Join us for the latest in our #Take15 series talking with local Bristol business owners about how their companies and industries have evolved over the past decade and a half.
Here we welcome David Major of ibex gale talking about how he and his business partner Poppy Jenkins got into the employment relations business and the changes they’ve seen in the past fifteen years:
Q. Let’s start with a pretty basic question. What does an employment relations consultant do, exactly?
Ha! Well, it’s our job to help organisations improve their company cultures and resolve any problems they’re having with their employees.
It’s the same field as employment law, which I used to be in. But instead of providing some advice and letting the client get on with it, ibex advises organisations and then actually helps them achieve what they want to achieve. It’s a much more hands-on approach.
Q. Why did you start ibex gale?
Both Poppy and I used to be employment lawyers. We both worked for a big international law firm and I think it would be fair to say we were both very career-driven. We would work hard from 8 am in the morning until 9 pm at night and didn’t give much thought to anything else. But we were both looking for a better work/life balance and also wanted to support our clients in a more practical way, and that’s really where it all started – the idea of using the skills we had in a better way. We started ibex gale eight years ago and today we have thirteen employees and about twenty consultants.
Q. What was the industry like 10-15 years ago?
When we started out, it was very much a bunch of employment lawyers sitting in their ivory tower offices, dishing out advice that often wasn’t very practical. In fact, it often tended to come out of a textbook.
I started to realise that a lot of the advice I myself was giving out every day wasn’t actually very helpful. It was what the law said rather than being something people could actually do anything with.
At Ibex, we’re very much geared toward being pragmatic and focused on finding specific solutions to specific problems.
Q. What were the biggest challenges when you first started out?
The first few years were fairly smooth sailing. There were just the two of us, so it was pretty straightforward being independent consultants. There was a steady stream of work and we got to choose our own clients.
About six years ago we made a conscious decision to grow the business. Since then, the key
challenge has been moving away from it just being us doing all the work to it being the business – the brand – that does the work.
That meant creating and building a brand and identity that would make people trust us and know they would get the same standard of work no matter who was doing it.
In turn, that meant finding and hiring the right people. For us, this can be tricky. We’re in a niche field. We’re not a law firm, but understandably, given the type of work we do, we do appeal to employment lawyers who are looking for interesting, challenging work but don’t necessarily want to be part of that big corporate law firm culture – people who want to work part-time for childcare reasons, for example.
Actually, one of the challenges we faced right from the start was being behind the curve when it comes to the number of companies we can help given our existing staff resources.
Q. So why have so many organisations started choosing employment consultants instead of lawyers?
I think there are a few factors here. Firstly, lots of companies are starting to be more savvy. They’re aware that lawyers don’t necessarily provide the best value in terms of actually solving their problems. The quality of legal advice can vary massively.
They like that ibex has that grounding in employment law, but that we also have hands-on knowledge and can hold their hand through the process.
There’s also the fact that most organisations have cut back their HR teams. As that capacity has shrunk, organisations find themselves needing external support. So we do workplace investigations into things like misconduct and complaints that would have been handled by HR or a manager fifteen years ago. These days, people are too busy to do that and their resources are too slim.
Q. How else has the industry changed since you started ibex?
There is more focus on corporate culture and identity – employees are much more concerned about the culture of the organisation they work for. Corporate responsibility is also now a big topic.
There’s more of an understanding that company culture needs to be built from the beginning too, and that workplace culture evolves and you can’t let it evolve unsupervised. You need to have a vision of where you’re going to go.
Q. Speaking of vision, what are you proudest of about how your and Poppy’s vision for ibex turned out?
The thing I’m proudest about? I’d say it’s the opportunities we create for people from legal or HR backgrounds to come and work in an organisation that provides them with a great culture and flexibility, that treats people as trusted adults, and allows them to work with a team of colleagues who are genuinely supportive, empathetic people who are also able to work to very high standards.
It was something Poppy and I both wanted when we started – being able to work normal hours and spend more time with our families, but also build a fantastic business which did amazing work for its clients and provides the kind of flexible, supportive, empowering culture that we want to be part of, and that we want to help our clients build too.
Contact ibex gale for a chat about their culture – or yours. Call them on 0117 920 0137.