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High Profile Magazine

Ketan Dattani

Making Caring About the Environment Cool

Ketan Dattani is the CEO and Founding Owner of Buckingham Futures, a specialist search and selection Consultancy focussed on delivering high-quality outcomes to clients and candidates. Buckingham Futures are specialists in Environmental Health recruitment, and their bespoke recruitment service is results-orientated, regarded by their clients as ‘the provider of choice’ for the introduction and supply of Environmental Health personnel.

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What made you want to start a career in Environmental Health recruitment?

As far back as I can remember, I've always had a passion for nature and the environment. I grew up in a concrete jungle, so I'd constantly be asking my parents if we could go and visit people with gardens, and I'd spend hours looking at insects and molluscs and things, I was really into it. Even when we went to the library, I'd go straight to the animal section in the adults’ part of the library rather than going to the children’s section. I think that because I wasn’t around nature at home, I relished it whenever I could be. When I'd visit my grandparents in the Midlands, where it’s a lot greener, I'd catch tadpoles and sticklebacks and then keep them for the summer, looking after them until they were frogs and then I'd release them back into the wild.

I didn’t get the foundations of an education, really, because I ended up having to leave school when I got in a bit of trouble. When I was a bit older, a few life-changing things happened, some friends of mine were incarcerated, and it made me realise that I needed to get myself an education. I was passionate about the environment, and so I decided that I wanted to work in the environmental sector.

Because I didn’t have a basic education, I had to redo my GCSEs, then I did an A-Level equivalent, and at that point the head of science encouraged me to go to university. I got offers from 2 universities, one of which was for a degree in Environmental Biotechnology, which was what I decided to do.

Upon completion of my degree, I ended up working in a laboratory as a trainee Medical Microbiologist, which was mundane and repetitive; I just didn’t find the work challenging at all. When I realised that this wasn’t something I could see myself pursuing as a career, I made the decision to go back and study a master’s degree in Environmental Planning and Management, and so I went back to being a full-time student for a while. When I finished that back in 1998, I was full of beans and I was really excited about getting a job in the environmental sector, but without practical experience, I couldn’t find any role that I was suitable for.

I ended up in a medical recruitment role as I just couldn’t find anything in the environmental sector. The role was quite lucrative, but my passion was for the environment, so I didn’t feel fulfilled. Within a two-year period, I went from being a trainee to being a lead consultant, but I knew this wasn’t my calling. I wanted to help people who, like me, had the right environmental qualifications, but couldn’t find a role because of a lack of practical experience. I knew that there weren’t really any environmental health recruitment agencies at the time, and so I approached my employer and proposed setting up an environmental division within the existing business. Unfortunately, because it was a medical recruitment agency, they didn’t feel that they were suited to taking on an environmental division, so I moved on to another company where I did environmental recruitment for about 6 years. After 6 years with that company, I moved again to another recruitment agency, and I set up an environmental division within that company.

After the birth of my second son, I started to wonder whether I wanted to spend the rest of my life working for someone else. I knew I was capable of setting up environmental divisions within existing companies, because I'd now done so for 2 organisations. One Tuesday, my wife sent me a picture of my son crawling, and I thought to myself, I'm missing out on this whole fatherhood thing, because when I leave in the mornings, he’s asleep, and when I get home at night, he’s asleep. I felt like a weekend dad. That's the moment that made me decide to set up my own business and work on my own terms. I gave up my corporate role, and I started Buckingham Futures from scratch in the box room at my parents’ house in 2013 and built it up from there.

Now I've been able to be around a lot more, I've been able to be so much more hands-on, which has been great. I've got 4 kids now, and I've really loved being able to spend more time with them. So, basically, there were two reasons I set up Buckingham Futures, firstly, I wanted to help people grow their careers within the environmental sector, and secondly, I wanted to spend more quality time with my family.

Why should a client choose to work with Buckingham Futures over another recruitment company?

We're specialists. Operating in a limited niche technical discipline, our strategy has always been to maintain a narrow focus and excel in our chosen area. Part of our training for our consultants involves spending time on district with environmental health professionals; it’s crucial to us to ensure that everyone on the team really understands the sector so that they can be sure they're placing the right people.

