Lead Interview: Rebecca Thurlow

Our lead interview in the ADAPT issue of Suffolk Director magazines is Rebecca Thurlow, MD of Compass Point Recruitment
Published in Suffolk Director Magazine, Summer/Autumn 2020

Reflect, Adjust and Renew 

“I’ve thought about the word I would use to describe the COVID-19 pandemic and that’s ‘scary!’ Especially in the early weeks, it was very scary on so many levels, both privately and professionally. But the positives have been more than I expected. This time has felt like a time warp, so many flashback memories of my first two years of trading.”

When talking to Rebecca Thurlow, and hearing her story, you can’t help but have great respect for how she has managed to overcome adversity, and – as she would openly admit – her actions in childhood, to become the businesswoman she is today. 

Many will know Rebecca as MD of Compass Point Recruitment, but others will know her through her family, whose roots are firmly embedded in Suffolk. 

“My dad, Peter, is a property developer and son of the late Sonny (Cecil Frank Thurlow), who was a Suffolk farmer. My mum, Judith, is the youngest of 14 and one of her brothers was Percy Nicholls, who owned Fork Rent. His son, Guy, who heads up Tru7 Group in Kesgrave, is one of my many cousins. 

“Work was never discussed at home and, although the Thurlow name was very well-known in the Suffolk farming community, there wasn’t a lot of socialising outside of the family. I tended to spend a lot of my childhood outdoors and loved hanging out with Grandad Thurlow on his farm in Drinkstone.” 

When Rebecca was seven, she was sent to boarding school at Hethersett Old Hall School, in Norfolk. 

A challenging child 

“My earliest memory of school was being punished for misbehaving. I had to sleep in the scullery on my own, which at my young age was pretty tough. From that point on, I hated school and spent most of my time running away. 

“When I was 11, my mother was called in and it was agreed it was best for all parties, if we parted company. I was then sent to The Jesus and Mary Convent in Ipswich. 

“The first couple of terms there were okay, as I was in the prep school, which was run by nuns, and I did try to work hard. But I was too far behind academically and, when I went up to the secondary school and started to get school reports full of red marks and “not good enough” comments, I just gave up. 

“Mum’s family was in Ipswich, and she took me to school initially. But, when I started catching the train and bus to get there on my own, I bunked off and would spend my days dossing around Ipswich town centre, or with my older cousins and Uncle Bobby, who owned a Kawasaki motorbike shop five minutes’ walk from the station. 

“The school reports prove it and the only thing I enjoyed was sport; I loved netball, athletics and trampolining.” 

Taking initiative

Then, in early 1981, when Rebecca had just turned 16, she eavesdropped on a conversation between two classmates, who were laughing about the fact that, as they were 16, they didn’t have to legally attend school anymore. 

“Once I had checked this was true, I went to the school office and called Mum. I asked her to pick me up and take me home, and I never went back! 

“By now, Dad was doing well with his property development business. He had given up farming and he had offices at St Andrews Street in Bury St Edmunds, and I started working with him a couple of days a week. 

“Dad instructed everyone that I had no special treatment and I was only allowed to do certain things, such as photocopying, making teas and coffees and answering the phone. 

“When I started learning to drive and he was teaching me, we would travel into work together. Then, when I was 17 and had passed my driving test, Dad allowed me to join Young Farmers

“As the Suffolk community was so small, there were occasions when I arrived home in the evening, after a night out, and would be questioned by my father on some action or other; basically, the network of his friends had called him to let him know what I had been doing. 

Becoming more mature

“It wasn’t long, though, before I made the decision that I did need to get some sort of education. So, I investigated and found a secretarial college in Hampstead, in North London, called St Godric’s, and I enrolled on a residential course.

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“I spent the time learning typing and shorthand and I worked very hard. Because of not going to school, I had difficulty with memorising things, as I had never been taught how to revise, but I did learn, and I made friends. 

“During the year, we had a couple of parties and, as we were all girls, there was a lack of male guests. So, I would call my cousin Guy and ask him to get some of his mates together and come along. He never let me down and would bring two or three carloads of boys, all of which made the parties a great success.” 

A new start

At 19, Rebecca returned home and, with a friend from college, registered at a recruitment agency in Cambridge. 

“I went to Cambridge because it enabled me to start afresh and establish my own identity, rather than being seen as the daughter of a Nicholls and a Thurlow. My friend and I were initially living at my family home in Great Ashfield, when a call came through from the agency offering a temporary placement as a marketing assistant at Phillips Scientific in Cambridge. As I had access to a car, I took the job.” 

