When Steve Langsford left his role as Purchasing and Procurement Director at Aesica Pharmaceuticals, he found himself without a job for the first time in his 28-year professional career. Extended gardening leave meant he could enjoy the summer spending time with family and watching the Olympic games. Steve then anticipated being back in work within three months, such was the strength of his executive profile. Seven months later, though, he was still unemployed. In this article, Steve shares his experiences of the employment market and his key learnings during that period.
Joining British Aerospace as a graduate Buyer in the late 1980s, over the next two decades Steve progressed through the business and by 2009 held the role of Director of Procurement & Supply Chain for BAE’s Global Combat Systems Division. Still enjoying a variety of new and interesting challenges at the global weapons manufacturer, he explained how he thought he’d “be a lifer,” such was his contentment with the professional and cultural fit of himself and the organisation.
During his time with BAE, however, Steve had gradually moved north. From Hatfield via Manchester and Preston, he and his family had finally settled in Newcastle, his role based at BAE’s 150-year-old historic plant in Elswick. The announcement in 2011 of its impending closure meant Steve had to consider, for the first time, what he was and wasn’t prepared to do to further his career. “I was happy to move sectors, to commute, to travel regularly as part of a new role, but I wasn’t prepared to move away from the North East. We’d made roots here and relocation was no longer an option.”
With his choices to move internally within BAE limited to roles in either Portsmouth or Glasgow, Steve had to acknowledge he would be leaving the business for pastures new after 23 happy years. Unemployment on this occasion, however, didn’t even last a day. Steve explained that a “fortuitous” role emerged at pharmaceutical giant, Aesica. “The business had recently doubled in size through acquisition and needed to get more value from suppliers. They advertised for a Procurement Director and I emerged from the recruitment process with a new role.” Steve left BAE on a Friday and started at Aesica the following Monday.
Enthused by the opportunity to work in a different sector, within a smaller dynamic and entrepreneurial organisation, Steve expected another lengthy period of employment to ensue. “In an organisation of 1,300 employees compared to BAE’s 100,000, I found I was making quicker decisions and building strong internal relationships. I thoroughly enjoyed the culture and was keen to stay.” When Aesica became a Plc in 2014, however, a gradual head office move to Hemel Hempstead meant two years later Steve was once again faced with the prospect of a making the ‘relocate or leave’ career decision. He took redundancy in July 2016.
With no opportunities for employment forthcoming, Steve went into holiday mode and considered his options moving forward. He highlighted how at first it was difficult for him to “let go” of his job at Aesica, unable to “mentally move on” and come to terms with the idea of not working. Too young to retire, he admitted “flirting” with changing his profession before deciding to “stick to what he was passionate about” and focus on gaining a new role in procurement. He also assessed his financial situation and chose to be uncompromising in his search for the perfect role.
Business transformation was a major focus for Steve at both BAE and Aesica and he explained how he was keen to take on another similar challenge. Yet, with location a major constraint, companies large enough to warrant having a transformation programme, let alone a Procurement Director, were “scarce within his geographic search parameters.” He realised, therefore, that he needed to be more proactive in the market to make sure he didn’t miss out on roles that fit his specific and limiting criteria.
Steve did some research, read various articles and took advice tailored for senior candidates looking for their next role. He revealed that the big emphasis in everything he read was about the importance of networking and understanding your market. “Searching job boards for vacancies wasn’t likely to be fruitful for someone at my level.” Taking a strategic approach, Steve first focused his attention on understanding where someone with his skills and experience would fit.
He looked up a list of the top 100 North East companies, and using tools like Google Alerts began monitoring the changes happening in those firms, assessing which were most likely to yield relevant opportunities. After selecting some target companies from the list, he investigated whether he had existing relationships with any individuals within those firms. “At first I used LinkedIn to see if my contacts extended into any of the businesses I wanted to target. I then connected with relevant professionals and engaged in pertinent conversations to help extend my network and gain introductions to potential employers.” Steve added how he never cold-called companies, believing it “inappropriate and unprofessional.”
