Recruitment specialist Karen Bardwell always had a
desire to become self-employed. She talks to business reporter
Sally Rae about the latest development in her business and why
she loves both the recruitment industry and Dunedin.
Karen Bardwell's primary focus is now on Oyster Executive
Recruitment which has been rolled out as a national brand.
Photo by Peter McIntosh.
When Karen Bardwell returned to Dunedin after about five
years away from the city, she was not sure what she was going
A ''friend of a friend'' had a recruitment company for sale
and she bought Select Recruitment in 1997, knowing little
about running a business.
But she had known from an early age that she wanted to be
self-employed, driven by the desire to control her destiny.
Born and raised in Dunedin, an entrepreneurial streak and
desire for financial independence showed through early.
At the age of 10, she was making badges made from modelling
clay and selling them through service stations and dairies.
Her career path included working in banking and
manufacturing, but her first management role, when she was
27, was at Fletcher Challenge Forests.
She credited a lot of subsequent career success to that time
at Fletcher Challenge, where she worked huge hours, but staff
were given resources and training.
It was a highlight of her career before becoming
self-employed, she said.
When it came to Select, Ms Bardwell (48) learnt as she went,
and coupled with her natural ability, she grew the business
from a team of three to a peak of 28.
Alongside growing Select she continued doing consulting and
Eight years ago, executive recruitment and HR brand Optima
was launched, which had ''flown under the radar'' until now,
when it was decided to ''ramp it up''.
Ms Bardwell urged other Dunedin businesses to consider their
brand and how it related to their audience.
Her own rebranding process ''opened her eyes'' to the
importance of a strong, identifiable brand that resonated at
a national level, she said.
Working with Luke Johnston, of BrandAid, she went through the
process of reviewing the brand and assessing its suitability
for a national market.
''We decided that it was time for a change. Optima has had a
limited brand awareness in the market so the timing was right
for a fresh new approach.''
Oyster Executive Recruitment has been rolled out as a
national brand, with a launch this week. That was now her
Select had been taken to a level of success where the role
she needed to play was in governance and strategic
She had a very good team around her.
The choice of the name Oyster had been very topical.
Oysters were not readily available, they were highly sought
after and they could have a pearl in them, which was a good
analogy for what was done in recruitment.
''You want to have that pearl in the oyster because you want
all your clients to have the best they can possibly have in
terms of delivering business outcomes they need,'' she said.
For Ms Bardwell, who was always very passionate about what
she did, Oyster was her ''next baby''.
''For me, I suppose, I need that next baby really, that next
challenge. That's what Oyster is.
"We've been doing what Oyster does but under the radar. We're
now building a brand and profile and telling a story,'' she
Ms Bardwell loved the recruitment industry, especially
delivering good outcomes for clients and the ''fitting
While people often said they wanted to work in recruitment
because they liked people, that was not a criterion. Rather,
it required someone who was ''people-smart'' and analytical
with people and quite intuitive.
It was a challenging and demanding industry, not just because
it was competitive, but it was a ''24/7 type of industry'',
If she was dealing with a board member or chief executive who
was recruiting staff, they might not be available until 10pm
when they rang back.
''It has to be something you enjoy because you don't deal
with clients and candidates at 10pm if you don't enjoy it,''
The nice thing about being in her 40s was she was armed with
knowledge and experience and with a different level of
confidence in business.
''You don't sweat the small stuff. You become more strategic
in your thinking. There's something about being a bit
older,'' she said.
''Being in business for me is not about how much money you
"That follows if you do things right. It's being able to make
decisions for my life that I can influence,'' she said.
A mother to two sons, aged 16 and 12, Ms Bardwell said she
had now had a good work-life balance.
She learned very early in her career to ''compartmentalise
While that took a while to work out, as a working mother, she
had to be very clear about those lines.
If they started to merge, ''neither goes well''.
It was quite a discipline.
It was difficult as a mother to become ''quite hard'' about
that line, but that was the only way to make it work, she
She chose to live in Dunedin because it was where her family
was and she had a network built over her lifetime.
She was grateful to live in such a ''beautiful city''. She
travelled a lot and was always pleased to return.
''I live here because I like what Dunedin has to offer.
People criticise our climate. Who cares?
"They have barbecues, we have pot luck dinners and fires ...
it makes going on holiday a real treat because we want to go
to hot climates,'' she said.
When it came to doing business in Dunedin, there was some
self-doubt about what there was in the city and a tendency to
be quite inward-focused.
Living and working in a bigger city did not make someone
There were plenty of examples of businesses based in Dunedin
that were doing things to a global and national standard, but
there was a reluctance to ''shout'' about it.
Despite admitting not being a patient person, Ms Bardwell
said she had come to realise that everything has its timing
''and you've got to earn your time.
''I look around our team and our business works because ...
we've got great people.
"All from different walks of life, all different stages of
life. We all have similar values, we actually like each
''I look back on my career and I'm really grateful for the
relationships formed and the people I've had working around
me,'' she said.