Published in Business London, July, 2015
Recall the last time you had a vacation coming up – two solid weeks to go anywhere you wanted. France? The Caribbean? Maybe a Baltic cruise?
Consider the number of hours you spent checking out all the details of your accommodation and itinerary. Leaving the flights and rental car aside, how many hours did you or your travelling companion spend reading reviews, booking meals and events, investigating the hotel or ship, considering excursions and brushing up on local dialects and customs?
Was Fodor perched on your nightstand for weeks beforehand? Did you grill friends and acquaintances for tips about your destination? Did you panic every time it rained there, despite being two months from your arrival date?
Many a traveller has done most or all of this, whether they’ll admit it or not.
Now imagine you’re not just taking a vacation. Imagine you’re moving to the city permanently – picking up your entire family and heading to a place you’ve never visited, and barely heard of, for a great career opportunity. How much investigation and worry would such a move generate? Is it even possible to do enough research before arriving to start a new life in a new city?
Across London, firms and organizations of all sizes are constantly reaching out around the world in search of the right talent. We hear about it most in the tech sector – where will the next wave of creative coders come from? – but it’s happening in all kinds of offices with all kinds of jobs to fill.
If a business can’t find the person it needs, well that means trouble, my friend. Right here, I say trouble right here in the Forest City. With a capital T and that rhymes with P.
Unlike the Broadway stage, where a snappy song and crisp choreography can save the day, the solution for businesses scouring the world for talent is more complicated. Enter, stage right, Jodi Simpson. Ms. Simpson is dressed in a well-tailored business suit and wields her iPhone the way a fencer wields her epee. Relying on a lifetime of contacts and a let’s-chat-over-the-back-fence demeanor, she has created CityMatch, billed as “your community concierge.”
For a fixed fee, she will help a company’s new employee, and his or her family if applicable, get acclimated in London. And that means everything from helping find a home and school, to matching someone’s beekeeping hobby with the right contacts to make it happen.
“We go through a full discovery process,” says Simpson, 44, sounding somewhat like a lawyer at Harrison Pensa, where she was director of marketing for five years prior to starting CityMatch in May.
“We go deep with the person being hired and the entire family,” she says. “I want to know what brings them joy, what they are looking for in the city, what will make London feel like home.”
Hired by the employer, she can be involved during the recruiting process. Someone considering a London job might not want to ask a potential employer every question that comes to mind. Odd hobbies and interests are none of an employer’s business, certainly not as it relates to the prospective employee’s family. Simpson provides a confidential sounding board for questions as part of the recruiting dance.
“If someone is coming to interview and check out the city, I’ll meet them at the airport and take the spouse around the city while the person spends time talking to the employer,” she says.
“The challenge is we might not even know what concerns a person’s spouse has,” says Frank Barretto, manager of Mutual Concept Computer Group Inc., a software developer that provides back office solutions for its owners, a collection of Canadian mutual insurance companies. It employs nearly 60 people and has a turnover rate of about 10 per cent per year. That’s a respectable number in the tech sector, but it still means Barretto is looking to hire a handful of key people every year.
“Our latest challenge was finding a quality assurance manager,” he says. “We went for six months in search of the right person and finally found the person in Mississauga.”
When he heard about CityMatch, Barretto hired Simpson right away, becoming her first client. “People are huge investments,” he says. “You don’t really know for 12 to 18 months how it’s going to work out. And you can’t have strife in one part of your life and expect to have success in the other parts. But when someone is new, he or she doesn’t know us. Over time we’ll become colleagues, perhaps friends. But in the first few months, they are unlikely to talk about issues someone in their family is having living in London. We don’t want to lose someone over something we’re not even aware of.”
Barretto is hopeful Simpson can help him ensure his transplanted employees are happy. “I’m looking for big things from Jodi. I have high expectations.”
That’s fine with Simpson, who has her own high expectations for her business. She started thinking about creating something like CityMatch right around the time she began working at Harrison Pensa. She was fresh off a five-year stint at TechAlliance, as director of programs.
“Finding and keeping people is a huge issue for tech companies,” she says. “I saw it a lot at TechAlliance. It’s a real challenge.” She also saw it through the eyes of her at-home partner, Shawn Adamsson, a partner at Ellipsis Digital (featured in Business London, May, 2015).
Simply having the idea, however, was not enough five years ago. Instead she happily took on the marketing duties at Harrison Pensa. The concept ebbed and flowed but never left her mind.
“It finally was the right time for me to start this after thinking a long time about what I could do that was different. The concierge concept really fit with what I wanted to do and what I was already doing in my life. I’ve always talked to new people, welcomed them to the city. So I thought I could leverage my contacts and do something I love doing.”
Companies are aware they need to impress recruits and help them get settled. Some tackle the job in house and are fairly good at it. Some farm it out to a real estate agent who finds the person a home, runs down the school situation and might even produce a fruit basket on closing day. But that’s not nearly enough in many situations.
“Relocating can be a confusing and intimidating process,” says Heather Coy-Robinson, HR manager at CarProof. “It’s exciting to have Jodi spearheading an exciting new service that adds some warmth and comfort to relocation.”
Simpson charges a set fee, geared to the circumstances of the employee coming to town. If the person is single, the fee is $2,700. For a couple, it’s $3,100. A family of any size is $4,800.
Employers pay the fee, and some have contracted with Simpson to include her services in their job description and pitch to out-of-town prospects. She is still fine-tuning the process, but in general she works with her clients for 30 to 90 days. During that time, she does everything from help find a home, line up healthcare options for people and pets, track down daycare service, find social clubs and volunteer opportunities, provide school info and take people on tours of the city.
She might take the teenagers out to check out some of what London can offer them. She might have lunch with a spouse to help figure out what his or her life will look like after the family makes the move.
To make everything happen, Simpson relies on her informal network of friends and associates, along with a more formal group of partners. Among them: the Realty Firm, Harrison Carter Group leasing, #LdnEnt, Downtown London, Forest City Sport & Social Club, and Life Made Easier, a daily task concierge service.
In addition to her primary settlement package, Simpson offers an after-care program for the weeks and months after an employee arrives. “I touch base and see how they’re doing, see what I can do to help them settle into the city more easily. Many times, issues and questions don’t arise until several months later.”
Simpson also reports back to employers about how their new employee is doing. “I keep private issues private, but in general I let employers know how things are going with progress reports.”
For some like Frank Barretto reports like that could mean the difference between success and failure with a new key employee. “I want to know how things are going, but I also like having Jodi there as someone a new person can talk to comfortably. Respecting people’s privacy, she can advise us if there’s an issue we need to address.”
Simpson is happy to take on that role, but warns, “I can’t fix dysfunction in an organization. This works because an employer recognizes the value I add and wants to support a new employee and his or her family. I can’t be a band-aid if there are no other supports in place at the office.”
Three months into her new venture, Simpson is meeting with executives all over the city. She focused initially on the tech sector, but has received calls from managers in other sectors too. They’re all looking for a solution to the ongoing challenge of finding and retaining talent.
If Simpson’s dream comes true, CityMatch will play a role in keeping people in London and building a stronger, more vibrant community. That’s what really gets her excited. And that excitement is the reason businesses are keen to get her working for them.