James Reed: the recruitment boss cleaning up in the ‘great resignation’

The scooter-loving chairman of Reed is riding high – and doesn’t expect the UK’s worker shortage to ease any time soon

James Reed has zipped into the London head office of the jobs website that bears his family name on a bright blue Vespa scooter modishly emblazoned with his initials. In the midst of the worst worker shortage Britain has seen for decades, the chairman of Reed – one of the UK’s biggest recruitment websites, used by more than 11 million people a month – is the busiest he has been in the quarter-century he’s been at its helm.

It’s a far cry from last year, when the company – started by his father, Sir Alec Reed, six decades ago – was in crisis, with turnover plunging as the global jobs market crashed. “It’s unlike anything I’ve seen. We had a jobs bust last year; now it’s a jobs boom,” he says in his office in Holborn, central London. “It’s the most interesting period I’ve experienced in my career, and in many ways the most challenging. There’s a huge demand for workers and a great shortage of supply.”

In a trend mirrored across the western world, huge numbers of workers are on the move in Britain as part of a “great resignation,” under way since lockdown restrictions were lifted this summer. Official figures show a million people moved jobs in the three months to September, and vacancies are at a record high of almost 1.3 million.

This has been a boon for Reed, which makes money from vacancies posted on its website. There are more than 250,000 jobs advertised on its platform right now, from lorry drivers and cleaners to City lawyers and bankers.

Judging by the empty banks of desks outside his corner office, the worker drought has also hit Reed itself. We’re meeting before Boris Johnson ordered a return to working from home where possible, but it’s still deathly quiet.

With a laugh, Reed assures me the firm’s 3,500 employees in 180 locations worldwide are all busy. “Everyone in here went home, and we all learned very quickly how to work from home,” he says. “We had to reinvent ourselves. I was a big working-from-home sceptic before this, but I’ve realised it can be super-efficient.”

It ought not to be a surprising conversion for a company that specialises in online recruitment. In the run-up to Christmas especially, James Reed’s focus is on the total of funds raised on the website of the Big Give – a charity event started by Sir Alec in 2007. Now among the biggest in the country, it offers donors match-funding from big companies and philanthropists.

The ticker on the website has clocked up nearly £25m in donations this year, for more than 900 charities, including those working with homelessness, refugees and the environment. His family’s charitable arm, the Reed Foundation, is a major donor, and also owns an 18% stake in the jobs website, so staff effectively work one day a week to fund good causes.

Despite being a convert to working from home, Reed says some things are always better in person. Before Christmas, he is taking more than 120 long-serving members of staff – those who have been with the company for more than 10 years – to dinner at the Ritz in London. It will be done over several evenings, in groups of about a dozen at a time. “We cancelled this last year but are continuing it now. It’s a big thing in our company.”

James Reed
Reed says some things in business are always better in person. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

Last year he had planned a party at which he would give each London office employee a bottle of honey whisky made by his wife, Nicola, using honey from bees kept on the roof of Reed HQ.

Handing me a bottle labelled “Jimmy Reed’s Honey Whisky”, he says they had crates of it left over when Christmas 2020 was effectively cancelled. The bees were a present from a friend for his 50th birthday in 2013, and he says that though beekeeping adds to the firm’s environmental credentials, it’s also fun: “If you put the suit on, people think you’re a bit of a hero.”

It’s also amusing, he tells me, that after his Harley-Davidson motorcycle was stolen last year, the machine he chose to replace the rockers’ bike of choice was a modish Vespa: “The name means wasp in Italian, and wasps kill bees!”

Economists fear Omicron could make for a difficult winter and badly derail the recovery from Covid-19, amid concerns that Britain’s strong jobs market might also catch a chill. Reed says he had never heard the name before (“I never studied Greek”), but remains remarkably upbeat: “We’ve seen some reports of hospitality being affected but haven’t seen that in our business. The jobs numbers remain robust. I think people are unsure, but are not yet jumping to make decisions that are radically different from where they were a couple of weeks ago.”

The pandemic has changed a lot about the jobs market, he says, exposing skills shortages and deficiencies in education. His solution, rather than encouraging large numbers of young people to go to university, would be to increase the focus on vocational education and apprenticeships.

He thinks the shortages will persist into next year: “Our data suggests 2022 will be a strong year for jobs as well. I expect it to be a good year if you’re looking to move.”

In a dapper houndstooth tweed suit, cashmere jumper and black Chelsea boots, Reed looks more hip than you might expect for the chairman of a private company with a turnover north of £1bn. But then again neither he nor his father is a typical boss. The company was founded in 1960 in Hounslow, by 26-year-old Alec Reed, who used £75 from the pension fund he had built up while working at the nearby Gillette razor factory. “He tells me I wouldn’t have been allowed to work at Gillette because I’ve got a beard, but maybe that’s fine nowadays. He used to say you’d get fired for having one.”

Like his father, Reed is a colourful, affable character in an often bland corporate world. Yet he is also a rich son stepping into a wealthy father’s shoes, which many would say is inappropriate for a large modern company.

It’s an issue Reed is all too aware of. “Someone once said, ‘Well, how do you answer the charge of nepotism?’ And I said, ‘I don’t. I’m guilty as charged’. But I feel that now, after almost 25 years as chief executive, and seeing the company change as it has, I have earned my spurs. I think he would credit me that too.”

Having added a jobs website to its network of high street recruitment agencies earlier than many rivals, Reed has grown to be among the biggest online recruitment firms in the country.

When James Reed took charge of the company in 1997, Sir Alec handed him a conductor’s baton in a glass case, which still has pride of place in his office. But now, after nearly 25 years at the helm, he is turning his attention to who might take over.

“I’d like it to continue as a family business, but it’s got be right for the company and right for the individual,” he says. “I’m wondering who to give the baton to next. I’m going to need to at some point.”


Age 58

Wife Nicola and six children.

Scaitcliffe prep school in Surrey and St Paul’s in west London. Degree in philosophy, politics and economics He graduated from Oxford then an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

Most proud of
“My family, I suppose, is an obvious one.”

Biggest career mistake
There have been lots, he says. The most recent was a failed attempt to create a digital-only IT contractor website. Although it lost money, Reed has no regrets. “You win some, you lose some. You’ve got to keep trying things because if you don’t you’ll never succeed.”

How you relax
Horse riding, walking and being out in nature. He enjoys driving his mare, Joleen, around the country lanes of Wiltshire, as well as long-distance walks with his wife. “You really see the country. You stay in pubs, you meet people, and it’s just fantastic.”

Guilty pleasure
An occasional cigar

Most overused word or phrase
The company advertising slogan, “Love Mondays”, is on the wall behind him in neon . “I do use that. My kids would say I do.”

Last holiday
Malta, where his mother-in-law is from.


Richard Partington

The GuardianTramp

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