Craig Thompson, Managing director Michael Page: Help build a country

“What I am most proud of is that we implemented our first learnership program last year,” says Craig Thompson, Managing Director in South Africa for recruitment firm Michael Page. As a highly successful recruitment professional who helped build the Michael Page brand in South Africa, Thompson has much to boast about, but he chooses to pick a social project his company has embarked on as his highlight.

“We have employed 7 women from previously disadvantaged backgrounds who had been struggling to enter the corporate world,” Thompson explains. “Over a period of 12 months they will work towards a business administration diploma and gain experience in an office environment. The best of them will be promoted to front line consulting roles for Michael Page; others will function in a research or administrative capacity. We are building a company from the ground up and also helping to build a country.”

Recruitment of high-level employees has been a growing market for years in South Africa and elsewhere. Michael Page has grown over the last 3 decades to become one of the world's leading recruitment companies, specialising in selection across a broad range of sectors and job types. The company opened offices in South Africa in 2006, initially concentrating on accounting opportunities, but the focus has since extended to include banking, sales, mining and engineering and more. From offices in Johannesburg and Cape Town the firm recruits for permanent, temporary, contract and interim opportunities.

Thompson believes that recruitment is a lifetime career and not just a short term stop gap – as is reflected in his own career. “I studied finance, but after university I realised that this was not a career path I felt passionate about. With the financial obligation of paying back a university scholarship grant, I relocated to the UK where I was hired by Michael Page.”

In 2006 Thompson was asked to be part of a team tasked with opening an office in South Africa. That might have been his home country but Johannesburg was something new for him. “I am from Kwazulu-Natal and had never really spent any time in Johannesburg. We started in Johannesburg with an office of 2 people and a secretary. We had no clients and no candidates. Today we have a team of 40 people in South Africa, of whom 34 are client facing. We have a presence in Durban and a team of 6 in Cape Town.”

“I was 23 when I joined this company and I know this is what I want to be doing for the rest of my career and where I will retire. Although my next role may not be in South Africa, I am certain it will be within PageGroup.” Contrary to many other recruitment agencies Michael Page does not work with commissions per placement, but it pays quarterly bonuses to successful teams. “We employ people that want a career in recruitment and not those that are just in the industry for short term financial gain.”

Teamwork is a crucial part of the Michael Page philosophy, Thompson explains. “I sit at a different desk every day; nobody in our group has an office. That way we keep learning from each other and encourage the flow of information and ideas.” As a managing director of a large team Thompson has not completely moved away from the handwork either. “I stay involved in recruiting, partly by choice, and partly because international clients often prefer to interact at that level. For the business it is also important to show everyone that we are generating income at all levels of the company.”

Thompson knows that many CFOs and finance departments struggle to identify and retain skilled people.

“It is a common occurrence that companies invest in people, only to lose them to a competitor. In South Africa all companies are competing for a small pool of qualified professionals” he admits. “At CFO level we are not seeing many people move at the moment, based on the uncertainty of the macro environment and the lack of growth in many industries. Additionally, we are not seeing many CFOs moving into CEO roles. So whilst many organizations can be commended for grooming successors, those people get tired of waiting for their chance and start looking elsewhere.”

Although recruitment firms benefit from job mobility, they also work with companies who want candidates that are going to stick around. “That is probably the biggest balancing act that we do,” says Thompson. “We’re constantly advising companies on ways to retain people that are not money related and the ability to sell your organisation and its values is crucial. Many companies don’t sell themselves hard enough and don’t lay out a career path for prospective employees. A lot of people who are hiring don’t want to make a promise they might not be able to keep, but candidates want to know what the plan is.”

In Thompson’s experience most modern CFOs are looking for jobs in which the CEO empowers them to be a true business partner. “Worldwide there is also more of an understanding that CFOs don’t need to come from a traditional finance background. In South Africa there is a real reluctance to hire someone other than a chartered accountant and as such the CA-route will remain the preferred option for now. The reality is also that the South African market is immature from this perspective and many recruiters don’t understand the value of other financial qualifications or non traditional backgrounds.”

Thompson is in an excellent position to give young people career advice, given the success he has had with his own bold career choices and the business he is in now. “I always recommend that young South Africans go overseas to gain experience in another market, develop skills and then come home to make a contribution. You still can’t beat the lifestyle here. As a newly qualified accountant, you should be very particular about your first commercial role. Don’t accept the first role that is offered to you unless it is in a sector you feel confident you want to build a career in. It is often better to stay in an accounting firm for an extra year and really think about what you want to do.”

If you also would like to share your ideas with the CFO community, please get in touch with us to arrange an interview. Please contact Jurriën Morsch on [email protected].