Finding Transformative Leaders Fueling Growth & Innovation at Wilton & Bain

The London-based search firm has big aspirations as it makes inroads into the U.S. market helping companies find leaders to drive digital transformation.

June 26, 2019 – In the early years after its founding in 2001, London-based Wilton & Bain was content to be a respected, tightly focused professional services executive search firm. With technology as its niche, it was a good business, everyone agreed, and profitable. Yet it was relatively small and geographically limited.

Fast forward 18 years and behold a new picture: Wilton & Bain is making big gains in London and even more in the U.S., where it is in full growth and expansion mode. The firm has already planted its flag in New York (the new office opened last summer) and San Francisco (where it has had a presence since 2014). In October, Wilton & Bain will launch a three-person office in Boston, with more big plans on the horizon.

Making a Difference & Impact

If you should make the mistake of regarding this as just another U.K. firm seeking sanctuary from the upheaval of Brexit, CEO David Heron has a message for you: “We’re not just an organization that’s coming to the United States,” he said emphatically. “We’re coming to make a difference and an impact.”

Wilton & Bain provides executive search, interim management/consulting and technology resourcing services to the technology, professional services and converging digital markets. Its key focus is helping clients who are undergoing digital transformation, with a focus on the TMT, retail, consumer, financial services, private equity, insurance and utility sectors.

Since 2011, when the firm began to diversify its services across sectors as well as geography and started to build its brand internationally, business has grown five-fold. Today, just under 70 percent of Wilton & Bain’s revenues come from outside the U.K., across EMEA and the Americas.

“If you look at our growth in terms of pure economic metrics, in chapter one, our first 10 years, the business grew from nought to more than $3 million net fee income and from nought to 10 to 15 people,” said Mr. Heron. “In chapter two, from 2011 to 2017, we grew to $7 million net fee income and to 30 to 40 people. And in chapter three, the past two years, we’ve grown to almost $16 million, nearly 100 people, with four international offices and a far more diverse client community.”

Broadening its Niche and Appeal

This year alone Wilton & Bain has doubled headcount, doubled revenue and doubled profitability. Within the next few years, the firm is looking to be well established in Asia as well. So it only makes sense that Wilton & Bain is rebranding to reflect its new stature as an enterprise of scale and substance rather than just a small niche boutique. “I don’t think we want to ever be not niche, but we want to broaden our niche,” said Mr. Heron. “And technology-enabled change is a big old place to play, so there’s a lot of room for growth.”

So much so that over the next five years, the firm expects to increase headcount by as many as 50 people. It plans to triple U.S. business during that span, boosting the U.S. headcount by between 20 to 50 people and bringing in as much as $15 million in net fee income from its America-based operations.

Such targets are revealing. But perhaps managing partner Lisa Peacock-Edwards, who joined the firm last year to power its U.S. operations, sums it up best: “We’re a global boutique that is becoming a super boutique.”

Brand Relaunch

In Europe, Wilton & Bain is rated No.1 in technology, digital and professional services. With so many of its clients having offices in the U.S., the search firm’s expansion here was in many ways only natural. “It makes sense for us to be out here and to be able to grow that experience with them,” said Ms. Peacock-Edwards. “There’s also our positioning. We focus on companies going through transformation in technology, and that resonates very well within the North American business. You have the West Coast technology firms. You have big financial services outfits looking at transformation. It is a highly strategic position for us to continue to move into the U.S. market.”

How One Client Benefits

One Wilton & Bain client to see the benefit of the shift has been Chicago-based West Monroe Partners, a 1,300-person business and technology consultancy. West Monroe was introduced to the firm in 2017 through BearingPoint, its European partner. Last year, West Monroe Partners hired five executives that Wilton & Bain helped recruit. This year, that number will climb by five to 10 more.

“We’ve probably doubled the number of executives that we’ve hired this year compared to last year, and we’ve seen Wilton & Bain’s team grow as a result,” said Amy Sparling, senior talent acquisition manager, central region, for West Monroe Partners. “When I started working with them I had one single point of contact who was managing all the searches. At this point, this year, each of the positions that we’re working with them on has a single point of contact and two or three others below that person who are responsible for handling the coordination, the scheduling and really making sure they understand the candidate profiles. So we’ve really benefitted from seeing their team grow.”

