UCD Business Alumni In Profile: Kevin Thomas
MSc in Business (Leadership and Management Practice) '19
After leaving school Kevin Thomas built a successful career in sales management before undertaking the Pathway to MSc in Business with UCD Smurfit School’s Executive Education team in 2017. In 2019, he co-founded One Agency Recruitment, which connects with candidates through social media and was named Innovator of the Year in the SFA National Small Business Awards 2022.
About Kevin Thomas
Tell us a bit about your education and early career
I left school at 13 when I was in my second year of secondary school so I had no junior cert or leaving cert. The reason I left so early was because my mam was a single mother paying bills and I wanted to help out at home. But school wasn’t for me anyway – I didn’t know at the time I was suffering from a bit of depression and anxiety, which came out later in life. Initially, I worked as a lounge boy and then I became an apprentice barman. When I was 18 I got a job in Eircom – through its agent, CPM – doing door-to-door sales. There was a clear career path in the company – people had gone in as sales reps and moved into management and progressed and progressed – and I just became obsessed with that. By 22 I was regional sales manager, managing Dublin door-to- door sales teams. My last title in Eir was head of SME, and I had about 160 staff reporting in to me.
I went to UCD because I felt like a fraud, even though I had progressed my career quite well. I wanted to get that stamp of approval education wise. From 18 to 25 I had been self-educating with YouTube videos in things like Excel and PowerPoint and how to present myself, but I needed something more formal. Even though I had no qualifications I got into MSc Pathway because I had 10 years’ business management experience; I went from a level 0 to a level 9 in three years within UCD.
It was a huge challenge. At the time I struggled with written communication. While I was doing the MSc I was also doing English lessons with my younger sister who’s a primary school teacher because my written English wasn’t great. I could get away with it day-to-day via emails and Word, but the anxiety of being in a classroom with 30 people and having to write something on a whiteboard was different. When I got the feedback from my first assignment I mailed John O’Gorman, who was lecturer on the high-performance sales and business development programme, and asked him what a contents page and referencing was – we still have a laugh about this! John took a bit of a shine to me and was a huge part of me sticking with the course.
I finished the first diploma with a first-class honours degree, was doing well in work and had just built my own house, which had been my long-time goal. But I found I still wasn’t happy – I was actually going the other way. That little bit of education was making me really understand that all these goals and aspirations I was setting and achieving weren’t actually solving my problems. I was going to work every day at 6 in the morning and driving home at 6pm crying to myself in the car and not understanding what was going on. I was masking depression and eventually couldn’t control it anymore. I was seeing a GP who was encouraging me to go into hospital but couldn’t drop out of college. In a strange way the depression would have won as I would have stayed a ‘fraud’. The thing with my depression was I didn’t feel like I deserved to be happy, so each success started a new challenge, each time a bigger target. This helped me mask the depression while also making me motivated.
We finished on a Saturday after my first year of the MSc and I signed myself into St Pat’s for depression the next day. That completely changed my life and my priorities. I came out the other side of depression and out of that dark place. But it’s not gone. It’s never gone. I take medication and I am content with that. I think it’s important to speak about mental health because there’s such a stigma to depression, especially in the corporate world. When I was back in college, there were lots of talks and modules around entrepreneurship and writing business cases in a creative way. I wrote one of my business cases based on my concept for One Agency Recruitment and, a little while later, decided to go and set it up. It hadn’t been a particular goal to start my own company. In the job I was in, I had started with a headcount of 35 people and grew that to 160 so it was like I was running my own business in my company. But the culture changed in Eir when it was bought out and I made the decision then that my time there was done. I had sat on the business case for about a year. I was encouraged by what lecturers were saying to me regarding the model and research I had completed. It wasn’t proven so there was a big risk to it. You doubt yourself but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.
The idea started when a CPM director came to visit me in St Pat’s and talked about the idea of setting up agency recruitment within the company. Later, I was in Disneyland Paris with my daughter who was 13 at the time and I started seeing the impact Instagram and social media were having on her. She knew exactly where to go even though she’d never been there. She said an influencer had visited the previous week and had posted all about it. Then she was talking about clothes and buying them in Pretty Little Thing, which uses influencers and social media so well. I was already researching the recruitment industry and was amazed there wasn’t any recruitment agency in Ireland or across Europe that was leveraging Instagram. When I started carrying out extensive research everything pointed to passive candidates being more likely to engage through social recruiting: they’re not on job websites or Indeed but they are on Instagram. Myself and my business partner, who’d worked with me for 15 years in Eir, decided we’d give it a go. And this year we were recognised as the Innovator of the Year in the SFA National Small Business Awards 2022.
What is your role?
I’m a director in the company and we’ve a team of eight. My main side of the business is strategy and marketing, and my business partner manages the recruiters and finances. My role is more around the vision and growing the business and the brand – but as a small business owner you find yourself doing everything.
What motivates you?
I love being successful, working hard for what I have. I love overcoming a challenge and especially when people tell me I can’t do something.
