Penny Streeter does not sound like a woman you want to keep waiting. She employs over 27,000 people across two continents. Her company, the A24 Group, took in £70-million last year. The Queen gave her an OBE. Yet here I am, verging on half an hour late for our appointment, thanks to a pile-up on the M1. By REBECCA DAVIS
The sense that I am about to encounter someone formidable is heightened by the security measures in place before my meeting with Streeter.
The company’s Security Manager, Ryan, phones me en route to confirm my arrival time, then meets me outside the rather unprepossessing building to personally escort me to Streeter’s office. Out of the corner of my eye I study his daunting profile in the lift. He looks like a man who may have first-hand experience of frontline combat in a warzone. But they’re a recruitment company, not an arms cartel.
“Quite impressive security you have here,” I venture by way of conversation.
“We aim for perfection in everything we do,” he replies expressionlessly.
But when Ryan delivers me to Streeter’s office, the woman who opens the door is warm, friendly, and down to earth, with a disarming roar of laughter, which she discharges often. If Streeter seems refreshingly ordinary, however, her story is anything but.
She was born in Zimbabwe (or Rhodesia, at that time), but her parents moved to the UK in 1979, when she was 11. Her parents divorced shortly afterwards and her father decided to return to Africa – in this case, South Africa. Thirteen-year-old Penny opted to accompany him and was enrolled at Alberton High in Johannesburg.
She has mixed memories of this time: “I found the South African school system quite restrictive,” she said. “And I wasn’t good at needlework or typing or whatever”.
At 16, in Standard 8, Streeter decided to leave school. “I was just a stroppy teenager,” she says. Her father was horrified. But Streeter was adamant that she wanted to escape South African education, go back to the UK and start working.
Her first employment was in an insurance company, as part of a Thatcher-era initiative to address youth employment by offering low-paid apprenticeships to young school-leavers. “We were paid £25 a week, and I remember the unions demonstrating outside because they said we were being exploited. In the end it went up to £75 a week.”
Deciding she liked the idea of beauty therapy better than insurance, Streeter qualified as a beauty therapist and worked in salons for about a year, before concluding that this, too, was not for her. In the end, her entry into the recruitment business was entirely serendipitous: presenting herself at an employment agency, she was told that the agency itself required another worker, and was subsequently employed there.
“That was my first real job,” says Streeter. And she made it work, performing so successfully that she recruited her mother to help run another office for the same agency. In fact, the Streeters were victims of their own success in the end: they were called in by the boss and told that it was too expensive to keep them on because of the amounts they were earning in commission.
This was all the impetus they needed to try to make it on their own. In 1989, with a loan from Barclays Bank and some help from Streeter’s grandmother, they set up their own recruitment business. But they didn’t known that recession was about to hit the UK. The bottom fell out of the economy, interest rates spiralled, and the business went bust, leaving them deep in debt that they could not repay. At the same time, Streeter’s first marriage broke up.
Divorced and penniless with three children, she found herself living in accommodation for the homeless. “I knew I had to get a job, so I went out to recruitment agencies and got offered loads, but I just realised I couldn’t do it,” Streeter says. “I went back to my mother and said: we should start again.”
They were broke, and knew there was no chance of accessing bank loans after the first business disaster. A friend offered her a desk and a couple of phones at the back of his car dealership. To raise funds, she and her mother both worked as children’s DJs, running mobile discos at weekends. In 1995 their business launched. It was appropriately called Ambition. To this day, Streeter and her mother remain the only shareholders.
The company specialised in recruitment for nurses. “The recruitment sector was already crowded in the UK at that time, so we had to find something we could do differently,” Streeter says. The answer came to her when she realised that no recruitment agencies were able to supply nurses after office hours.
“We kept getting calls from nursing homes at 5, 6, 7pm looking for nurses because the ones on shift wouldn’t have turned up and they’d need one all of a sudden,” she said. Suddenly Ambition’s unique selling point was obvious: they would offer 24-hour recruitment. Ambition 24/7 launched in 1996.
Almost immediately, it was clear that they were on to something big. “Our growth was phenomenal. We were doubling week on week,” says Streeter.
Within six months, their turnover exceeded £500,000. Within three years, they began expanding across the UK. In 2002, Ambition was the fastest growing, privately owned business in the UK.