Initially, Wilton & Bain handled a few technology executive searches for West Monroe, but has since taken on leadership searches across the firm. “They have really taken the time to get to know us as an organization and understand our culture beyond just our service offerings,” said Ms. Sparling. “They know what sticks. They know what kind of leader we’re looking for. It goes beyond the skills of the person, beyond their network, beyond their core capabilities. Their focus is the fit within our organization, the cultural alignment and what they can do to better our organization. They have really taken the time to get to know us, our people-first culture, and look beyond.”

Yes, they can check the boxes looking for X,Y and Z in the market, she added. “But then they can transition that conversation with the candidate into what West Monroe has to offer that their current employer may not, and does this look like the right next step for you. Wilton & Bain understands those candidate motivators as well as our motivators to find that alignment. They have done a fantastic job.”

Expansion Capital

Brexit, for its part, was much less a factor. For all the acrimony and hand-wringing that the U.K.’s difficult withdrawal from the European Union has produced, Wilton & Bain’s leaders said that it has had little effect on business. In fact, they said, the firm’s European business has doubled in the last couple years. “I spend very little of my time thinking about Brexit,” said Mr. Heron. “I think our industry is one that is potentially guilty of creating barriers to getting stuff done, and I don’t believe that political or economic uncertainty is going to impact the need for organizations to become more technologically enabled and digitally transformed, and it doesn’t really matter where they are.”

Indeed, one advantage that Wilton & Bain has had since its inception is its focus on technology. Initially, the firm served private-equity backed, ventured-backed dot-coms, ill-fated as they may have been. Over time, founders Jeremy Mobbs and Ben Latreuille along with Mr. Heron and some of the firm’s other leaders saw that technology and digital was at the heart of virtually every business they served, which helped Wilton & Bain solidify its niche. “We were in this very privileged position where our networks in management consulting and therefore transformation, strategy & change, and technology, were likely to be quite additive to businesses that were going through technology or digital change,” said Mr. Heron. “Which doesn’t really exclude anyone.”

Two years ago, Wilton & Bain secured investment from Beechbrook Capital to fund a management buyout as the firm looked to further its domestic and international growth. “Jeremy and Ben were best friends from university. They had spent 20 years of their lives living and working together, and they were brave enough to recognize that the firm needed new leadership. At the same time, they wanted to broaden the span of ownership in the firm, and reduce their involvement in day to day operations to focus on our clients” said Mr. Heron. “We wanted to invent and build something that was absolutely in line with Jeremy and Ben’s vision but with a new energy, and passion for our firm. We know that small businesses become very hand to mouth while serving their focus and what we wanted to do was build something that had consequence at its heart rather than be constantly focused on short-term fees and short-term revenue.”

“So we built a business that’s much more based around our values and our mission,” he said. “And our ambition back then and still now is to get to the end of our life with products and investment and be a global leader in what we do. We don’t want to be the biggest but we want people to look at us and say, ‘Hey that’s Wilton & Bain, take them seriously, they’re a good outfit.’”

Running on All Cylinders

Big goals, however, produce big challenges. Mr. Heron said he worries less about the dangers of the marketplace and more about tending to the needs of his employees. “Our assets are our people,” he said. “So our limiting factor is ourselves: our ability to nurture and develop and look after the brilliant people we already have; our ability to attract, retain and develop new people in a very competitive market; and our ability to think beyond the end of our noses in terms of creating an organizational structure and building career paths for our people. If you’ve got great people and you’ve got great culture and you do great work, then great clients will want to work with us. It is very difficult to achieve one without the other.”

Maintaining the organization’s infrastructure will be another vital component to success. The importance of making sure that the varied pieces and parts —technology, financials, operational support, marketing, branding and so on — are running on all cylinders cannot be understated, nor underestimated. “I’m really proud of what we have achieved in the last two years, but I only see it as having planted the architecture,” said Mr. Heron. “Now we need to get building, even in spite of the fact that we’ve grown significantly.”

Wilton & Bain Expands Global People and Culture Practice
London-based executive search firm Wilton & Bain has expanded with the addition of Tim Baker as a partner and leader of the firm’s global people and culture practice. 

“As we continue to grow our business globally the people and culture practice plays an important part in our success,” said Lisa Peacock-Edwards, managing partner. “With Tim joining we can be a true partner and advisor to existing and future CHROs as they look to drive change and growth within their businesses. Tim’s track record is exciting as it continues to build on our vision of thought leadership, market insights and advisory practices in Europe and the Americas.”

