Me & my partner: 'We learnt that we complement each other'

Relay Recruitment was established in 1996 by close friends Steven Street and Laurence Elliott. The company employs 34 staff directly and achieved sales of £7.85m last year.
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Steven Street

I first met Laurence in 1993 when we were working for another recruitment agency. For both of us, that was our first foray into recruitment proper. He was immediately likeable, personable and open. You always knew exactly where you stood with him.

We'd known each other for three years by the time we formed Relay in 1996, but despite having worked for the same company, we had never really worked together. Until that point our relationship was mainly a social one. We both had young families and a lot in common, and became close on a personal level.

We shared similar ambitions and, because we liked and trusted one another, when we wanted to stop making money for other people and start making it for ourselves, setting up a business together seemed natural. We were ready to make that jump at the same time, and we were both taking the same risks. We'd had our own client relationships and our own teams; we were effectively stand-alone businesses within the bigger company. There was always a bit of healthy competition between us – we were the two most successful people in our division – so I had no doubts that he'd be a good bet as a business partner.

We have the same goals, but we work differently. Together, we tick all the boxes, separately, we have markedly contrasting styles. Laurence tends to work very much inside the business, operationally, while I work "on" it, in terms of where we're going and how we're going to get there. I plan strategies and marketing, while Laurence is hands-on with the practical day-to-day issues, getting his sleeves rolled up on the shop floor and doing all the troubleshooting.

In the early days it could be pretty tense at times, there were some fireworks and plenty of healthy conflict during that first year. We're both pretty forceful directors. We'd just walked away from very good careers, we were exposed as individuals, and although we agreed on the direction we wanted the company to go, there were arguments over who was ultimately going to take responsibility. I remember once I put an advert in the paper apologising for something I'd said or done, thinking "I need to break the ice here", just looking for something quirky, something to get his attention.

These days, we've learnt that our strengths and weaknesses create a balance, and the way we work is much more intuitive. We used to have to sit and talk things through, quite formally. Now it's instinctive, I know when it's time to get involved, or when it's time to step back and give Laurence some space and it's very rare that we have to discuss that any more. We're tuned into one another. We're still very close. We don't live in each other's pockets, but we've maintained our friendship outside of work. Although we love, live and breathe the business, we can still set it aside and get on with other things. He's still my best friend.

Laurence Elliott

Before we met, Steve and I had lived parallel lives. I think this is what cemented our friendship. We grew up in the same area, went to the same school but didn't realise, we were storming along working for the same recruitment company, and the personal side grew from there.

We used to spend time together outside work. Whether it was camping holidays with the families, DIY, or just sharing a bottle of wine, we were often in one another's company, and Steve's attitude convinced me he'd be a good person to work with. Like me, he enjoyed work, we never looked upon it as drudgery or a bore. We were up and out and always on time for meetings. We were striving for the same things, and both wanted a good standard of living for ourselves and our kids. That's why we wanted to set up shop on our own.

At the beginning I considered who I'd want to work with me, who could provide some business, who had a track record. I knew he'd generate as much business as he could. Regardless of whether Steve was on a basic wage, he just went out and did his best. We'd learnt our trade together, we'd seen each other perform, and we trusted each other, so it was an obvious choice to set up Relay together.

Our personalities complement one another, but we're very different. Steve is pure drive, he's crazy. I'll ask him to slow down and take a breath, and he doesn't, he just keeps going and going. His enthusiasm, his talent for marketing and PR, just the way he is with people, are all indefatigable.

We work at different ends of the business. Steve has a flair for the creative side, the public-facing side, and complete knowledge and confidence when speaking to people. I spend 90 per cent of my time on the office floor, dealing with the staff and liaising with the managers and owners of companies that want to know what's happening and that there's a safe pair of hands there. Because it's all very well telling clients what we can do, but we have to deliver on the floor, and I love that side of it. I'm happy with my role. I'm not embarrassed to say when somebody can do something better.

The personal relationship we had in the beginning definitely helped us through any rough patches. There could have been times, say, five years into the business when I might have thought "stuff this Steve, you can take it and walk", but our personal relationship has allowed us to cut each other a bit of slack in the business. We've helped each other with personal problems, we've helped each other with work problems. Our relationship has changed over the years, evolved, and we don't see as much of each other as we once did, but it's still as strong as ever.