Being given a helping hand 

“My friend then also got a job at Phillips, and when my job was made permanent, we moved to live in rented accommodation in the city.”

“Along the way, I have met people who have helped me and played a big part in my career journey.” 

“One of those people was my boss at Phillips Scientific, Tony Goodhall. He was the Marketing Manager and an amazing guy. He helped me, not only looking after me, but covering for me when I made mistakes. 

“On one particular occasion, I had taken shorthand dictation and typed up a report and circulated it ready for it to be discussed at a meeting. At the meeting, an attendee called for me to be sacked, as my spelling and grammar was terrible. Quick as a flash, Tony congratulated the person for bringing it up, and he told everyone that he had asked me to deliberately make the mistakes, so he could find out whether people were actually reading his reports. 

“Afterwards, when I asked why he hadn’t sacked me, he said that he needed me, as I had a way of getting the scientists to respond to requests for the information he wanted on time, so he could write the marketing literature and get them over to his bosses to meet their strict deadlines.

“He made a pact with me. He wouldn’t give me dictation and he would handwrite his letters, if I continued to get him his copy on time.” 

The arrangement worked well, and Rebecca was soon promoted to Marketing Executive. 

“Indirectly, Tony had made me see that you need to focus on what you’re good at and what you can do, rather than what you can’t.” 

Developing skills

For the next two years, things went well. While the others in the team did the proofing, Rebecca focused on her strengths which were handling people, doing the telephone work, and overseeing the production of all the marketing materials. 

“Then Tony retired, so I took the opportunity to move out of office work. I left and got a job as Negotiator at Connells, who had opened a new estate agency in Cambridge. 

“The job was just up my street, as it was all about talking and listening to people to understand what they were looking for. 

“This was when I learnt another important lesson. Don’t always take the first answer; ask the same questions in different ways to fully understand the brief and what people want.” 

Rebecca did very well in this role and soon progressed through the ranks, working on new homes, before she was promoted to Lister, with the responsibility of bringing homes into the agency. 

“I was successful in getting houses onboard, but part of my job was typing up the property details. Although I could sell verbally, I still disliked writing the house specifications to go into the newspaper. I did everything I could to avoid having to prepare the property sheet with the descriptions and dimensions. 

Finding a new way

“Eventually, my boss must have twigged, and he called me in to his office and gave me a Dictaphone. He asked me to talk the details into the phone and his secretary then typed them up.”

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Becoming a property owner 

Three years on and, at 24 years’ old, Rebecca was now Branch Manager at Connells in Ipswich. 

“I think I was the youngest Manager they had. I had a team of nine and my own secretary. I was also now on the property ladder, having bought a house in Cambridge.

“To help with the bills, I rented rooms out in the house and from that I made the greatest friends. It was the first experience I had of being part of a girl posse, and this time was my happiest in my single days. There were lots of parties, drinking and total madness.” 

“Being in Cambridge in my 20s was exciting, as I managed to make friends with other people who had left University and chose Cambridge for their first job. We were all new to Cambridge, so quickly made lifelong friends.” 

In 1990, things were changing at Connells, and Rebecca couldn’t see that her long-term future lay in estate agency, so she decided to walk away. 

A new direction

“I got home, and I panicked. I had a mortgage, a car to run, and no money coming in. So, I went to Gold Helm in Cambridge, a boutique recruitment agency, and they offered me a job as a Recruitment Consultant. 

“Initially, I said no, as I didn’t want to go back into sales. But then I talked to Dad, who gave me a reality check. Over the years, he has become a confidant and a mentor when it comes to business things. 

“He said, “Take the job and you’ll be in the right place to see what’s coming in and go for it before anyone else.” So, I accepted the job and started with them in 1991. 

“I discovered that I was good at it. Rather than dealing with property, I was dealing with people and the added bonus was that I didn’t have to work weekends.” 

Then, in 1992, the recession hit and five of Rebecca’s colleagues were made redundant, which left just her and one other in the team. 

“This was my first experience of a recession. Workwise, it showed me what happens, if you are an MD and take your eye off the business. I also learnt how it feels to have ‘survivor guilt’; feeling a sense of relief when I realised that it wasn’t me being made redundant, but then watching colleagues and friends leave. 

