James Reed: My 3 biggest lessons from 25 years in business

The recruitment pioneer on catching the right bus, the importance of image and why it matters where you keep your cash.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 18 Apr 2019

James Reed has a varied CV to say the least. Alongside his current role as chairman and chief executive of the UK’s largest independent recruitment agency, he can list grave digging, TV production and aid worker among his list of specialist skills and experience.

This was all accrued before he joined the already three-decade old family recruitment business REED in 1994. In his role as COO he would be the man to take recruitment online - setting up the UK's first jobs website - and since taking the reins from his father in 2004, has led the now 3,400 strong business overseas, expanded into public services and navigated the 2008 financial crisis.

He shares the three biggest lessons he’s learnt from his career.

Be curious

"We have an expression in REED that if the bus looks like it's going somewhere interesting then we want to be on it. The joke is that often you end up walking home. But it's about having a go and trying new things to see if they take you anywhere interesting.

"When we first started on the internet, it was a very small and low risk decision. We just had a couple of developers creating something new and potentially profitable. I've learnt so much through just doing things rather than analysing them because you improve what you're doing as you do it.

"After the site first went live, I remember one of our competitors saying 'oh it can’t be much good because they’ve had to change the website already'. This was a print mindset - that you get it right the first time with no errors.The internet mindset is you get it live and then you continue to upgrade it.

"When I look back that was an interesting reaction because experimenting with something else was definitely the right thing to do, it was only by accident that we discovered how successful it would be  later on.

"If the bus looks like it's going somewhere, get on it."

Never dilute your image

"My first boss was Anita Roddick, the founder of the BodyShop. She was an entrepreneur and a great teacher. I remember her saying to me, 'never dilute your image' and I've always held onto that.

"My father called the company REED - it wasn't hugely imaginative because that was his name. But consistently investing in the brand has allowed it to become a household name.

"So every investment you make in marketing should be focused on steadily building that brand over time - and you do have to give it time. That's certainly what we found when we go outside of the UK, where it's so much harder because the brand doesn't have the history."

Spread your cash around

"One of the most alarming moments of my career was during the financial crisis when it looked like RBS and Halifax Bank of Scotland were going to go bust. I asked the finance director where our money was because we had to pay 10,000 people in our temporary workforce - of course it was in those banks.

"What did I learn from that? If you have cash, spread it around. Up until that point is was something that I hadn't had to think of, I never thought that banks of that scale could go bust, so we now make sure that our cash is spread consistently between two banks.

"As a recruitment agency and temporary work agency, the one thing we have to do is pay our staff properly."

Further reading

James Reed's new book The 7 Second CV: How to land the interview is out now.


Image credit: Courtesy of The REED Group

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