Albert Ellis: Brand Britain can still hit the right notes

The Business Interview: Rising taxes and poor trains may take their toll but London still has cachet, recruitment specialist tells Sarah Arnott
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The Independent Online

Albert Ellis has little time for the doom-mongers' claims that extra regulation will send banks high-tailing out of the City. "London is a huge magnet for professional talent – people want to be relocated here or New York, not Dusseldorf or Frankfurt," the ebullient chief executive of the recruitment and IT services group Harvey Nash says. "The reality is that the talent pool in London is extraordinary, and the banks won't up sticks because they have to staff 30-floor offices with people who know what they are doing."

South African-born Mr Ellis knows what he is talking about from personal, as well as professional, experience. His move to the UK in 1993 was at least in part thanks to the worldwide influence of British culture. Some 17 years later, that pull remains. "Even if we think Tony Blair was tainted by the war and Gordon Brown has passed his best, the draw of Brand Britain still exists," Mr Ellis says. "Brown is seen favourably by business people outside this country – far better than Hank Paulson. And if you talk to people in Vietnam and India, they all want to come to London for work experience because they go back with their market value increased."

The good news is that the recession has not proved quite as grim for the British employment market as some had feared. The spectre of 3.5 million unemployed appears to have passed, at least so far. And although there is no volume recruitment, there is at least a thaw. "Six months ago the majority of companies had some sort of freeze, whether partial or total," Mr Ellis says. "But the government stimulus measures around the world have loosened the screws and people do feel that the worst is behind us."

Decidedly less good is the fact that Britain's recovery is worryingly feeble, and while the UK may still be attractive for employees, it is becoming less so for the companies that hire them. "The balance is no longer the slam-dunk in favour of Britain that it once was," Mr Ellis says, blaming rising taxes, tightening labour laws, expensive houses and creaking infrastructure. "A large company putting its headquarters in the South-east faces significant infrastructure costs and poor public services, whereas Hong Kong or Zurich looks like a reasonable alternative with better services, better quality of life and lower taxes."

Recruitment was not always Mr Ellis's gameplan. He started out as a professional trumpeter in his native Johannesburg. "I did anything for money – opera, show tunes, jazz," he says. He is still a huge music fan – "Miles Davis is the greatest, Michael Jackson is pretty good too" – but he no longer plays. "Once you have been at a certain level it's demoralising to not be able to keep it up, and you just can't do that when you have a full-time job."

In many ways Mr Ellis's own CV illustrates his point about the UK employment market. By the time he arrived in London, the trumpet was already consigned to its case. The 29-year old Mr Ellis was a recently qualified chartered accountant with plans to become the financial director of a large company. But the effects of the last recession, in the early 1990s, were still very much in evidence in the labour market, and before he found his way to Hays Recruitment, and then Harvey Nash, Mr Ellis took whatever accounting work he could, just to pay the bills.

That is the point about the UK, he says. When the dream jobs are not available, people still have the choice of temporary work. By taking away that flexibility – by bringing in equal rights for temporary workers, for example – Britain becomes both less attractive for companies and also harder for their prospective employees. "It is not popular with the political left, but actually people just want to be able to earn money when they need it."

This time around, the fears of rocketing unemployment may have proved pessimistic, but it has still been a tough time in the jobs market. From the peak 18 months ago, UK recruitment dropped by between 30 and 40 per cent, and that of top executives by a third. The worst-affected businesses cut headcount by as much as 30 per cent. Harvey Nash has not escaped unscathed, and the group admitted in November that it would not meet its profit target for the financial year. "Last quarter was not the V-shaped recovery we had hoped for, so we reduced our expectations," Mr Ellis says.

But while the prospects for economic recovery are relatively downbeat, the situation is nowhere near as bad as in the 1990s. Recruitment stalled for two years after the last recession. "This time it will be more like 12 months," Mr Ellis says.

The biggest problem is a bottle neck of "Generation Y" entrants coming out of university, school and apprenticeships in the meantime. "They have no experience, they have academic qualifications that may or may not be relevant, and many are in debt, so they don't have a choice about working – but for every job there is enormous competition," Mr Ellis says. "When I came to Britain in 1993, every reasonable job had hundreds or even thousands of applications, which is hugely demoralising. That is happening again."

In such an environment, the lucky ones are those working on the convergence between entertainment and mobile information – including everything from geographical data services, to technical improvements in 3D and HD, to social networking, to security roles covering surveillance, hacking and data security issues. "All the growth areas are in technology because all data is now online," Mr Ellis says.

The other big theme in the UK is infrastructure, boosted by the 2012 Olympics and major plans to revamp the crumbling railways. Worldwide, hiring is strong in anything to do with China – from Australian firms needing lawyers to handle Asian deals to advisers on Beijing's management of natural resources such as water. Anything related to green energy – from generation to fuel to architecture – is also big business.

Times are harder for those in the sectors that benefited from the last 10 years' credit boom: construction, housing, banking, for example. "That market has absolutely crashed and it will be bad for quite some time," Mr Ellis says. But he remains resolutely optimistic.

"The contraction last year may be the sharpest in living memory, but it was preceded by 15 years of growth which created an economy 40 per cent larger than in 1993," he says. "So it's all relative."

The CV: Albert Ellis

2005-present Chief executive of Harvey Nash

1998-2005 Finance director of Harvey Nash UK and then group finance director

1993-1998 Hays recruitment

1993 Emigrated from South Africa

1987-1992 Chartered accountancy training at university in Johannesburg

1982-86 Professional musician

Mr Ellis is married with two children