We always make sure to get to know our clients and their working culture, because that way we can be sure that we’re fitting them with the right candidates. We’ll present our clients with 2 or 3 CVs that are absolutely spot-on, rather than giving them 50 CVs from candidates who aren’t really that suitable for the role. Our service is bespoke, it’s not a numbers game for us, it’s all about building long-term relationships. There are people that I placed in roles in 2000 who still work with me, not as candidates now, but as clients. I helped place them in their first role, straight out of uni, and we still have a strong relationship. In fact, when I started to grow the team, people only wanted to work with me at first, but over time that’s changed as they’ve become used to working with my consultants.

As far as our rates are concerned, there are no hidden extras. What you see is what you get with us. We also offer candidates advice for free; we don’t charge for that. Our work with schools, colleges, and universities is extra too, we don’t charge for that. We go in and give students careers advice, we do mock interviews and CV workshops with them, and we do that because we’re passionate about the environmental sector, not because we want to make a few quid extra. We do a Dragon’s Den style event with students, too, where I get local business owners involved and the young people develop an environmentally friendly product which we then judge; that’s always a fun day. It's really refreshing to see the environment being on the agenda now, because in my day, it wasn’t like that at all, the 1980s was an era of ceaseless environmental ignorance and I found that most of my peers were content to watch the world go by, detached from the conservation and ecological issues plaguing our environment. Everyone thought I was an absolute weirdo for talking about the environment.

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We've all been affected by the pandemic, obviously, but how has your business, specifically, adapted to deal with the lockdowns?

We had the set up to be able to do things remotely, you know, we could do Skype interviews or Zoom interviews, CVs can be sent electronically, and documents could be signed via DocuSign, so it was just making minor tweaks in that respect. The big struggle was actually for me personally, as I've worked so hard to build a team culture, and before all of this I felt that everyone needed be together in a room in order for the team to thrive. Getting used to working remotely and not being able to hear and see what was going on was definitely a struggle for me. I don’t micro-manage or anything, but I enjoy being in the office around my team, and obviously now we couldn’t do that.

A lot of our clients also completely ceased hiring, and now many of them are no longer operating, which has been hard. At the same time, though, we managed to pivot. When you study Environmental Health, part of the course deals with infectious disease control, so we used that to our advantage and started recruiting for Track & Trace officers, Covid marshals, that kind of thing. A lot of people were being laid off, but they had the right skill set due to their degree covering infectious disease control, so we were still able to place them.

How have you been keeping sane during lockdown?

I compartmentalise my day. I've used lockdown to level up across all areas of my life. I'm really into exercise, and I miss the gym a lot, but I've managed to adapt my whole routine to using just resistance bands and body weight. Exercise has played a fundamental part in keeping me sane.

I read a lot, too, I aim to finish one book a week. I couldn’t get used to the Kindle though, I love to hold books, the Kindle just isn’t the same. I managed 47 books last year rather than 52, but in general I aim for a book a week. Me and my two older sons have a mini book club, actually, from Monday to Thursday we have a reading session where we all read our own books and then we discuss what we’ve learned from them afterwards.

I've spent a lot of time outdoors, listening to nature, too. Meditation and mindfulness are huge for me, and I make sure I get that in every morning before my family start to wake up. It's important to me to give back in some way each day as well, whether that’s by giving telephonic advice or anything else I can do to help people.

I've written a lot, too. I've written a lot of articles during the last year on topics like managing teams remotely, juggling a family with remote working, that kind of thing. I've also written chapters in 2 books; one is an e-book and the other is a physical book. I think sharing my experiences has been really important in keeping me sane.

I'm fitter and in better shape because of lockdown, and I'm also far more focused. Having a regimented kind of day and being appreciative are definitely the keys to my sanity. I'm healthy, my family are healthy, everything else can be worked on. I've become a lot more appreciative of how much my wife does, too, now that I've spent more time at home during the day.

So, in summary, having a focus and helping others are the things that have kept me sane. I'm very grateful for what I have, and I always bear in mind that I'm in a much better situation than a lot of people, so if I can help anyone out, then I will do so. I want to be a better person tomorrow than I was today, always.