“I was now working in an environment where I was surrounded by empty desks and that was really hard. The upshot was that, a few months later, Gold Helm was sold to another recruitment agency and I ended up leaving to go and work for an outplacement company called Sanders and Sidney.

Dealing with a big life change

“It was then that I became ill with ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’, or ME. I was 27 and had been to Africa on holiday visiting a St Godric’s College friend. I had mucked up the timings of my injections and vaccinations and this affected my immune system, so that when I got back, I fell ill.” 

The effect that ME had on Rebecca’s life was devastating and lasted for three years. 

“Fortunately, I had taken out a loss of earnings insurance when I thought I was going to be made redundant, and that paid for my living costs.” 

Then, someone told Rebecca about a doctor at the Hale Clinic in London, who specialised in ME. He discovered her Selenium and Magnesium levels were low, and Rebecca was put on a course of balanced nutrients. Instantly, she got better. 

The birth of Compass Point Recruitment 

“I now needed to get back to work, so I attended some interviews and was offered three jobs, all with one thing in common; to set something up. 

“I spoke to Dad and between us we realised that others obviously felt I had the ability to make something happen. So, I decided to set up my own recruitment agency.

“I’m sure other business owners will relate to this, but when do you stop researching your business plan and make that plunge into day one of your new business? Well, I didn’t have such a dilemma, as my company was launched ‘by accident’ whilst creating my business plan! 

“Although I lived in Cambridge, the business opportunities in Suffolk became clear, after conducting the competitive analysis. In Cambridge, I would have been the 87th recruitment agency, however in Bury St Edmunds I was the fourth. 

“One main source of advertising for organisations at that time was via the Yellow Pages business telephone directory. Well ahead of starting the business properly, and as part of preparing the costs for my business plan cashflow, I met with the sales rep. He convinced me to sign an order to ‘reserve’ my advert, as they had a process of only raising the invoice one month prior to when the book goes to print, which was in six months’ time. 

“I gave them my home telephone number and a company name of Abbeygate Recruitment. However, as I missed the cancellation deadline, my advert was published, and because of that, I was contacted at home by an organisation that was relocating from Cambridge to Suffolk and wondered if I could help them source the additional staff they would require. I managed to close them to sole agency and started working on this assignment from home, without premises or any formal limited business set up. 

“It certainly helped when I went to the bank with my business plan and a cheque to pay in BEFORE I had a business bank account! 

Starting out on my own

“I set up Compass Point Recruitment, renting a room in a multiple occupancy office building in central Bury St Edmunds. I was lucky, as Dad owns the property, and he gave me the room rent-free for my first year. I was on my own, with only my mini Schnauzer, Barnaby, for company. I just had the Yellow Pages and worked for 18 months building a business a client at a time. 

“My first employee was a recruitment consultant, who managed all the temp placements. Then, following her appointment, and by client request, I took on my second employee to set up an accountancy division. I remained with those two divisions for the first three years.” 

How the business has grown

Over the next 25 years, the company grew to a team of 12, at its peak offering permanent and temporary placements for positions in administration and secretarial, accounting, engineering and supply chain, sales and marketing, industrial, Human Resources, food and agricultural. 

“For the first 20 years, the business concentrated on Bury St Edmunds and an area within a 40-mile radius. We’ve grown by adding desks specialising in different roles and sectors. It’s the clients that lead the diversification of the business and, over the last five years, we have grown to cover roles all over East Anglia.” 

But why the name ‘Compass Point’? 

“That came from a chat over a glass of wine with a friend. We were discussing names and she said, “You need a compass to point you in the right direction”, and that’s where the name came from. We point people in their right career direction.” 

Eventually settling down 

“Through my friendship group in Cambridge, I was introduced to my now husband of 19 years, Simon. We got talking and hit it off straight away. He had set up his own business 10 years before we met, so he completely understood my daily work challenges of owning and running CPR. We still brainstorm business issues and many a supper conversation is challenged over the 1st July furlough rule! 

“We married in June 2001, at St Mary’s Church in Bury St Edmunds, had our reception at Smeetham Manor Barns and stayed at The Lavenham Swan Hotel with friends for the weekend. Our daughter Alexandra arrived in August 2002, and two years later we had Oliver, in November 2004. 

“The last 25 years have been non-stop, and I have always worked, apart from taking a few weeks out when the children were born. To ensure I saw the children as much as possible, I found accommodation near the office, so they were close to me during the day and I could pop in and see them. 

