Setting A Different Approach Towards Financial Recruitment With Alchemy Search: Conor McHugh

We recently had the opportunity to interview Conor McHugh, the Founder of Alchemy Search. From starting as an accountant and working in several roles at reputable organizations to launching his own company, he is nothing short of an inspiration. With over 6 years of expertise in financial recruitment, Conor offers specialized services and ensures his wide client base is equally catered to meet their financial needs.

As the Founder of Alchemy Search, Conor McHugh brings together multinational and multilingual teams with professional expertise. In this insightful interview, Conor shares his career journey, challenges faced since the start, and current services, while offering invaluable lessons for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Beginnings First

We started the interview by asking Conor McHugh, ”Could you start by telling us about your career path?”

Conor shared, “I commenced my professional journey as an accountant, undergoing training with KPMG in the Channel Islands, where I dedicated four years to honing my skills. Subsequently, I attained qualification as an ACCA-certified accountant. Following the completion of my exams, I embarked on a year-long global travel experience. Upon returning to my native Ireland, I served as a contractor accountant in Dublin, specializing in FP&A and financial reporting roles.

After a year immersed in the accounting industry, I made a strategic decision to transition towards roles with a more pronounced sales and commercial focus. This led me to a pivotal shift from being an accountant to recruiting professionals in the field. I relocated to London, joining the esteemed global recruiting agency, Robert Walters. There, I spent two years before transferring to Robert Walters Dubai.

While in Dubai, I accumulated further experience before determining to establish my own enterprise. This marked the inception of Alchemy Search, a venture that has now been operational for two years, offering specialized recruitment services in the financial sector.”

Spark Behind Alchemy Search

We were curious to learn about the factors and situations that majorly influenced Conor McHugh to start his company. So, we asked, “What inspired you to develop the idea of your company?”

Conor McHugh responds, “It has been a lifelong goal of mine to run my own business, and thus, I aspired to embark on a distinctive venture. Drawing insights from my experience in larger agencies, I discerned that specialization could provide enhanced value. Leveraging my qualification as an accountant, I envisioned creating a business comprising a team of highly qualified professionals. Presently, our team includes five fully certified accountants, specializing in accounting and tax positions.”

Evolving Priorities

To learn more about the priorities of the organization and how it has transformed over these two years, we asked, “How have your priorities in business evolved since you first started?”

Conor McHugh shared, “We are now two years into the business, and our priorities have significantly evolved. In the first year, it was all hands on deck, focusing on cash flow management, acquiring clients, ensuring timely payments, managing staff salaries, and concentrating on securing and fulfilling job orders. In the second year, priorities have shifted with the business’s expansion. We now boast a 10-person team, compared to the five-person team of the previous year.

Doubling our headcount in one year has been both exciting and challenging. Currently, our emphasis is on the comprehensive development of the entire team. The most significant realization is understanding that you can’t control everything as you did when the team was smaller, typically between three to five people. It involves the ability to let go and empower the broader team.”

Adaptability Amidst Challenges

Challenges are an inseparable part of any business, but the approaches adopted to handle them count the most. So, we asked, “What are the most challenging situations that your company overcomes?”

Conor McHugh responds, “The current most challenging situation that our company faces is still securing cash flow. Being a startup, we have no reserves of cash, lack an overdraft facility, and have very little credit, if any. Thus, getting paid remains the most crucial aspect for the business.

In reality, we are competing against large global companies that possess significantly more financial resources and bigger brand recognition than us. Consequently, we are always striving to compete for client attention ahead of them. When clients inquire why they should choose us, the selling point consistently revolves around having qualified accountants for recruiting accounting roles and skilled tax professionals.

“What’s the key strength to overcome it?”

He added, “I believe the key strength to overcome some of the challenges is building a strong brand. The most significant observation this year is that, despite the considerable challenges in terms of profit, given the scaling of the business, our brand and public image have reached their peak.

This accomplishment is credited to our back-office team, who have strengthened our brand through initiatives like the Alchemy Uncensored podcast, along with the creation of numerous branding videos and content on LinkedIn. This proactive approach has set us apart by making us highly visible and active on LinkedIn and other social media platforms.”

Setting Alchemy Search Apart

To stand apart from the competition, it is paramount to offer unique services. We asked, “What makes your company stand out from other businesses in your industry?”

