‘If there’s any threat to the recruitment sector, it’s the housing crisis,’ warns Excel chief Barry Whelan

The recruitment business is booming for Barry Whelan as the Irish jobs market continues to thrive, despite headlines about cuts at Big Tech employers.

Revenues at his company Excel Recruitment, which he founded in 2002, are enjoying huge growth, going from €11m before Covid to between €45m and €50m this year.

Yet having lived through the dark days of the banking crisis and the recession that followed, he says he always worries about what is around the corner.

At the moment, accommodation for staff is his top concern.

“It is affecting my business across all sectors. We cannot find healthcare workers because there is nowhere for them to live.

“I had a pharmacist pull out of a job offer in Dublin the other day because she was moving from Cork but could not find anywhere to live – and she is on a good salary.

“If there is any sort of threat to my business, it’s the accommodation crisis.”

Whelan fears the knock-on effect will eventually be a drag on economic growth. “If we continue to be an uncompetitive economy and continue to have a housing crisis, we will not have anyone come to our country to work.”

At Excel, there are few signs of any slowdown in growth at the moment, except for some hit to its tech division, Stelfox.

“When Covid hit there was a drop in sales but very rapidly, it ramped back up again. Before we knew it, we were busier than ever.

“It definitely pushed us into super-growth because healthcare and industrial went through the roof. And coming back off Covid, hospitality is in a very poor place from a labour perspective. People want to eat and drink and go to concerts.”

As a result, Excel has been hiring itself and opening new offices.

“We started growing our branch network. We opened up in Cork, we opened up in Galway and Belfast and Naas, Co Kildare. We wanted to have a nationwide network to service our clients.”

In recent months, Excel has taken on 50 new staff, bringing its employee numbers to 110 and it aims to grow that to 160 in the months ahead.

Whelan grew up in Cabinteely, Co Dublin, the son of a professor of immunology at Trinity College Dublin and a medical secretary.

He says he wasn’t studious but was bright enough to pass his exams. When it came to a career he says: “I was very interested in business and making money.”

Where did that desire to make money come from?

“Fear,” he says with a laugh. “I was born in 1973 and I graduated from college in 1994. When you think about growing up in Ireland in the 1980s and very early 90s, there was a large fear factor about employment and emigration.”

He didn’t get the points for college in Dublin and so studied business at the University of Glamorgan in Wales.

“When I graduated from university, my mother had sent off a number of applications and one of them was to Quinnsworth, which became Tesco, for a graduate trainee programme.”

He spent a couple of years there before joining Dunnes, going on to manage a number of shops around the country and then managing Brown Thomas offshoot BT2 on Grafton Street.

At the time Paul Kelly – who went on went on to become the group managing director of Selfridges – was heading up Brown Thomas’s operations.

But by the age of 27, Whelan was ready for something else.

“Retail is relentless,” he says. Although he enjoyed it, the hours were long and one Christmas Eve when he had to come into town in the middle of the night to switch off an alarm, he decided he had had enough.

It was his hunt for a new career that led him to recruitment.​

“I went to see a number of recruitment companies and I thought they were poor.

“Their offices were shabby, the consultants didn’t know what they were talking about – I would have known more about the jobs than they did.”

So when he was offered a job as a trainee recruiter, he felt he could do better.

Whelan started in a firm called Calibre in 2000 and knew quickly he had made the right decision.

Having left BT2 on a salary of IR£32,000, he joined Calibre on IR£15,000 plus commission. In his first year, he made £110,000 and was able to buy a car in cash.

Calibre had some existing business issues, however, and went bust in 2002.

Whelan describes himself as a reluctant entrepreneur. “I was very risk-averse I didn’t want to go out on my own, I didn’t know what was involved,” he says.

But with help of others, including his brother-in-law accountant, he set up Excel which specialised in retail recruitment.

Whelan says it quickly became number one in the market for retail, filling everything from store managers to office roles. Excel’s client base included Dunnes, Musgrave, Primark, Lidl and Aldi, with the company buying its own offices in Capel Street in 2006.

The team grew to 14 people, but in 2008, “things started going a bit pear-shaped” and by 2009, its turnover had declined by 83pc.

