Recruiting the right talent for future growth

Jez Abbott
Monday, September 11, 2017

Last month Thames Card Technology (TCT) launched the UK’s first contactless loyalty card programme for Tesco.

According to industry figures, two thirds of shoppers around the world are on loyalty programmes while cardholders spend up to 18% more than other customers. Loyalty schemes, according to managing director Paul Underwood, are a key differentiator for UK retailers.

But how do the companies like his, which make, personalise and print plastic cards, differentiate themselves in a sector as vast and fast- moving as the one TCT serves with hundreds of millions of smart, magnetic-stripe and barcode cards and fobs? One way it has done this is through a senior management recruitment programme.

The challenge

“The programme was based around an acknowledgement and recognition we needed a stronger team of people to drive forward the business,” says Underwood, who co-founded the company in Essex in the mid 1990s. “We needed to bring more expertise into the company. I started from a low base and grew it quickly over the years. But one thing that was becoming increasingly apparent to myself and our investment directors was the need for an extra layer of expertise and experience.”

Thames Card Technology manufactures, personalises and fulfils plastic cards for customers all over the world from its MasterCard- and Visa-certified secure site in Rayleigh, Around three and a half years ago Underwood could see the world of digital payments and customer-loyalty technology was becoming ever-more sophisticated while many in his team were nearing retirement or making it clear they were looking to move on.

“I felt it was the right time to bring in that extra layer. We were keen to move into new markets and strengthen the ones we were already in such as retail gift and loyalty cards as well as bank pre-payment services. The latter is a big part of our business and set to get bigger. We needed a new structure and new personnel.”

Underwood talks of futureproofing his business: “The core of the senior management recruitment programme was to ensure we are still here in several years to come. We wanted not only the capacity to manufacture the same type of cards – chip, magnetic, barcode – but to look a bit further along the line into new and evolving areas.”

Just like the recent Tesco deal, he says. The card increases security and gives the supermarket greater brand recognition and data. Several million cards are now with customers and many more will be issued over the coming months for users to tap at the point of sale, swipe the magnetic stripe or scan the barcode.

“Meeting such a demanding brief involved bringing together a number of technologies and design innovations in a short time for an extremely large, high-profile launch. We also brought in a suite of new machinery. Tesco is a classic example of why we rolled out the recruitment programme. To do jobs like these in the best, most efficient way meant not just a new chief executive, but several key positions at management level.”

The method

Saying you’ll recruit high-calibre managers and directors is one thing; doing it is another. Filling senior management posts is crucial to organisational success, and employers often spend thousands of pounds and many months to find the best candidate. Underwood was no different: “However important it is to fill a post, I never rush; without being too cloak and dagger we look as seriously at our own interview techniques and tests as we do the candidate who eventually comes before us.”

TCT also relies on a headhunter as well as one of its investment partners, the Business Growth Fund (BGF). The financier provides growth capital to help companies execute the sort of strategic plans Underwood was embarking on. It also has a ‘talent pool’ of high fliers from which partners can dip to help them nail that strategy.

First, candidates have to go through a series of tests, from psychometric to personality, to check not only their technical and business prowess, but that they “fit in with the chemistry of the company and its staff”, says one candidate who flew through all his recruitment hurdles. Matthew Williams joined the company as chief executive officer a week and a half ago, taking over from Keith Worrall, who led the company for a transitional period before moving on.

The management team was in place by December 2016 and included finance director Robin Hilton, operations director Chè Colford, head of retail Andrew Toon, technical manager Michael Piggott and business development manager Barry Thirkell. Underwood had no qualms at, in effect, appointing a boss to head a board he once led.

“I was very comfortable appointing a chief executive, first Keith and then Matthew, both of whom are excellent leaders. We all have different skills and expertise. I know the key players and the markets as well as those markets we want to move into. Keith was instrumental in revamping our operations and launching our automated despatch and bureau, while Matthew is a strategic ace with a manufacturing background who knows how to grow businesses.”

The result

TCT is now ready to target growth with existing customers as well as new markets and new geographies. The company, already big in Europe, is eyeing potential growth in Africa. New technologies and materials are also on the horizon. Take what Underwood’s team bills the first credible alternative to PVC, the ‘eCard’.

The ‘green’ alternative to PVC combines chalk with low levels of high-density polyethylene to create a card with the performance and costs of traditional plastics but without the environmental impact. The material has already been used in the US, but TCT will now offer the material to customers in mainland Europe.

“The new managers have brought a wealth of benefits to the business and we have had a very successful first few months. They have brought stability and creativity to their respective roles and a fresh perspective to the overall company. The driver of the recruitment programme however was not to massively increase turnover or staff headcount,” explains Underwood.

“Yes, we definitely want to grow the business – both top and bottom line – but whether that means bringing in more people remains to be seen. I can see us moving into new markets, as we’ve just done with the eCard, in the next 18 months.” 


Prepare When seeking senior staff carefully prepare the recruitment criteria and use a formal process with standardised recruitment stages.

Take your time Recruiting managers is highly complex, so don’t rush; understand both your needs and the candidate’s and put together a detailed timescale for recruitment.

Get help Consider recruitment agencies and headhunters as well as professional and investment organisations with talent pools, such as the Business Growth Fund.

Methods Choose which selection methods best suit the job and company; they may include interviews, assessment centres, psychometric tests and job trials.

Conflicts Think about possible pitfalls or conflicts when recruiting senior staff externally – not promoting from within may cause tension with staff.


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