Everything was on the up and up – except for Streeter’s growing disenchantment with her English staff. “We had more back office staff than front office, a lot of them young people, and they’d do things like write references in text-language,” says Streeter. “It was really hard to find staff in the UK who were service-oriented, and absenteeism was a huge problem – they were always pulling sickies.”
Holidaying in Cape Town in 2004 and impressed by the service she was offered in shops and restaurants, Streeter was struck by a thought. What if she moved her headquarters, and all her back-office operations, to South Africa?
“Service is important to my business because I want the customers to like the people they’re dealing with,” Streeter says. “But we needed to think about whether we could get the connectivity right in Cape Town.” Streeter decided it was worth the plunge. She bought and renovated the building in Bellville we’re sitting in today – “it was all pigeons flying everywhere” – and relocated the business.
Inevitably, the move didn’t win her many friends in the UK. “Lazy, plundering and hungover – entrepreneur’s verdict on UK workers”, ran a headline in The Telegraph at the time.
The article continued: “Penny Streeter, 38, has turned her back on Britain and moved the firm’s headquarters to South Africa because, she says, too many of her British staff were ill-disciplined, thieving and sometimes the worse for drink”.
Streeter smiles ruefully: “As you can imagine, my UK staff weren’t too happy with me after that article came out”.
Off-shoring has had a nasty reputation in the UK for some time. Banks, in particular, which relocated call-centres to India to take advantage of lower labour costs, faced a backlash from customers who didn’t fancy the idea of discussing their personal finances with agents on another continent. While the primary economic logic of off-shoring is to lower business costs, Streeter has always maintained that her dominant motivation was to improve service.
Nonetheless, the move initially hit the business hard. “Our turnover dropped like a stone,” admits Streeter. “But we stabilised, and moved forward. We mainly hire South Africans returning from the UK, because they know the UK market.”
Streeter’s interest in South Africa wasn’t limited to running her back-office operations, however. In 2006, the business – now the A24 Group – bought the Nursing Services of South Africa agency, the largest private provider of temporary medical personnel in the country. It was their biggest acquisition yet, and presented its own challenges.
“The South African market is different to the UK,” says Streeter. “Particularly within recruitment. It was a bit like a time machine. The way agencies were created was old-fashioned and the industry largely unregulated. Initially we wanted to just replicate everything we do in the UK, but we realised we had to adapt.”
The A24 Group has continued to expand between the UK and South Africa since then, and Streeter has her eye on global domination. She says they were supposed to launch in the USA in 2010, but they received word that one of their major competitors in the UK was about to fold, so they bought that business instead.
“Acquisitions are tiring,” Streeter concedes, particularly in the context of a global recession, though she says the recruitment sector is “keeping its head above water”. She’s reasonably upbeat about the future economic forecast: “I mean, things can’t go on forever”.
Something Streeter doesn’t mention is that the success of the A24 Group during the recession has itself attracted criticism. A report in the UK’s Sunday Mirror in 2011 registered outrage at the practice of private medical recruitment companies profiting at a time when the National Health System was under strain, targeting Streeter’s business in particular.
“Ambition 24 Hours – one of many private firms cashing in on the NHS staffing crisis – pocketed £10,4-million in profits last year… up from £733,250 in 2008,” ran the article. “It has transformed the firm’s boss Penny Streeter, 53, into one of Britain’s richest women, with a salary of £5,1-million. That’s 250 times what a nurse earns.”
This year MSN Money also featured Streeter in a list of “Entrepreneurs who profited during the downturn”, alongside the likes of Royal Bank of Scotland’s Stephen Hester. “Some who were successful even before the hard times have still managed to increase the amount of champagne they can quaff while millions suffer unemployment, budget cutbacks and growing credit card balances,” the website sniped.
But Streeter has simply followed in the footsteps of successful entrepreneurs through the ages: seen a gap in the market, and jumped for it. Though she refers to herself as “just an ordinary person”, the results have made her exceedingly wealthy – a point she concedes with an air of slight discomfort.
“I don’t live extravagantly,” she says. “My biggest motivation has always been to look after my kids. When you’re used to living with no money, when you finally get money it actually feels like a bit of an anti-climax, especially if you work for so long for it. It’s not like winning the lottery.” She says she has no plans to retire any time soon. “What would I do all day?”
Does Streeter have any parting advice for budding entrepreneurs?
“Don’t give up, keep trying,” says Streeter. “And most of all, don’t listen to people who tell you to get a job.” DM
Photo: Penny Streeter
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