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Looking Back: A Conversation with Gary Browning

A lot goes into keeping a business at the forefront of its industry. Adaptability. Innovation. Expertise. But what really differentiates an organisation is its people. Passionate people, who want to make a difference. And Penna has a proven record of all the above. That’s what Gary Browning, ex-Chief Executive of Penna, said when we had a chat with him in the lead up to celebrating our 50th year. “Recruitment isn’t rocket science. It’s about great people doing great things for clients”.

Continue reading to learn how Gary helped build the culture at Penna and why he believes its future looks even brighter.

Before 2002, Gary had never worked in recruitment. He’d spent the last decade training and mentoring people at BDG McColl – a renowned design and branding communications agency. So, stepping into the role as Managing Director of Recruitment Business at Penna was destined to be a challenge. But it was one he embraced head-on:

“Having done a lot of work with the Design Council through BDG McColl, I knew they needed a new non-executive board, which I shared on my first day. We ended up recruiting for nine non exec roles, and that was how my journey at Penna began.”

After that, Gary continued to help Penna evolve, including turning it into the leading public-sector recruitment agency it is today.

“It was 2003 and my wife and I were flicking through The Times. Those were the days when they published pages and pages of job ads. There were lots of public sector roles being advertised, and so I had an idea: we’d leverage the relationships we’d built with our change consultancy business and set up a public sector recruitment business. The rest is history.”

Back in 2004, Penna had established 32 outplacement offices in towns all around the UK. They were used as a place for people who’d been made redundant to access the technology and coaching support they needed to find work. But by then, the need for those office spaces had significantly decreased, and Gary felt it was time to reshape the business:

“At that time, many people had access to tech at home and there wasn’t such a stigma around being made redundant. So I made the decision to close 26 offices. Colleagues were certain I was going to destroy what was seen as a market-leading outplacement business.”

Instead, this change saved the business millions in costs, and revenue went up 15% in the first year. With this success, just three years after he’d joined, Gary was appointed Chief Executive of the Penna Group, with a mandate to transform the business:

“I wanted to create a business that offered a holistic blend of recruitment, change management, coaching, assessment, consulting and outplacement services.”

And that was no small feat. But before long, Penna would go on to buy the oldest recruitment communications agency in the UK:


“I knew the Chief Executive of Barkers, who got in touch with me. They were about to go into administration. And within two weeks, we’d bought it.”

As well as approximately 250 colleagues, Barkers brought with it many valuable government contracts and clients, but it needed to be modernised. That’s when Julie Towers and Keith Pilling came on board:

“My entire career has been defined by moments of good fortune and meeting Julie and Keith was definitely one of them.”

Working together, they continued to expand the business, acquiring the likes of CIPFA Resourcing Services and 360 Career Café. And as well as transforming Penna’s service offering, they set about creating a strong, positive culture within the business. One that endures to this day:

“Peter Drucker, a well-known consultant in the 1950s famously wrote: ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, and I agree. If you can create motivation in the workplace, that leads to happy clients, which in turn leads to more business.

It’s about making a difference. Whether we’re finding people new jobs, helping people develop their skills or helping people transition out of their careers, Penna makes a difference to people’s lives. That’s what makes it a joy.”

And even now, Gary can reel off Penna’s values – being accountable, collaborative, supportive and inspiring. And he believes that’s what sets us apart:

“It’s all about how leaders live by and promote their values. Strategies have to change. You have to be agile in business and ready to change direction. But if a positive culture endures, that’s where success lies. And it’s wonderful to see it’s still present at Penna.

There are thousands of recruitment companies in the UK, but there aren’t many great ones. Penna has people who know how to build positive bonds and create great relationships with both candidates and clients. That’s why it will continue to thrive.”

Now, as well as staying busy with his grandchild, Gary is a chairman of various organisations including Employment Conditions Abroad and Harvey Nash. He’s also exploring AI within his work and thinks that, while it will certainly be beneficial to the recruitment industry, it will never beat a human touch:

“A podcast I listened to the other day said that by 2035, the gap between a machine's intelligence and a human's intelligence will be about a billion. To put it into context, that’s the same gap that existed between Albert Einstein and a fly”.

This year, we’re proud to be celebrating 50 years of delivering creative solutions for our clients, and matching our candidates with impactful careers. It was a pleasure taking a trip down memory lane with Gary, who has been an incredibly vital part of Penna’s journey. We look forward to seeing what in store for us next!

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