“I knew I had to downsize the business and I had to do it rapidly. So I went to my staff and explained to them what I thought was going to happen.

“[I said to them] there was an economic crash, and in order for them to continue to make sales, they would have to work crazy hard and do an awful lot of business development to bring on new clients.

“I put out a voluntary redundancy package and we went from 14 people to three,” he says.

“We were mean and lean.”

There were low points. He remembers being asked to speak at a jobs fair in Waterford where he once managed a Dunnes Stores. He did so on the basis that he could give advice – but there wasn’t a single retail job on offer.

Over time, however, the jobs began to come back and Excel started to grow again. “I didn’t want to ever go through that (the recession) again, so I felt like the best thing would be to diversify.

“We were brilliant at retail recruitment. If we could replicate that in different industries that would be very successful for us.”

The first new area was hospitality, while Excel also moved into temporary staff which could offer recurring revenue. By 2014, it was seeing significant growth and the next areas of expansion were healthcare and events, providing staff to the 3Arena and festivals, and industrial, which covered areas such as logistics.

In 2019, its biggest division was hospitality, followed by retail, events, healthcare and industrial.

When the pandemic hit in spring of 2020, fast action was required. “Our entire hospitality business was wiped out; our events business was wiped out. So we did a pivot into healthcare and industrial.

“Healthcare went through the roof,” he recalls. “We are very good at finding people, screening people and getting people out to work. We put all our entertainment staff into retail.

“I rang Anne Heffernan (of Dunnes Stores) and said: ‘We have 672 staff working in entertainment. You guys are booming in your supermarkets – your non-food is closed but the supermarkets can’t keep up. How would you like this customer-facing, trained staff?’ and she said ‘go for it’. So we deployed staff across the country to Dunnes to help keep the stores packed through the pandemic crisis.”

Excel also retrained people working in hospitality in the area of healthcare.

Then in 2021, Excel bought Stelfox, “a 22-year-old IT recruitment business which is a very successful €10m business.”

However, it has felt the pressure of the recent IT jobs crunch.

“If you’re a programmer or a developer or engineer it’s fine. It’s more the peripheral positions that were hit. They wouldn’t have been used to that in Stelfox. They would have had complete growth and economic boom for quite some time.”

Notwithstanding concerns about accommodation, Whelan feels optimistic about the future of his business. He says digital challengers such as Indeed and LinkedIn have become partners. “When LinkedIn came on the scene everyone said we were done, he says.

“Indeed is an amazing promoter of jobs. We work really closely with Indeed. We advertise all over its site, we use their database. LinkedIn has become a partner. We love their product, we love the technology.”

As for AI, Excel is already using it in its business.

“We’re using ChatGBT to write ads and job specs because its absolutely amazing. You have to change it but not much. You tell it what you want and it spits it out.”

Will that mean fewer recruiters are needed in future?

“I don’t think so. Recruitment is really complex. It’s a double sell, so you have to sell the candidate to the employer and the employer to the candidate.

“Jobs are really important to people, so it’s an emotional process and you have to be an expert. You can’t wing it in any way and I feel technology might wing it.”

At the end of the day, he says, recruitment is all about people.

“The value of getting the right permanent person into your business is that it will really improve your business.

“If you’ve got great people, you’ll have a great business.”

Curriculum Vitae

​Name: Barry Whelan​

​Age: 49​

From: Cabinteely, Co Dublin​

​Lives: Malahide, Dublin​

Family: Married to Gillian. Children, Jarad (17) , Beth (15) and Emeline (13) ​

​Education: Cabinteely Community School and a business degree at Glamorgan University, Wales​

Favourite hobby: I love what I do so, don’t have any hobbies​

​Favourite book: I listen to audio books and at the moment it’s Tim Spector’s Food for Life ​

​​Favourite series: At the moment its Succession and Barry

Business Lessons

What has been your best moment in business?

In 2005 or 2006, Dunnes Stores outsourced its recruitment to us, which it did until the recession – and that was an amazing experience because I am such a fan of that company. And it was a big contract.

Get ahead of the day with the morning headlines at 7.30am and Fionnán Sheahan’s exclusive take on the day’s news every afternoon, with our free daily newsletter.

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