“Alex and Ollie are both dyslexic and I wonder whether that may be the reason behind some of my own problems. We all enjoy family time together; skiing, playing tennis and sailing. We have a boat that is moored at Suffolk Yacht Harbour, on the River Orwell.” 

The challenges of running a business 

“Because I skipped school and never took ‘O’ Levels, there are some things around running a business I find challenging. My memory isn’t that good, so I have to make sure the systems allow for a paper trail. 

“Also, Compass Point has specialist recruitment consultants per division, which makes it complex to run; there are different competitors, different pricing structures, and different consultants’ personality traits suit different divisions. 

“However, I feel it is important that, when a client entrusts us with a vacancy, I want them to feel they are in ‘safe’ hands and that the consultant they are liaising with fully understands the complexity of the role. It is also essential when we are interviewing candidates, as we are able to drill down on the candidates’ CV to get a full picture of their previous work experience.” 

In 2019, Rebecca was accepted on the ‘Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses’ (GS10KSB) programme. 

“There was a very rigorous entry process, but it was so worth it. Each three-month part-residential course takes 70 MDs and shareholding Directors, and when you pass you become part of the Goldman Sachs Alumni Network.” 

The COVID-19 effect 

Whilst on the GS10KSB programme, as well as giving Rebecca the opportunity to network openly and honestly with other business owners throughout the country, one of the recommendations given to everyone was to write a three-year business growth plan. 

“This ‘away from the office’ time was excellent for me. I was challenged by my course peers and lecturers to reflect on Compass Point’s history, so that I could then chart its future. The result was a document that became the new starting point on where and how the company was going to grow. 

“I count myself lucky that I did this pre-COVID. So many organisations that I am speaking to are doing the same thing now, but with so much uncertainty around them it is a much more difficult task. Nevertheless, a global pandemic definitely wasn’t in my SWOT analysis under ’threats’, or as a recommendation from Goldman Sachs to include within a crisis plan!

“It was initially a very scary situation, but I’m now leaning towards putting COVID-19 under the ‘opportunities’ section. 

I feel extremely lucky

We operate within a range of industry sectors and divisions Some of my divisions ‘fell off a cliff’, but some continued to grow and still needed our services. Temporary workers still had assignments that needed support and paying. 

“The biggest effect on me personally was that I went from being a part-time ‘helicopter’ owner MD, to being a full time, hands-on, 360 degree ‘recruiter’ MD in under a week! “It has felt like a time warp: so many flashback memories of my first two years of trading. 

“This is my third recession, so I’m aware of the significance of cash. I immediately took advantage of the Government’s furlough scheme. I battened down the hatches, doing what was needed to prepare and secure the business for the future. I suspected that recruitment wasn’t going to be the first thing on our clients’ minds while they were individually pivoting their own businesses.

The positives have been more than I expected

The situation has led to me reconnecting with clients and listening to their needs, to discover how we are best able to help them. I’ve been using our inhouse CRM system as a user, not a creator of content, and as I am naturally creative and a problem-solver, the last few months has added more tasks to my ‘to do’ list by way of streamlining and system-reviewing.” 

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“With the comfort extended furlough has given me, I have had time to internalise and plan, and what has resulted is a ‘new’ Compass Point Recruitment. Year 26 doesn’t exist; it is now year 1PC (post COVID-19)!” 

“I have brought individuals back into the office at the end of their furlough period and it has made me realise how important my team are to me. I really haven’t enjoyed the empty office and working from home, and I miss having a coffee and brainstorming a recruitment strategy, or simply celebrating a business success. 

“I felt extremely lucky to have the support of the Goldman Sachs alumni, and, following talking to clients, it became apparent that some didn’t have any support networks in place, so I put together a business owners’ support group on WhatsApp. It’s a confidential platform, where we can share experiences, ask questions, and generally stop the feeling of isolation, while navigating our businesses through these scary times. 

“I now feel extremely confident about our future. As anyone who has run a business for any length of time will know, managing change is extremely difficult to navigate. There are so many historic procedures and staff in certain roles, so it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees.” 

Getting my priorities right

“One thing I will make sure of is that I have proper time away from the business. As the owner and MD, I’ve committed 25 years to it, and although I’m always saying, “I’ll take time away when XX or YY has been set up”, in reality, you complete one project and there is ALWAYS another one to take its place. I need to reward myself incrementally along the way, or another 25 years will disappear. 

“Personally, I’m going to stop always looking to the future and enjoy the ‘right now’ more. You never know what’s around the corner.”

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