Hired Guns

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Management

Hired Guns
Smart talking chancers out to make a fast buck, or the real drivers of change in the industry? Elaine Watson explores the role of interim managers in food

Holed up in a hotel room in the south of England discussing the tricks of the trade over a snack from the production line of his new employer, Roland Froebell is two weeks into his latest interim assignment.

The company in question had parted company with its technical manager, picked up a big chunk of new business, and needed someone to plug the gap fast, he says. "They interviewed me on the Thursday morning, gave me the job in the afternoon, and I started work Monday. That's the beauty of it."

The 5am start to commute 300 miles to work was a less than beautiful prospect, he admits. "I earn well, but these companies get their pound of flesh. You can go for several weeks without earning sometimes. Then five job offers come at once."

Pay rates are also being eroded by a surge of chancers in their thirties rushing into the market in the hope of making a fast buck, he adds. "You've got highly skilled professionals commanding £300-£500 a day, and then relatively inexperienced people that will plug a gap for £100 a day, which devalues the market."

While the prospect of living out of a suitcase doesn't appeal to everyone, interim work has its attractions once you've reached a certain stage in your career, he argues.

"You've got to hit the ground running, and you work flat out. But people don't question your motives. You're not angling for the general manager's job. You're not even there to make friends -- although I have made some great friends over the last eight years. You get the job done, and you move on."

Mike Rapin, who took up his first interim assignment last year, says it was a breath of fresh air. "Once the honeymoon period is over in a permanent position, the politics start to creep in. I was going stale after 15 years in stable employment. I wanted variety and a new challenge, something without any baggage."

However, the people skills required should not be underestimated, he says. "I've worked under interims before. They can command a lot of respect, but they can also generate enormous resentment. Marching in and telling people that have been there for years to do things differently isn't easy. People become battle-hardened from firefighting all the time."

But an outsider can cut through all the "corporate bullshit", he says. "It's the only interview you'll go to where they actually tell you what you really need to know, who gets on with whom, exactly where the problems are."

Companies are increasingly seeing the cost benefit of parachuting in a highly skilled interim to launch a new strategy or system that can afterwards be maintained by a less experienced permanent member of staff, says Chris Doyle, who is currently five months into an assignment at a leading food manufacturer.

"Companies need a heavyweight candidate that's used to working at director level to take strategic decisions," says Doyle, who has extensive experience in food and related industries, working on brands including Typhoo, Cadbury's and Kellogg's. "But once you've been in and made the required changes, you can help the client to recruit or promote a less heavyweight operator to manage the newly established direction."

Interim managers are increasingly seen as the only real drivers of change in the industry, claims Boyden interim management chief executive Nick Robeson. "Many companies have spent the last decade getting rid of people with knowledge and when they need to take things forward, they don't have the expertise in-house anymore. That's where the interims come in."

Lisa Johnson, director at interim recruitment specialist Jarvis Johnson, says the market has become increasingly buoyant, partly because of the pressure that manufacturers are under, and partly because interims are now "more available and more accessible"

Five years ago, she says, interims were mainly brought in to effect major change management, usually at director level.

"Today, we're seeing them used far more at junior level for hands on, first line management roles, to plug gaps where companies are looking for a permanent candidate and want a safe pair of hands in the meantime."

There has been particular growth from own-label manufacturers, who want people with specific operational, technical or supply chain experience to come in very quickly to respond to customer demands or technical or legislative requirements, she adds.

The market has changed in the last five years, adds Steve Barnes at recruitment consultant FSS. "It used to be very senior people close to the end of their careers. Now, people are thinking about it a lot earlier."

However, the boundaries between permanent and contract or interim work are also blurring, argues John Parker, who has worked on a variety of short assignments in recent years. "People in so-called permanent work often move on every two years. But interim projects can also stretch this long. I'm not sure there is such a thing as permanent work anymore. If there is, I'm never going back to it."

Chris Bernard, head of client services at the food and drink division of interim recruitment specialist Albemarle, says job satisfaction levels among interim managers can be very high. She adds: "In some cases, these people don't actually need to work anymore. They just want the challenge and stimulation."

However, it would be wrong to characterise the market as full of go-getting thrill seekers that have actively chosen to leave the rat race, says RHL food division managing consultant Nigel Billinge. "Our interim database has more than doubled since January, with highly skilled people aged 48-55 that have been effectively thrown on the scrap heap when it comes to permanent work.

"If you've got five to 10 years left to pay on your mortgage, not everyone wants to be living out of a suitcase wondering where the next job is going to come from."FM

Related topics: People & Skills

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