My Business Magazine – Educating Julia

Did Julia Ross go looking for fun in all the wrong places when she listed her successful recruitment company?

DEBORAH TARRANT reports.

Julia Ross makes no secret about it. She’s looking for fun. She wants to be shown a good time — in the business sense, that is — and while she’s there, she’d like to be shown the money too. Eighteen months after listing her company, Julia Ross
Recruitment Ltd (JRR), on the Australian Stock Exchange, a move designed to kick the business along and to give some of those aggressive global players more than a serious nudge on local market share, the managing director is not coy about admitting she’s ready to break out. (The move also contributed towards Ross’s personal worth estimated roughly at $50 million) [at the time of writing this article].

With a head full of ideas and fresh directions, Ross, who describes herself as a cautious risk—taker, says she’s found the past year or so frustrating. First of all the recruitment market went into decline along with a resounding round of corporate collapses. Then came the reverberations from the September 11 terrorist attacks providing, in Ross’s words, the “final nail in the coffin”. She’s talking doom and gloom for a moment when in truth her business has fared better than most. While many competitors have announced significant profit downgrades and some have gone out of business, JRR has stayed in profit, effectively holding its own.

With a market capitalisation of $63 million, the shares that were valued at $1 at the December 2000 float are now sliding between $1.10 and $1.31. Nice work, but you need to see it in perspective.

“Up until we floated, 50 per cent growth was pretty normal for us, but this has been a very long, arduous period,” says Ross, who has an impressive list of big corporate clients and is well placed to comment on the business community at large.

“People will look back and realise this time was much harder than they thought. Most of corporate Australia has been very slow.”

Ross believes she struck the worst climate for learning to run a public company, feeling under pressure to deliver results, profit and shareholder value. “Had I known this was round the cornerl might have held on for a little longer… It is debilitating because you are not able to reinvest in the business. Six-monthly reporting poses a problem because you know that people will do so much damage to your shares if you want to reinvest in a difficult time.

“If this was a private company I wouldn’t be worrying right now about profits. And I believe there are times when companies need protecting rather than cutting back… otherwise you stifle the business.”

It is certainly not the first time Ross has faced a downturn. Recession hit just one year after she started up business in 1988. She’s an old hand at tough time strategies. Her priorities are to maintain continuity of staff, nail down costs as far as possible, and to pay attention to the existing client base.

“There has been a significant amount of work and time under an enormous amount of pressure…The only time I am not contactable is on an aircraft!”

This time as IT recruiting dried up she also moved the company into more viable sectors, banking and construction in particular.

So Ross is emerging from a sharp learning phase that, despite her protests, has not been all austerity. There has been the opening of new regional offices. now totalling 13, for the main part of the business. which maintains its specialisttion in office support, call centre and general recruitment. More recently, they acquired the PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) executive search business, now called FirstWater, a
brand that will take them into new lucrative markets — such as IT, banking and finance — and is anticipated to make a major impact on the bottom line.

With the arrival of FirstWater, Ross believes the business has grown up. “We are promoting it as the thinking person’s choice — a knowledge-based environment — because it’s coming out of [professional services firm] PWC. The consultants are very broad and can advise clients on a range of business issues as well as recruitment.”

Her previous attempts to broaden the offering and enter this high-yield executive market have been thwarted by the Julia Ross long-standing association with temps and office workers. After all that’s where it all began.

Unconventional beginnings

For a recruitment specialist, Julia Ross’s own CV has unconventional beginnings. The youngest of eight children, Ross followed her brothers into the construction industry in the UK where career-wise, at least, she was a success. “The boys [her colleagues] gave me such a hard time, I changed industry to get away from it,” she recalls. “I went into a recruitment company one day to find a job and they offered me one with them.”

Some years later when working in Australia as the operations manager for a large recruiter, Ross simultaneously quit her job and left her marriage, only to subsequently realise she was pregnant and in terms of finding another executive role she was unlikely to be hired in the near future.

There was only one way to go. She sold up everything, amassed $100,000 and started her business. “It wasn’t an instantaneous decision. I had thought about going out on my
own before. And it turned out to be a great time.”

She recruited a nanny before her son, James [now 13] was born and took an apartment in the city “so I could nip home and feed him”.

While the business grew in fits and starts in its early years, Ross grew a reputation for being tenacious and cheeky, a problem solver — labels that still hold today. A recent JRR client survey showed a word most associated with the business was “bold”.

The early years, Ross recalls, were all about summoning “the sheer guts not to break”. The challenges she couldn’t tackle with size, she met with originality.

Tapping into the immediacy of the temp worker market, Ross instigated early morning breakfasts in her CBD offices, paying teams of temps who’d await the calls of needy corporate clients, a practice which is still maintained.

Taking on the big boys

By the mid-90s the business was established Australia-wide and was winning national tenders. Later came an office in London, and later still the decision to float the company — not that it was made lightly.