The older generation, in general, aren’t as interested in the environment. How do you think we can encourage people to show more interest in it?

The problem is that a lot of people aged kind of, mid-40s up, don’t think that their individual actions will make a difference. I think the younger generation are having a huge impact, though, they’re really trying to educate their parents on this topic, rather than vice versa. When I go to schools and colleges it’s amazing to see how aware young people are becoming of the environment. I’m from the Hindu faith, and we believe in Mother Earth, and why wouldn’t you look after your mother? Why wouldn’t you want the planet to be nice for the generations to come? Why would you exploit other species? It's a case of changing people’s mindset. You can’t really do much about the older generation, though, apart from letting them be encouraged by the younger generation. Young people are really leading the movement for change.

I also think certain community groups are really isolated, where English isn’t that widely spoken, even though they’ve been in the UK for 30 or 40 years, because they live in these little pockets. If the environmental literature was available in more community languages, that would help, I think.

Another thing is, and this relates more to the younger generation, that without generalising, they tend to think that you can’t be cool if you’re environmentally conscious. When they picture an environmentally conscious person, they picture an airy-fairy type wearing hemp clothing with dreadlocks, you know? And a lot of kids, particularly black and Asian kids, can’t relate to that. But actually, these communities are often disproportionately affected by environmental issues as they’re more likely to live in high-rise buildings and overcrowded areas, so we need to encourage them to care.

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What would be your top 3 tips of things that everyone can do to help the environment?

Walk more. Driving is a huge issue; it causes so many problems. Then consume less meat or just don’t consume any meat. I'm not here to preach, but the meat industry is hugely problematic, and if more people made an effort to consume less animal products, it would make a huge difference. The third one is to plant trees. If people were only to do three things, these would be the top three. I could easily name another 10 or 15 things, though.

Change needs to come from the top, though, it can’t just be grassroots. But some people don’t see it as a problem, which is just selfish. We've only got one planet, and we need to look after it. I recently read Elon Musk’s book, and he wants to start a new colony on Mars, but I think we need to sort the problems we have here before we go to another planet and inevitably cause more damage there, too.

Also, we need to learn from this pandemic, but people forget very quickly. Most diseases are zoonotic, they’re transmitted from animals to humans, but throughout history we never seem to learn that we should stop exploiting animals. For as long as there are abattoirs and wet markets, these things will keep happening.

It’s the same with our garments, too. I try and shop ethically, because to be honest, if I know a company is exploiting third world labour, then I'd rather not buy from them. It may be more expensive, but it’s better quality, and it means my conscience is better.
What has been the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your career, and how did you overcome it?

Definitely changing my mindset from that of an employee to that of a solopreneur. It was exciting, but it was unnerving. Walking away from a well-paid corporate job to start my own business as a one-man band was a huge step.

I overcame it through trial and error, in all honesty. I made a lot of mistakes, but I learnt from them and I bounced back from them very quickly. One thing I regret was not having a mentor in the early days. I got one in my second year and since then I've had three or four mentors, and I've learnt a lot from each of them, but I should have had one from day one.

Off the back of that, what’s been the highlight of your career?

I've had so many! One highlight is definitely being able to give back. Another is that everything is on my terms, I don’t need anyone to approve my ideas anymore, I can just make decisions for myself. I also love working on the business rather than in the business, if that makes sense, although actually learning to do that was a massive learning curve, because before starting the business I had only ever had the mindset of working in a business, not on one. I'm so glad I started my own business, even though people thought I was crazy for leaving my lucrative job to do so. If I'd have listened to them and let it stop me, I would have spent my life working for someone else and wondering what if, and I'm so glad I take the leap, because it’s definitely been worth it.

What do you want your lasting legacy to be?

I want to make being environmentally conscious cool, which it’s not, unfortunately. I also want to teach people to give back and make sure they’re lifting the people around them. Don’t give if you’re just doing it to get something back, because that’s not how it should work. I like to lift people, I like to think that I might have helped them in any small way that I can. But my lasting legacy, I want to be the guy that can change the stereotype of tree-hugging environmentalists. I think I have reach within a range of different communities, because of my life experiences, and so I think I could be the person that could reach out to people who previously hadn’t thought about the environment.