My Business Life: Kieran McKeown, Matrix

Matrix Recruitment Group is one of Ireland’s leading recruitment firms. Founded in 1998 by Kieran McKeown it has offices in Waterford, Carlow and Athlone.

What is your background, what journey did you take to arrive at where you are?

My interest in recruitment began as a candidate. I qualified as an accountant and my early career was spent working for multinationals, but I made a promise to myself that every two years, I’d go back out into the jobs market and see what was going on.

I ended up working in Waterford with Bausch & Lomb as a financial controller and then moved into supply chain management. In 1996, there was a reorganisation and as a result, I was offered voluntary redundancy which I jumped at. I had 20 years in the industry, and I had always dreamed about starting my own business.

“Recruitment has changed dramatically in the past two years, and we are continually reviewing our business model.”

I began by providing management accounting services to businesses in Waterford and there was plenty of work with the euro changeover on the way, but it wasn’t anything concrete. That’s when I happened to have a conversation with a friend of mine who spoke about being swamped trying to recruit accountants for clients. There was a gap in the market, and it led to the two of us setting up Matrix Recruitment.

Why are you doing what you are doing? What need are you meeting? What’s your USP? 

I really enjoy what I do, it is challenging, unpredictable at times and requires loads of patience and resilience. Each day brings up something new, which I love. Our USP is the level of experience we possess as a company. We can offer practical advice to clients, candidates and consultants. We are a regional agency with local knowledge and expertise. 

How did you fund and start the business and what are your growth plans?

The business start-up was funded by the two directors initially and this allowed us to wait until placements started to happen which generated income. Additionally, we availed of a European grant which promoted cooperatives.

Recruitment has changed dramatically in the past two years, and we are continually reviewing our business model. Currently, we are focusing on different industry sectors, managing our available capacity to recruit and concentrate on business sectors where we are strong, such as office support, public sector, and financial services. We expect to grow our income by 15% over the next two years.

“A big lesson I learned early on is that cash is king and cash flow planning is so important”

What are your key skills and qualities that set you apart?

It may sound basic, but a key skill I possess is my innate understanding of the recruitment process. I understand the importance of the 3 Cs when it comes to recruiting – Consultant, Client and Candidate. The relationship between each is very important and as the consultant, it is your responsibility to match candidates with clients, not just by the skills required for the job, but also by their values. It’s a delicate process but one I have never fallen out of love with.

As for my personal qualities, I would say I have a ‘can do, will do’ attitude, I’m resilient and optimistic and have a huge drive to succeed. I am also very open to sharing my experiences and nurturing talent.

What (or whom) has helped you most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?

In my career, I have always reviewed ideas from experts in recruitment and evaluated how they could help improve our business approach. The greatest mentor I had was a Russian Vice President of Operations, whom I worked with for two years. It was all about seeing the bigger picture and evaluating the outcomes of potential actions.

“I think hard work and a little bit of luck go hand in hand when it comes to success”

What was the greatest piece of business advice you ever received?

A big lesson I learned early on is that cash is king and cash flow planning is so important. I would advise any business owner to retain sufficient reserves to allow you to meet your plans for the business and prepare for any unforeseen circumstances.

And as well as that, be honest in everything that you do.

What circumstances/qualities/events can mark the difference between success or failure in life or business?

I think hard work and a little bit of luck go hand in hand when it comes to success. For example, one event that spurred the business on and allowed us to grow in the early years of Matrix Recruitment was down to one fortunate phone call made at the right time – I was carrying out some business development calls and managed to get through to the project manager of a new start-up company. The project manager invited us to prepare a package to become the sole recruitment agency for the company. We managed to impress them with our package and won the contract. This one seemingly insignificant call became pivotal to our success and the rest is history.

What was the most challenging aspect of either starting or growing the business? 

The most challenging part of starting and growing a business is understanding what the business is and what you are offering to your customer. Once you know this the next most important thing that comes to play is managing your cash flow.

