Brand dredges human resources to net pearler staff

Karen Bardwell's primary focus is now on Oyster Executive Recruitment which has been rolled out...
Karen Bardwell's primary focus is now on Oyster Executive Recruitment which has been rolled out as a national brand. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
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.

When Karen Bardwell returned to Dunedin after about five years away from the city, she was not sure what she was going to do.

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 executive recruitment.

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 primary focus.

Select had been taken to a level of success where the role she needed to play was in governance and strategic leadership.

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 said.

Ms Bardwell loved the recruitment industry, especially delivering good outcomes for clients and the ''fitting together'' process.

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'', she said.

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,'' she said.

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 make.

"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 things''.

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 said.

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 better.

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 other.

''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.

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