From a sales role into recruitment: my path to Altum Group

David Mc Dowell

David McDowell is founder and co-CEO of Altum Group. Learn how David started out at Xerox then switched career from a sales role into recruitment, and what he’s learned from that transition.

Tell me a little about your role here at Altum

As co-CEO of Altum Group, I’m responsible for the operations and day-to-day business of Altum Consulting and Azura Search. We have 32 employees in the group,  here in London and we’ve had an office in Amsterdam for over three years. It’s also my role to bring new business into our group of companies and I deliver on executive searches in the UK and internationally.

What were you doing before?

Before I founded Altum Group, I worked at Investigo, where I was Managing Director. When I joined there were 30 of us, and I helped the firm grow to a staff of 150. It was my role to hire talent into the group and to establish the controls and processes we needed. Before Investigo I’d worked at Martin Ward Anderson and Robert Walters.

Why did you choose to found Altum?

I left Investigo because I had a real desire to run my own business, and I wanted to do that before I turned 40. I wanted to create something I’d be really proud of, a business that people would want to work for. My goal was to build a truly international brand that clients and candidates would love to work with. I also had a keen desire to ensure our work helped other people. That’s why we decided to create the Altum Foundation, which so far has raised over £200,000 for charity, and has seen us take many of our own staff on experiences like cycling from Amsterdam to London and running the Sierra Leone marathon.  It’s been an incredible journey! 

Did you always know you wanted to work in recruitment?

No, I think most people fall into it. I originally followed in my father’s footsteps and worked as a salesperson for Xerox. I’d seen him enjoy a very successful career there, and I wanted the same. The sales training was fantastic, but I think I knew fairly early on that my heart wasn’t in selling machines. For me, I felt it would be more challenging to work with people. I spoke to friends about it and they suggested I should consider recruitment.  

What were the skills you could bring from a sales role into recruitment?

In any sales role, whether you’re selling products or services, it’s essential to really listen to the client and have empathy. You need to understand what a client wants so that you can sell the best solution. The Xerox training taught me to focus on the product advantages and its benefits to the client. Coming from a sales role into recruitment, I could see that I needed to present how a  candidate would add value to my client’s business and the benefit of having them in the team. Whether you’re proactively getting in touch to catch up, or responding to a new role they want to fill, you have to really listen to what the client wants if you’re going to place the right candidate with them.

What challenges did you face with a move into recruitment from a different industry?

At Xerox, you are selling a series of machines, all with set features. The machine will do what the box says it will. People, on the other hand, are motivated by many different things, and discovering what will be a good fit for them is challenging, exciting and rewarding.

It’s also quite tricky to learn the jargon of whichever industry you’re recruiting into. Particularly in the finance sector, and you have to understand it in order to fully grasp what the client needs. The sector is always evolving and so it’s important to keep up to date with the changes.

You have to be very tenacious in recruitment. There is a job out there for everyone, but it might be that on a search only the 100th person is right, and you have to keep going to identify that person. 

It’s also not a 9 – 5 job. Lots of people don’t want to speak to a recruitment consultant while they’re at work, and you have to respect that and be available out of hours to meet them. Having said that, we offer our staff flexibility in the way they work.  The reward is fantastic when you can put someone in the job they love and help them advance their career. You’ve helped your client too – it’s win-win. 

How has the role of a recruitment consultant changed since you first started?

I think it’s really competitive these days compared to when I started out. There are 30,000+ recruitment businesses in the UK today. Candidates and clients alike are approached all the time, you have to make sure you really listen to what they want to stand out. Everyone is time-poor and as such you need to be relevant with your approach to both clients and candidates.

Increasingly these days I think you’re acting as a more general consultant, too, and you’re expected to have extra insight about what’s going on in the market. We’re very lucky at Altum Group to have a dedicated training and development manager who equips the team with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful and consultative. So long as potential recruitment consultants applying to us have the core skills, for example drive, energy, passion and enthusiasm, we can teach the rest.

What trends do you foresee for 2020 and beyond?

In the UK, Brexit is a real hangover at the moment - businesses don’t like uncertainty and our finance candidates can be risk-averse. There is a lack of confidence. However, once a decision is made there is a huge opportunity for finance leaders to drive change in how they run the function, improving processes and their business partnerships. When cash flow is critical, finance plays a key role - it’s relatively recession-proof. 

With Brexit also comes an increase in the number of our UK based candidates looking for roles overseas.  It’s good for us - we have experience placing roles across 26 countries, so we can help. 

If you’re interested in moving from a sales role in a different sector into recruitment at Altum Group.  Then please contact me at or call  +44 (0) 20 3800 1430.