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The Big Interview: 'I have fallen flat on my face quite often, but people are very forgiving when you make a mistake'

NI21 co-founder and now FSB chair,Tina McKenzie talks to Lisa Smyth about some of her 'favourite' errors and how we need to tackle political challenges


Tina McKenzie at her desk in the FSB

Tina McKenzie at her desk in the FSB

Tina McKenzie

Tina McKenzie

Tina with former Ulster Unionists Basil McCrea and John McAllister at the launch of political party NI21 in 2013

Tina with former Ulster Unionists Basil McCrea and John McAllister at the launch of political party NI21 in 2013

Tina McKenzie at her desk in the FSB

Taking a risk to achieve her goals is far from alien to Tina McKenzie. From leaving a senior position at one of the most recognised recruitment agencies in the world and starting a business from scratch, to getting involved in Northern Ireland's notoriously precarious political world, she is not afraid of a challenge.

However, west Belfast-born Tina - who was appointed Northern Ireland chairperson of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in February - said it is this approach that has helped her cement her place as one of the Northern Ireland's leading business people.

"Bad things have happened to me practically every week throughout my career," she said.

"There have been failures every month and I have fallen flat on my face quite often.

"But it is learning from your mistakes that keeps you going.

"It's important to remember that, on the whole, people are very forgiving when you make a mistake.

"If you realise what the mistake is and you are upfront about it, especially in business, and you explain that you have learned from that mistake, then people are actually very good about offering the hand of friendship."

But the former politician, who was a member of cross-community party N121, says the present political instability resulting from a lack of Executive is not good for business and for the goals she has for the FSB.

She would like to see more done to help people return to employment and she said small businesses could play a vital role in this by creating more apprenticeships.

"At the moment we have a real scarcity of skills in Northern Ireland, such as carpenters and plumbers, and the reason for that is we don't respect these skills enough," she said.

"We're encouraging children to go to university - we see that as the only successful route to take, and we need to address that."

She also would like some form of housing benefit for those who are coming off benefits and going back into work - which would also encourage more housebuilding.

"It all ties into each other, it creates more jobs, creates more skills, and it could drive productivity in the economy.

"These aren't difficult things to do in government, but unfortunately we don't have that.

"The political instability isn't good for the economy and it's only natural that we have lost investment because of it."

The businesswoman said her resilience was particularly obvious following the collapse of NI21, the political party she co-founded alongside former UUP MLAs Basil McCrea and John McAllister.

Created with the promise that it would provide an alternative to the usual tribal politics seen in Northern Ireland, the party spectacularly imploded in the run-up to the 2014 European and council elections.

Tina resigned from her position as chairperson of the party on the day of the elections.

"It was a particularly difficult time, but what was also amazing about that time was the number of people who reached out to me," she said.

"These included people who I never imagined knew who I was, but they made it their business to get my number and call me and that was because they could see what I was trying to do.

"It was a difficult period, but looking back now I would have to say that it was my favourite mistake.

"When bad things happen it can take a couple of years for you to realise that they were actually a positive experience and it actually wasn't bad."

It is her willingness to step out of her comfort zone that has undoubtedly allowed Tina to flourish in the business world.

Certainly, her CV is impressive - at 45 years old she is a multi-award-winning business leader who has worked internationally over the last 20 years to become an industry leader in the recruitment sector.

With an impressive track record of building multi-million pound businesses, she is currently managing director of Staffline Group - the second largest recruitment agency in Ireland, with offices based in Dublin, Cork, Belfast and Londonderry.

She leads the three Staffline Group companies in Ireland - PeoplePlus NI, Staffline Recruitment and the recently acquired Diamond Recruitment.

With Staffline Group first starting operations in Belfast with two staff under Tina's direction in 2013, she has grown the business to a £53m company with over 100 staff here and in the Republic.

The success of the company is proof yet again of Tina's determination and fortitude in the business world.

"I don't think I actually knew what I was aiming to achieve when I started out, except that I told my team that we would have a £100m turnover by 2020," she said. "For the first three years, people laughed at me, but they stopped laughing because we are now actually on target to supersede that figure," she said.

According to Tina, she was always destined for a career in business, having spent her younger years working for family-run companies.

"I started out when I was 12 or 13," she said.

She went on to study philosophy at the University of Ulster before taking up a job working with the Probation Board, helping ex-offenders to get back into work.

"It was a project for all prisoners, people from all sides, for young offenders, older people, those who had made one mistake, those who had been in trouble repeatedly," she continued.

"I found it very interesting and I felt very blessed. It was a fantastic job and very humbling to be working with people across the spectrum."

After a number of years in the role and a period which she spent travelling, Tina moved to London and became a recruitment consultant.

She continued: "I walked into an agency and said I was looking for a job and I was having a conversation with the person there and ended up saying I could do what they were doing.