Sitting somewhere around the middle of Australia’s Top 10 recruiters, Ross recognised the need for the capital and expertise to take on the big guys, such as Adecco and TMP Worldwide. Perhaps symbolic of where Ross sees her place in corporate Australia is her choice of commercial real estate, with headquarters overlooking Sydney’s CBD hub, Martin Place. “When the company got to the stage of turning over $100 million, as managing director I found myself facing decisions that were opposed to being 100 per cent shareholder. For example, when you are told you need to spend $2million on a computer system, you’re inclined to think $2million of my money — no way! I looked at a lot of options to grow involving other people and new directions…

“In hindsight I probably could have put in a board and done a lot of other things to run the business more like a public company, without listing… It did change things completely.”

Ross says she is not a typical public company chief. “I will talk to my cornerstone investors and let them know how things are going. but I don’t like spending a lot of time with analysts. I have no intention of selling, so there is no reason for me to be continually trying to drive the share price up.”

One factor she has found useful is having the expertise of a board for corporate governance issues, but when it comes to day-to-day operations, there’s no question Ross is still boss, which makes her very much the key person, keeper of ines-
timable intellectual property.

The big picture

The issue of succession has been covered off with the appointment of two chief operating officers for FirstWater and JRR.

“I don’t really need to be here day—to—day but I am, every day from 8am to 7pm usually, so I am still working on the business a lot of the time.

“When the company got to the stage of turning over $100 million, as managing director I found myself facing decisions that were opposed to being 100 per cent shareholder”

“Eventually I will appoint a managing director under me,” she insists. “But right now we don‘t need another heavily priced body on the payroll!”

On the intellectual property front, Ross has cultivated a next generation of long- term employees who understand the culture and the way she works. For the sake of her managers these days she tries to restrain her enthusiasm for being too conspicuous in the branches.

“I like to be where it’s happening. I can still be seen out there with a consultant at the desk eating a sandwich and discussing a problem.”

Her focus is on the larger view. Driving the FirstWater brand into new markets is critical right now. Positioning the company as a real Australian alternative to the bigger (less personal) international players is another.

In one bold marketing ploy, Ross had sizeable eucalypt saplings delivered to major clients recently and, to keep up the true blue flavour on another occasion, dispatched copies of Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang (2001, UQ Press).

Despite the constraints of managing a public company, Ross has also been able to make the difficult decision on the technology spend, around $3.5 million, which is expected to put JRR ahead of competitors. Siebel Systems is delivering information internally on customer buying pat- terns, electronic business—to—business, job sorting, online purchasing and smaller, but significant basics such as allow- ing temps to deliver timesheets via the Net.

In the day-to-day operations, Ross stands by the rules of good business practice such as never running out of cash and understanding clients. but it is in the area of her own expertise — people – that she has noticed the greatest change. “Once if you paid people well and gave them a good job then they generally did what they were supposed to do. There’s a lot more emphasis now in making sure your own people, internally, are on the bus: the right people going in the same direction.

“Now you have to pay attention to looking after them well and making them feel that they are with a company that cares about the community and about them. They have to feel you are a good employer.”

A matter of ethics

Ross herself is actively involved with children’s charities and is particularly keen on motivating women in business. She likes her staff to witness her making ethical decisions and that the company is ethical, a backhander at some global competitors’ bad habits on which she does not elaborate.

Even Ross admits to the challenge in motivating the predominance of younger people in the industry. Priorities are different from 10 to 15 years ago, she notes. “It is harder to find people with the same sort of drive, fight and tenacity that we used to get. It’s far more about quality of life now…

“Historically the job was the most impor- tant thing, but now it comes behind their sport, their leisure, their relationship…”

So would Ross be where she is today if she had adopted that attitude?

“Probably not, but people nowadays don’t necessarily want to get there. I don’t think people really want to make the sacri- fices. There has been a lot of blood, sweat and tears, long periods of time when you can’t even remember how to smile. There has been a significant amount of work and time under an enormous amount of pres- sure… The only time I am not contactable is on an aircraft!”

What has she missed? More time at home, time to look after myself and spend with my boy, just smelling the roses… I think anyone starting in business and driving it goes through the same sort of stuff, and there is always a debate at the end of it: Was it worth it? Well, it was for me, but I do think it’s a hell of a sacrifice.”

When asked about the times that gave her a major sense of achievement, front-of-mind for Ross was that her son had been proud of her when she appeared as a guest speaker at his school.

On anyone’s terms Julia Ross is a success story. In 14 years she has built a business from scratch into being a force to reckon with at the big end of town. She’s rich beyond most people’s wildest dreams, but past the days of being flash with her cash, living comfortably in Sydney’s Eastern suburbs.

Inevitably, we come to the question of whether Julia Ross can see a time when she will walk away from the business. Her response is immediate, in a word, “No”. “I would just like the market to come back a bit, so I can have more fun.”

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