“We could lose our own key talent if the cost of living doesn’t improve,” — CEO Q&A with Barbara McGrath of Brightwater

CEO Q&A, Interviews | Wed 7 Dec | Author – Business & Finance
Pictured: Barbara McGrath, Managing Director, Brightwater

Barbara McGrath is the Managing Director of Brightwater, a recruitment specialist established in Dublin in 1998. The company has bases in Dublin and Cork, and employs 45 staff including 30 consultants. 


What are your main priorities and goals in your role? 

The main priority for me as CEO of a recruitment group is to deliver the best recruitment solutions for our clients. By providing them with key talent that can make a difference to their bottom line, we can give Irish business leaders the tools and abilities to face their own unique business challenges while also building for the future success of their organisations.

What are your biggest challenges as CEO?  

It’s trying to be both proactive and reactive as a leader and guide my own staff through really challenging times, not just economically, but geopolitically too. Markets are changing at an increasingly fast pace and it’s how you adapt to those changes and keep one step ahead of the market. Back in 2019, who would ever have predicted a global pandemic that would massively change the way we work forever?

We were prepared for Brexit as we had some time to do so but no-one could have predicted the Ukraine conflict and the effect it’s had on the global supply chain market.

One of the biggest challenges for me is also trying to combat media predictions and mitigate their effect on business. If you look at August/September of this year, the amount of negative stories coming out about the economy could have really hurt the future of businesses and now we’re hearing all about how Ireland is performing relatively well as an economy and should weather any storm pretty well. So it’s about trying to plough ahead determinedly with your business plans while being able to view the future with an objective eye.  

How do you keep your team/staff motivated?

As a recruitment firm, we’re well aware of the importance of keeping staff motivated and engaged as we work with candidates who move jobs because of these reasons. For us, it’s vital to have a well-oiled team who are experts in what they do and who gel well together. We have a very comprehensive employee assistance programme as well as a training programme that enables them to be the best they can be. We want to give them the tools to succeed so it’s about listening to their needs and carving out space for them.

What are the challenges facing the industry going forward?

It’s very much the “war for talent.

As recruiters, it’s our livelihood to find talent for our clients both in Ireland and overseas and it’s up to us to help employers navigate the new reality of flexible/hybrid working and to understand what they have to do to secure that key talent. For our own sector, it’s all about embracing new technologies that will enable us to do our jobs better.  But it’s also about anticipating and mitigating threats so while it would be lovely to have a crystal ball, we have to be realistic about what could come our way.

What new trends are emerging in your industry?

The pandemic has forced employers to bring in “Working From Home” and now people are reluctant to give up that superb work-life balance that they were able to create during Covid.

Hybrid working is really something that’s no longer a trend but a necessity for employers if they want to secure the best talent for their business. 

For the recruitment industry, new technologies are changing the way we work. We’re able to leverage data insights in real time and adjust to the needs of our clients and candidates. Thanks to new technologies, we can now offer our clients up to date market information that will enable them to adjust strategies if needs be and really build for their future success.

Are there any major changes you would like to see in your sector?

I think what the ERF (Employment and Recruitment Federation) are doing is great. They’ve really introduced professional standards across the industry as a whole.

As an employer are you finding any skill gaps in the market? 

Definitely there are skill gaps in the STEM disciplines – the global tech firms may be going through a dip at the moment but the Irish indigenous IT market is performing extraordinarily well, as is the life sciences sector here in Ireland. More needs to be done to encourage home grown talent in STEM.

I also think Ireland as a whole needs to do something about the cost of accommodation, we need to be able to attract global talent here into the country and at the moment, the cost of renting/buying is a major obstacle. We also could lose our own key talent if the cost of living doesn’t improve.

How did your strategy develop in the context of the banking crisis and economic crisis?

It’s all about having a plan B, C & D. We have to be able to adapt to changes quickly and that was something that we learned very quickly.  Some plans were postponed and others were accelerated.

How has Brexit affected you? 

It’s actually had more of a positive effect than a negative. Plenty of companies particularly in financial services and legal set up here to have a European HQ or a presence so recruitment activity went up. The supply chain & logistics sector too needed additional staff with key knowledge of customs.

How has the COVID-19 crisis affected your business/sector?

Covid19 did have a massive effect at the beginning. We knew that recruitment activity would slow right down as businesses closed down temporarily and employers were nervous to take on people (candidates were also apprehensive about moving) so we had to make some changes to ensure our business survival.

We laid off some staff temporarily and then sadly had to make those layoffs permanent. But those decisions were taken in the best interest of the company and by 2021, we were starting to thrive again. Once companies started to get accustomed to new ways of working, they had the confidence to recruit again too.

However we were in a relatively good space as we didn’t specialise in just one area, we have a number of professional disciplines so if one sector was suffering, it was propped up by another.  We also took the time to implement a new CRM system as well as accompanying technologies that will enable our consultants to reach new levels of success.

How do you define success and what drives you to succeed?

For me, success isn’t just about the numbers, it’s about loving what you do and striving to be the best in what you do. It’s also about inspiring others to succeed.

I’ve worked extremely hard over the years to build Brightwater into the company it is and to bring my people along on that journey.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given, or would give, in business?

It’s hugely important to nurture your people, to build your team into leaders that will drive the success of the business well into the future. Take risks and be innovative. Don’t be afraid to try new things.

What have been your highlights in business over the past year?

We’ve acquired new additions to the Brightwater Group which have absolutely added value to us – we acquired Alternatives, a marketing recruitment consultancy in November 2021 and it’s performed very well for us. We’ve been shortlisted for various awards and only last week, our Corporate Services team won “Best Back Office Team” in the ERF Awards.

That for me was a definite highlight as this is a team that provides massive support for our consultants and without which, our success would look very different. I was named in Business & Finance’s CEO 100 which was very much an honour and two of my leadership team were named in the CIO and CMO 100 lists as well.

What’s next for your company?

We have ambitious growth plans for next year, including new acquisitions, rebranding of an arm within the group and are constantly on the look-out for new technologies and new markets that will shape the growth of the Brightwater Group as well as have a positive effect on the growth plans of our clients. It’s going to be an exciting year ahead.

Where do you want your business/brand to be this time next year?

Still at the top!


Read more interviews with leading CEOs below:

Mark O’Sullivan of Provest

Rachael Ingle of Aon Ireland

Pat Phelan of Sisu