"I then met one of the managers and they offered me two jobs; one in Slough, which was a nine-to-five job with commercial customers and one in Hounslow in west London working from 6am to 6pm with councils and bin men and refuge companies.

"I asked which one could deliver the most success and they said definitely the one in Hounslow and I went on to double the size of the business in six months."

It was while living in London that Tina met and married Ian, and, following the birth of their first child, the couple - who are now parents to a 16-year-old daughter and two sons aged 13 and eight - decided to move to Northern Ireland to be closer to family.

Tina subsequently took up a post with global recruitment firm Randstad, and played a key role in its success and growth throughout the UK and Europe.

It was during this time that Tina, like many working mums, made countless sacrifices in order to support her family.

While Ian took up the mantle of stay-at-home dad, Tina divided her time between work at locations around the UK and Europe and weekends with her family at their home in Wales.

"I did feel jealous that he was getting to share experiences with the kids while I was at work, but at the same time he was giving up something so I could work," she said.

Drawing on her own experience to achieve a balance, Tina is now looking at introducing better support, to allow other women to develop their careers.

"I think it is a social issue that we need to tackle," she said.

Tina - named as the Honorary Consul to Finland in Belfast last November - said society here should look to the example set by Nordic countries, where men take as much responsibility for children as women. "They have a much better gender balance, because fathers aren't looked down upon for becoming the home maker," she said. "In fact, it is deemed quite bad when a man doesn't take time off to look after their children.

"I think we need to work harder at creating a society where both parents have equal value and so men feel comfortable taking the role of home maker."

She added: "After all, there is no more important job in life than bringing up your children."

And, true to this belief, Tina made the decision to put her children first and resigned from her job as director of Randstad healthcare.

"My daughter was getting to the age where school was important and I knew that Northern Ireland has a very good education system, so we moved back here," she says.

"It wasn't a difficult decision, I resigned from my job and I didn't have a job to go to, but I'm quite a decision maker.

"Once I make up my mind, the decision is final and I think you know when the time is right to move on.

"When we got back to Northern Ireland I met a head-hunter and she asked me if I was mad. She said I would never get another job like the one I had, but I have gone on to build up Staffline.

"The way I see it is 'what is the worst thing that could happen?'.

"I can do anything and work anywhere, I'm not attached to material things, I have started from scratch before, so that doesn't really scare me.

"I think that's a nice way to be, because if you take more risks, you fall more often and if you fall more often you will learn to pick yourself back up and you will ultimately be more successful.

"If you go out every day and work hard, if you network with people, if you give customers the best service they can get, if you start every day as if it is your first and treat every customer as if they are your first, then you will end up being successful.

"For me, it's the people who have kept me going over the years and I've tried to surround myself with people who are honest with me. I like to remember that you are not your job, and that the only thing that really matters is how you treat people and your family."

'Have a plan and back up reserves if you can'

Q. What is the best piece of business (or life) advice you've ever been given?

A. Things are never as bad as they seem or as good as they seem.

Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?

A. Have a plan and back-up reserves if you can afford it. Also, it may be worth having a part-time job to pay the bills until the business can afford you.

Q. What was your best business decision?

A. To start again in Northern Ireland five years ago from a standing start, after working in an international role for a multi-billion euro company. It was exciting and very scary, however it was humbling and empowering. You remember what it feels like when no one knows what your business offers. To go from that to a £65m turnover in five years was liberating.

Q. If you weren't doing this job, what would be your other career?

A. As politician or an Ambassador for Northern Ireland in the USA, selling the positives of this place.

Q. What was your last holiday?

A. I took a break over the last bank holiday weekend. I went to Spain and had a lovely time.

Q. Where are you planning to go next?

A. I am planning to head back to Spain for some more time in the sun.

Q. What are your hobbies/interests?

A. I enjoy property development, and have a real interest in old houses and classic cars, as well as travelling.

Q. What is your favourite sport and team?

A. Sport isn't really my thing.

Q. Have you ever played any sports?

A. I played some Gaelic football at university, though I was pretty poor at it.

Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?

A. Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance. It's a memoir about a family and a culture in crisis.

Q. How would you describe your early life?

A. Happy and fun. Lots of family - lots of noise.

Q. Have you any economic predictions?

A. I think we will be pretty static until the middle of next year when we exit Europe. I'm hoping Northern Ireland will have a unique position to help us take advantage of both the EU market and GB markets. I think either way there will be a boost, as the uncertainty is really hurting the economy.

Q. How would you assess your time in business with FSB?

A. I have loved my time so far, getting to know people who run small businesses is so interesting and grounding. These people on the whole are very inspiring and in fact they are the backbone to our economy, both here in Northern Ireland and right across the UK.

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