Mr. Heron wants to foster a sense of belonging across the firm . . . and across the ocean. If British Airways has seen a bump in business in recent months, the airline can no doubt thank the flurry of Wilton & Bain executives jetting back and forth between London and New York to better get to know one another. “Our chairman, Piers Marmion, spent a week in our New York office meeting all the team there, taking them out to dinner,” said Mr. Heron. “We’re having four of our board meetings next year in the United States. We bring every single person we hire in the U.S. over to London to make sure they’ve met the team, to integrate them. We have people from London flying to the U.S. almost every week to meet the team, to meet the clients, to make sure that we really build that mortar between the brick to enable the business to run.”

For Wilton & Bain, culture will be critical to its growth and in building relationships with clients. “If people really care about the firm they really care about their clients and then they will go above and beyond what is expected to make sure they deliver,” said Mr. Heron. “And that’s something we don’t just expect, but demand from them; that is the Wilton & Bain way. And what I talk about internally is moving the business from a culture of billing to a culture of building. If you think about helping the clients, what are you trying to do? You’re trying to build the relationship, you’re trying to integrate yourself. It’s more than the revenue.”

Embracing Diversity

No small part of that is the recruitment firm’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, both internally and externally. Beyond its efforts in running senior women networking events and its participation in diversity conferences, Wilton & Bain promises clients that it will work so that every short-list reflects true diversity. Educating clients about engaging diverse talent beyond the search itself is also critical. “I’ve spent a lot of time explaining to executives that getting a woman executive, for example, to the table takes 13 phone calls where it takes two for a man,” said Ms. Peacock-Edwards. “Therefore, we start building relationships with diverse executives ahead of when you actually need them for the job. It’s really about a long-term vision about how you help a company think about doing things differently and really engaging with that marketplace.”

Wilton & Bain Joins Inclusive Culture Pledge
Diversity and inclusion in the workplace is becoming increasingly important for both employers and employees. Research has shown that diverse businesses are 35 percent more likely to financially outperform their industry’s national average. For potential job hunters, 67 percent now consider a diverse workforce to be an important factor when considering job offers.

Recently, London-based executive search firm Wilton & Bain joined leading companies from a range of sectors and industries in signing the Inclusive Culture Pledge, an initiative managed by the EW Group, a diversity consultancy.

And as important as a commitment to diversity may be, internally as well as externally, Wilton & Bain gives great weight to the inclusion part of the formula as well. Today, the firm’s leadership team of seven is a mix of gender, race, and background. “Two years ago we were a leadership team of four British guys all from very similar backgrounds, and as a consequence, we ended up in this sort of echo chamber of our own group-think at meetings,” said Mr. Heron. “Today, I listen to the way that different people from different backgrounds think about the same problem, and we’re uncovering answers that we wouldn’t have even thought of two years ago. If you amplify that and put that into a massive global multinational, I think the opportunity to embrace that and drive step change in organizational performance is massive.”

Related: Search Firms Step Up Diversity Recruiting Initiatives

Ms. Peacock-Edwards explained that inclusion goes beyond one’s gender or ethnic heritage. “It’s about diversity of thought and diversity of skill-set as well as being open minded as to what the construction of the team is, and therefore the way you need to bring in fresh thinking or fresh ways across it,” she said.

Secret Sauce

Another key factor as Wilton & Bain expands it footprint will be its own internal application of technology, including artificial intelligence and machine learning. In an industry that in many ways is lagging behind other fields on that front, the firm is looking hard at ways to incorporate automation into its processes. One of its key missions over the next several years is to build a business with technology at the heart of it, said Mr. Heron. The goal is to use AI and machine learning to help make the firm’s processes more efficient and faster, and as a result deliver greater value to clients. “I see it as a way of taking away some of the menial, mundane, highly manual tasks and allowing our people to do higher value things,” said Mr. Heron. “That’s where the secret sauce is. And if we can do that, the value that the clients will see in terms of the product, in terms of the service, in terms of the speed will be that much greater.”

But for all the value that technology may bring as the firm grows, Mr. Heron keeps returning to a more basic part of the business, which he believes will drive its progress more than anything. “I want our brand to be synonymous with good people,” he said. “I want people to look at Wilton & Bain and say, ‘They’re a decent firm. They’ve got their feet on the ground. They’re ambitious. They’re humble. And they’re approachable and consultative.’ And I think we are.”

“If someone asked me what the No.1 factor behind our growth was, I would say it’s having moved the environment from being very focused but narrow minded to very focused and open minded. That has probably been the critical thing. And will continue to be as we build.”

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor; and Andrew W. Mitchell, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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