Conor replied, “I believe what makes our company stand out is that we are a people-oriented business that also values having fun. We have our community page, where we aim to connect with individuals from various backgrounds, making it accessible for us to engage with people in a more informal manner rather than being overly professional.

Additionally, our podcast is quite beneficial as we cover a wide range of topics, providing job seekers with a platform to tune in and get their questions answered. Moreover, we consistently share a wealth of content and articles on LinkedIn. Therefore, I see it as a combination of adding value and enjoying the process at the same time.”

Measuring Success

We further asked, “What KPIs do you use to measure your business growth?”

The KPI we use is revenue, which is the biggest one. Our revenues have been a bit lower than the previous year, as 2022 was a boom year in recruitment. For us, how I measure it now is the new clients we bring on board, new relationships, new placements, and not being reliant on one client. I think that shows you are growing. If you rely on just one client, and if that client slows down, then the whole of our business follows suit. And also, we’re pushing into new markets. Abu Dhabi is a big area for us now, where we’re putting a lot of focus into Abu Dhabi and growing that out now, which is what we want.” Conor McHugh shared.

Current Offerings

To learn more about the current projects and services offered by Alchemy Search, we asked, “Tell us something about your services. What are you working on currently?”

He replied, “For our services, we would position ourselves as a very strong middle-level recruitment business. We solely focus on accounting and tax positions so that the traditional finance controller CFO then has a tax manager who always knows the region. And so we are; the vision we have is to be an inch wide and a mile deep, as opposed to being a Jack of all trades and a master of none.”

Effective Teamwork

Having the right team built with trust and efficient productivity increases growth multiple fold. We asked, “How do you build trust with your employees and boost productivity without causing burnout?”

He responds, “My perspective emphasizes the importance of instilling trust in our business rather than simply accumulating transactions. Trust, I believe, is something to be given rather than earned, and we welcome this dynamic. In our sales-centric, commission-driven model, although a base salary is provided, the essence lies in cultivating a sense of hunger within the team. For them to achieve substantial commissions or attractive salaries, diligence and hard work are imperative.

Micromanagement holds no value in this framework. If an individual requires such oversight in this role, it signifies a potential mismatch. We adopt a relaxed approach to task execution, recognizing the flexibility of work hours, even extending into late hours in the Netherlands, leveraging the accessibility facilitated by mobile devices. The team’s responsiveness to incoming tasks is consistently reflected in our performance metrics.

Staying Ahead Of The Curve

We were intrigued to learn how Conor McHugh ensures that his company stays updated with all the emerging trends. We asked, “How do you stay on top of the latest technologies and trends in your industry?”

Conor McHugh shared, “We take pride in our highly effective CRM system, seamlessly managing and updating candidate data in real-time for optimal recruitment efficiency. Securing a strong candidate base is crucial for us.

Through daily interactions, we consistently add 10 to 15 new individuals to our system. This proactive approach ensures that when job opportunities arise, we have a pool of qualified candidates ready to go instantly.

We focus on, obviously, accounting, but we like to talk about taxes new to the region. So we have two fully qualified accountants and tax professionals focusing on tax recruitment. We are fortunate to have an Arabic speaker on our team, providing valuable assistance, especially in dealing with intricate matters. And for us, it’s all about the personal touch. We like to build relationships in the right way. We do a lot of events, a lot of sporting events, a lot of networking events, and we like to give back to our clients.”

Words Of Wisdom For Beginners

Beginners starting in a similar field will find it inspiring and helpful to hear from an expert like Conor McHugh. So, we asked, “What advice would you give to a starting entrepreneur?”

He concluded, “The biggest advice I would give is that ignorance is bliss. Take the risks and don’t expect to make money in the first couple of years, because if you do, your company won’t survive. Be prepared to prioritize the needs of the business before personal gains.

The foremost monthly priorities are ensuring the team’s salaries and rent are paid promptly, rather than focusing on individual compensation. It’s essential to adopt a long-term mindset, prioritizing the well-being of the staff. For those seeking quick gains, this approach may not be suitable as focusing on long-term gains is crucial. Don’t be afraid; just accept that a lot of things are going to go wrong, and don’t get too hung up on the little things.”

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