But my values have massively changed. When you go into somewhere like St Pat’s and you’re going through counselling you learn a lot about yourself. Now, I might be out playing golf or cutting my grass during ‘working hours’, and I won’t feel guilty about it. I remember being on my honeymoon walking down the beach on a conference call. You wouldn’t get that from me now. The important things for me are seeing my kids grow up and having a good work life balance. It’s great growing the business and making money but it’s not the same as time with your kids. There are still ups and downs, but I don’t get emotional or stressed about it anymore.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I’ve been told I’m very authentic and very focused on culture. I believe in managing people before we manage numbers. When you walk into our office there’s a picture on the wall that says ‘passion, innovation, agile, hard work & vision’ – for me these are non-negotiable. Our office is the kind of office where we want people to be innovative and have freedom of speech.
Who has inspired or influenced you?
My mother worked seven days a week driving a taxi; back then it was not common to see a woman drive a taxi, never mind seven days a week. Her style is to put the head down and go do it, if you want something you work for it. That’s what’s ingrained in me. I broke her heart when I left school at 13 and now she’s in every graduation picture with me. Having the three plaques on the wall are fantastic but the photos with my mam are special – I let her down but hopefully these make up for it. Another influence is Mel Carson, who was in CPM during the time I was there and was like a father figure to me throughout. Mel’s leadership is about integrity – this is a big thing with him and I took so much direction from this value. I always felt his support, especially during challenging times.
Another is Leonard Morrissey, my business partner. I walked out of St Pat’s after six weeks with an idea called One Agency Recruitment. Most people properly thought I should have spent another six weeks in Pat’s! Leonard backed the idea and brought it to life and I will be forever grateful, as without him it most likely would have remained an idea. And there’s John O’Gorman. Without him in year one I would have left college. John was very intimidating (in the nicest way) on day one – he’s a very polished, very well-spoken guy. Intimidating became the opposite over time. He could properly see I was a little bit disengaged; I wasn’t going to go back after the first day and if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have. He was incredible throughout college and has continued to stay in touch, a relationship I value so much. Every year he saw my mam at graduation he took the time to speak with her and every call I have with him he asks for her.
Is ongoing learning important to you?
Yes, I’m always reading now. The thing that’s different is that I don’t read an article or a book and want to create something on the back of it. Previously, if I was learning something in college, I’d be like: ‘Let’s do this. Let’s do that”. I was a million miles an hour. Now, it’s more of an enjoyable thing. And I read more about people’s behaviour and personality profiling and that really intrigues me. But it doesn’t make me want to then try to transform the business.
What advice can you share?
If you want something work at it. Don’t let anybody tell you can’t do it. I also think we live our lives like we’re invincible. But we’re all living waiting to die, so why not enjoy it. Your stresses and worries now will most likely not be your stresses and worries in 12 months’ time. Find something you’re passionate about, love what you do and do it really, really well. Whether you make €20k a year or €150k a year you must have passion for what you do. If you don’t, you literally commit spiritual suicide because you’re doing something every day that you don’t love doing.
What would you feel are your biggest achievements to date?
Three healthy kids, amazing wife, my dream home, peace of mind, happiness and coming out the other side of depression. And going to college and setting myself a target of getting a first-class honours degree – I’m happy I did that over three years and didn’t just ‘tick the box’.
Do you have career or business aspirations going forward?
The business case is written to continue to build the business and grow it across Europe and that’s the plan. We’re having fun with it and growing at a steady pace. We’re only in business for three years and we have a great portfolio of customers. We’re doing it at our pace, and we’ve refused investments. We will grow it into the UK probably next year and then we’ll look at Spain.
How has your degree benefited your career?
It has given me the structures, processes and disciplines to start and scale a business. I feel I can qualify and quantify things to ensure we make the rightdecisions.
What is your fondest memory from your time in UCD Smurfit School?
The people – learning and listening to so many amazing people was incredible. Especially in the leadership diploma, it’s a special experience and I would encourage people doing the MSc to include it.
How important is your UCD alumni network to you?
For me it’s more about friendships rather than network. You meet so many incredible people and will no doubt build great connections along with friendships
What are your main interests outside work?
I am big Arsenal fan and like to travel to matches as much as possible with my boys. I coach my son’s GAA team and like to play golf at least once a week.
What piece of technology can you not live without?
My phone – like most people it’s become attached to my hand!
What is your pet hate?
Poor work ethic/effort.
What’s your favourite book?
Gary Hamel’s What Matters Now.
And what is your favourite band or musician?
I love listening Hans Zimmer, Kodaline and The Coronas.
What’s the last gig you went to that you loved?
Hans Zimmer live – incredible.
What is your favourite dish to cook?
Steak on the BBQ.
What team do you support?
What is your favourite place in the world to visit and why?
Tenerife and London. Both feel like a home from home. I love the culture in London and would have loved to live there when I was younger – but not now. Tenerife is very much a happy place and I plan on living there at some stage.
Where is home and why?
I live in Glasnevin, Dublin, on a plot of land that I had always dreamt about building on so living here is a dream come true.
Name three things on your bucket list?
Safari with my family, become a millionaire and retire early.
What charities or causes are closest to your heart?