When Stewart London quit a safe job to set up his own business from the lowly beginnings of a broom cupboard in Romford, he hardly dared dream that one day he’d be running one of the recruitment industry’s big success stories from two large offices in Brentwood. But – with over 120 members of staff, an award-winning team and major Tier 1 and Master Vendor Agreements with a host of NHS Trusts – that’s just what he’s done.
Managing director Stewart, 38, runs Athona Recruitment with his director wife Tina, 41. “We met at work in the late 1990s,” explains Tina. “We were colleagues for several years for a lovely recruitment company called The Locum Group, which was bought out by Reed Healthcare.”
This buy-out was the catalyst for Stewart’s decision to go it alone. “I didn’t want to work for a large corporate,” he explains. “I wanted to be independent. You get real passion with a family-run business.”
“It all began in a broom cupboard!”
Both were recruitment consultants – Stewart worked supplying doctors, Tina was in the healthcare field, supplying speech therapists and audiologists – and by 2003, when Athona began, they were in a relationship. They married in 2004 with a reception at the Marygreen Manor, Brentwood. At first, they worked from an old government building in the Lunar Business Centre in Romford. “It used to be a broom cupboard!” laughs Stewart. “It didn’t even have a window. We stayed in Romford for a couple of years – as the business grew, we took on more people, including our first salesperson Dave Clewley, who’s still with us now, 10 years later.”
By January 2006, Athona had outgrown its offices and the couple made the move to Brentwood High Street, to office space above the amusements arcade. “I really like Brentwood,” says Tina. “It’s a good central point with a train station, near to the M25, with a good high street.” It didn’t take long to fill two floors, as the couple branched out into the education sector as well.
Many couples find it hard to work together professionally, but Stewart and Tina have found the perfect balance. “You learn to separate work from home; that’s the key,” says Stewart. “You talk about the right things at the right time.”
“We have great staff here”
The couple love to travel and own a property in Ibiza. Can a husband and wife team ever truly get away from running a joint business, even on holiday? “I’m asked that a lot, and my answer is always yes,” says Stewart simply. “We’re lucky that we’ve got great staff here who allow that to happen. I think that’s great.”
Charity work has gradually become a focus for Athona, starting with regular fundraising for Macmillan, including coffee mornings and dress-down days, blossoming into giving the team a target of £10k to raise for Little Havens in 2014 – which they smashed. “We’re a sales company, so giving the team a target was the right thing to do,” explains Stewart.
In 2015, staff raised over an astonishing £11,000 for Guide Dogs for the Blind, St Francis Hospice and Hopefield Animal Sanctuary, thanks to a charity ball, quiz nights, and some individual team members going above and beyond: one parachuted out of a plane while another competed in the Tough Mudder obstacle challenge.
Twelve years on from the broom cupboard, what have Stewart and Tina learned? “I’ve learned to listen to what Tina says,” says Stewart. “Often, if I’m 50-50 on something, I will always ask Tina and always get a different view from her, a different perspective.”
“It’s all about the team”
“I think back to where I worked when I met Stewart,” says Tina, “The feel of that company, a passionate family business, that’s exactly where I wanted to take Athona. I feel that we’ve achieved that. I can honestly say that I remember what it was like to work on that sales floor, so whenever we make decisions about things, I can put myself in our staff’s shoes.”
That’s clear by how well the couple treat employees. Incentives range from skiing in Chamonix last year to a long weekend in Monte Carlo this year. “It’s all about the team,” says Stewart. “That’s the real key. We work really hard to find the right people, whether that’s an experienced recruitment consultant or someone coming in on an apprenticeship.”
What’s next for Athona? “We’ve recently taken the business international,” says Stewart. “That’s big news for us – we now recruit doctors, nurses and teachers from around the world.” Global expansion, from the heart of Brentwood.
If you’d like to work for this thriving, family-run business, please visit our vacancies page