three; it would be tough to go to every great restaurant in Dubai in a year, brunches are great fun and entertaining is that much easier than in London. I really like the Dubai crowd as well. I grew up with and have a profound respect for the Gulf Arabic culture and the broad base of expatriates are interesting as they all have one thing in common; they all came to the other side of the world to do something better.
Two major aspects of my childhood have shaped my interests; travel and current affairs. Because my father was an international journalist, from an early age I was exposed to dinner party conversations about Iranian politics, the Cold War and the Palestinian question not to mention the excesses of 1970s expatriate parties, which may have also had some small impact on my psyche.
I was a pretty decent rugby player in my day but it all came to an end one day when I was playing for Durham against Oxford University and I suffered a pretty horrific injury. My mother was in the crowd in the stands chatting, but when she heard the gasps she barged through the spectators, vaulted the advertising hoardings, sidestepped both teams on the field driven on by nothing more than fierce maternal instincts, but when she arrived all she could do was sing nursery rhymes. This amounted to a great laugh for my teammates but it was my last outing at a good standard in rugby and perhaps also my most embarrassing day.
I wanted to be a pilot, until I found out I am colour blind. Then I wanted to be a professional rugby player, and a farmer. But ever since I got into the recruitment business I’ve never wanted to do anything else.
At the Gulf Recruitment Group we’re on a mission to create the most respected recruitment brand in the region, but beyond that we’re keen to make a real contribution to global society. Currently the way some labour recruitment markets operate around the world is akin to modern-day slavery. Workers seeking opportunity overseas are customarily charged a fee for the job, which they borrow at extortionate rates from money lenders with some fairly hair-raising credit management practices. Workers can work thousands of miles away from their families for many years without taking a penny home themselves. We, alongside our investors, are quietly working towards a major investment in providing a fair deal to these workers and a much better workforce for their employers around the world.
Our aim is not to be the biggest, fastest or most profitable executive recruitment firm in the GCC. It is to be the most respected.