City job interview, shortly after the Brexit referendum, 2016.
Interviewer: Thank you for coming in, Mr Page. May we call you Michael?
Candidate: No. Not any more. I’ve changed my name to just Page.
Interviewer: Oh, I see. Well, er, Mr Page, we’re looking for a recruitment consultant that can cope in a post-Brexit jobs market. What do you think is needed now?
Candidate: Diversification is an important element to reduce dependency on individual businesses or markets.
Interviewer: Yes, but how can it be done?
Candidate: By growing organically existing and new teams, offices . . .
Interviewer: And what, specifically, would you seek to grow?
Candidate: Total gross profit from a) geographic regions outside the UK; and b) disciplines outside of finance.
Interviewer: Bravo! A textbook answer!
And that, more or less, was the exact answer that PageGroup plc — the FTSE 250 recruitment consultant formerly known as Michael Page — gave worried investors following the EU vote. It went down well, too: shares in Page doubled over the next two years as its gross profit from non-UK markets rose from 73 per cent of the total to 82 per cent.
But, on Monday, the investors’ preferred candidate discovered the big problem with textbook answers: they do not allow for reality. In a presentation that was meant to reaffirm its credentials, Page had to admit that the election of Donald Trump as US president and his ensuing trade wars had cut its growth in China from 31 per cent to 12 per cent in single quarter. City inquisitors furrowed their brows — and sold down the shares by 7 per cent. Mention of “trade tariff uncertainty”, as well as “Brexit-related uncertainty” only made it sound like the candidate was gabbling.
Page then seemed to fluff other lines. When put under pressure, recruiters are supposed to come back strongly with mention of temporary hires. But Page reported that gross profit growth from temps had slowed from 15 per cent to 9 per cent quarter-on-quarter, even as permanent hiring growth fell.
Worse still, the one-time City favourite seemed to lose its confidence at the end: Page confessed that it now expected its fee-earning capacity to reduce. Having boasted of adding an average of 187 fee earners in each of the previous three quarters, it said it added only 58 in Q4.
Were Page’s interviewers being too harsh on it, though?
Arguably, yes. Much of the apparent slowdown was from an abnormally strong third quarter: Page’s gross profit growth in China was simply back to its quarterly average and, in the UK, actually higher. This is still a British business that has produced double-digit pre-tax profit growth in the two years after the Brexit vote, despite the Brexit vote. And, as well as diversifying away from the UK — partly inadvertently — it has consciously diversified away from financial recruiting, which now accounts for only one one-third of hires.
Given the attitude of some City types, who could blame Page for that?
Acacia’s acid test
Aqua fortis or nitric acid is used to test the quality of gold, writes Kate Burgess. And African gold miner Acacia Mining, once known as African Barrick, was rather dunked in an acid bath in 2017, when President John Magufuli of Tanzania claimed the group owed $190bn in taxes. There it has stayed.
Acacia on Monday issued good news: production in 2018 has been substantially above expectations. Net cash balances rose to $88m. But that remains secondary to the unresolved dispute with the Tanzanian president.
Barrick owns 64 per cent of Acacia as a legacy of the old days. It has a vested interest in brokering a peace. There has been talk of a resolution whereby Acacia hands a greater economic interest plus $300m to Tanzania. But efforts to clinch a deal by Barrick, under chairman John Thornton, have stalled — a point driven home last week when the Tanzanian government slapped a $130,000 fine on Acacia for environment rule breaches.
Now that Barrick has merged with Randgold, Acacia investors are pinning hopes on Randgold boss Mark Bristow, an old Africa hand and now chief executive of Barrick. Acacia shares have nearly doubled since September.
However, the buccaneering Mr Bristow has a long to-do list amid gold price weakness and talk of production peaking within two years. A tie-up between Newmont and Goldcorp of North America, to form the world’s largest gold producer, underlines the sector’s challenges. Consolidation will close off opportunities and throw up new ones. It may also put off would-be buyers of Acacia. All of which will keep Acacia in the bath for a fair while yet.
Revolution’s bar king
As profits fall at bar chain Revolution, boss Rob Pitcher has concluded: “The days of the DJ in the corner are gone; it needs to be a lot more than that.” Given he is now being outperformed by pub group Greene King, how about an old man with a dog?
Acacia Mining: firstname.lastname@example.org
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