To complement his own activities, Steve registered with 15 recruitment agencies, deliberately selecting a mixture of procurement specialists, local generalists and national executive search firms. Valuing face to face conversations and their ability to “strengthen the relationships you have moving forward,” he tried to meet as many as possible. Always attending meetings well prepared and positive, Steve highlighted how he made a point of asking each recruiter how often he should contact them for updates. When chasing for information, he remained “polite and persistent, leaving a good impression.”
He revealed a marked difference in the way different agencies treated him. For example, cancelling or rescheduling appointments at the last minute left the impression consultants weren’t “all that interested.” Others, Steve commented, made him feel like a jigsaw piece: “If I didn’t fit the puzzle they were completing at that time, they discarded me.” Few he added, provided feedback following the end of a recruitment process. Those that did, Steve felt their feedback was often brief and unhelpful e.g. “the client just didn’t pick you.”
There were positives, though. Local recruiters tended to offer good insight into the marketplace, providing Steve with intelligence that broadened his own investigations. Procurement specialists too could confirm trends within the wide-ranging discipline and provide some indications of companies seeking to drive change and create value through supplier efficiencies. Steve did experience consistent issues, however, with most of these providers. Many generalist recruiters, for example, had poor discipline knowledge: “They didn’t know the difference between procurement, purchasing, supply chain, inventory, etc. and would contact me with roles that weren’t relevant.” Procurement specialists outside of the North East, on the other hand, according to Steve, lacked sufficient knowledge or networks in the region.
In February 2017, Steve finally secured a new role as Procurement Director, Marketing at Sage, a FTSE 100 business headquartered in the North East. “Sage is a dynamic, ambitious business undergoing transformational change to underpin an aggressive growth strategy. Its ethos is to enable entrepreneurs to grow their businesses through the provision of smart technology, since they are the “business builders” responsible for growing a large part of the economy.” Location, remit and challenge all matched with his objectives, and the value set is also a very good fit. Steve highlighted that based on the service he received from recruiters during his seven months of unemployment, he would only consider a handful of the fifteen he contacted when recruiting himself, or indeed if looking for a new role, in the future.
Further reflecting on his time out of work, he confessed to finding the experience humbling. “Working at a senior level you get used to the status and being in demand; it took me a while to get my head around the fact recruiters are speaking to lots of people, and you’re not always their main priority.” His advice to other senior executives who find themselves in a similar situation to his is to prepare themselves for the possibility of being unemployed for a while, suggesting they set a realistic timeframe for how long they’re prepared to wait for the perfect role. He also urged people to remain “positive and persistent” and not get discouraged when another week goes by and no opportunities arise. Although Steve was glad he “stuck to his guns” until the end he said he was conscious that personal circumstances are always different and people may need to reduce their expectations sooner in their job search.”
Moving forward as an employed person again, Steve intends to remain active on professional networking sites. “Looking at things now I realise it was networking with the right people that helped me the most in my search for a new role. I neglected my network the last time I was employed and if I hadn’t done so, I would have given myself a significant head start in finding a job.”
What Steve said about Nigel Wright
Peter Stephenson, who manages Nigel Wright’s Supply Chain and Procurement Division, is fantastic. He’s well connected, has in-depth knowledge of the region and a complete understanding of the procurement and supply chain disciplines. Even if Peter wasn’t actively working on roles I had applied for, he was very generous with his time. He was happy to give insight into a wide range of companies and, if he’d never recruited for them before, usually had relationships with people at those businesses anyway. Always at the end of the phone, he provided me with useful details about organisational culture and the types of personalities working within my target employers, as well as his thoughts on their procurement capabilities - information I couldn’t have gained through doing my own desk research. He took the time to understand me as a person; what I was looking for and what makes me tick. He never approached me with opportunities that weren’t relevant. If I got a call from Peter, I knew it was going to be valuable. Nigel Wright Recruitment was top of my list for service; the combination of discipline knowledge and regional network was unique amongst other agencies.