“I’m a firm believer in learning lessons from your mistakes. We all come across barriers or challenges in life, both personally and professionally”

How did you navigate your business through the pandemic and what lessons did you learn?

The pandemic was a huge learning curve for me and my team. There was a massive drop in the number of jobs vacancies coming in at the start of the pandemic. We quickly realised that we would need to reduce our team’s working hours to survive, which we did. The Covid grants were crucial to keeping us going and we availed of them until our job volumes increased.

At the start of the pandemic, we also had to pivot to a work from home model and embrace new ways of working, this included a daily review of our activities. Communication was vital in getting everyone to buy into this new way of doing things and I learned that transparency and frequent communication with staff was the best way to ensure morale was kept strong throughout this uncertain time. 

How has digital transformation been a factor in your scaling journey, and do you believe Irish firms are utilising digital technologies sufficiently?

Digital collaborative tools such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom have become a key part of our daily work process, particularly over the past two years. These tools have allowed us to have internal meetings and, more importantly, set up interviews with candidates to keep the process moving for them and clients. As new technologies are developed, we will continue to evaluate their usefulness. However, in our business face to face contact is crucial and we will never solely rely on digital tools to get the job done.

If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

I’m a firm believer in learning lessons from your mistakes. We all come across barriers or challenges in life, both personally and professionally. There’s are lessons in there if you are willing to learn them. So, despite many ups and downs, more ups than downs I am grateful to say, I wouldn’t do anything differently. This year marks 24 years of Matrix Recruitment and I’d happily do it all over again.

Who inspires you in business today? 

Willie Walsh has had an incredible career and is someone who has inspired me through the years. Starting out as an airline pilot, he went on to become the CEO of Aer Lingus and then the chief executive of IAG. Today he is leading the aviation industry’s response to the pandemic at the Director General of IATA (International Air Transport Association). it’s an incredible achievement and a fantastic case study for anyone focused on advancing their career. 

I particularly admired how he handled the Terminal 5 fiasco at Heathrow in 2008. He took responsibility for the multitude of problems that greeted the launch of the new terminal and had the temerity to go before the media and take the hit for what had happened. He is someone I admire greatly for what he has achieved and how he deals with adversity.

What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation?

I think that being positive is one of the most motivating attributes that anyone can bring to the workplace and it’s infectious. Having a positive attitude can take you very far indeed. 

In terms of nurturing talent internally, we always encourage our staff to upskill and they often attend webinars that are relevant to their roles. We also have an educational assistance programme whereby we support staff to upskill by going back to college part-time.

What business books do you read or would recommend?

I’m afraid to say I don’t have much time for reading these days, but I always pick up The Sunday Business Post and Accountancy Magazine, and I also enjoy reading presentations from the recruitment guru Greg Savage. 

What technologies/tools do you use personally to keep you on track?

I am a great follower of ‘to do’ lists which I update every evening. So far as possible, I would use a LEAN approach. 

What social media platforms do you prefer and why?

Social media is not something I use in my downtime. But professionally, as a recruitment agency, LinkedIn is an invaluable social platform to have when seeking out talent for our clients, advertising jobs and extending our candidate pool.

What are your thoughts on where technology overall is heading and how it will apply to business generally and your business particularly? 

There will be an increased emphasis on the use of artificial intelligence to eliminate manual processes and allow staff to complete the core activities of their job. 

World-class business teams will be created and will be defined by their ability to attract top talent and develop, motivate, and retain that talent.

Most importantly, there will be to continuously invest in that talent in terms of skills, competencies, tools, technologies, and experiences. Talent will be the key to differentiate in business performance. 

Finally, if you had advice for your 21-year-old self – knowing what you know now – what would it be?

Keep your eyes open, listen to what is going on around you, don’t be afraid to ask questions, recognise that you will make mistakes and always proffer respect and honesty. Finally, you are living in an ever-changing world, if you have a desire to change your career direction, check it out and go for it. I could never have envisaged moving from Accountancy to Supply Chain to Recruitment, but here I am!

John Kennedy
Award-winning editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.