Good Weekend – View from the top.

Meet Julia Ross, Australia’s richest self-made businesswoman

Seventeen years ago, Julia Ross was single, pregnant, jobless and about to sell all she possessed to start her own business. Today, at her palatial harbourside pad, the tough-cookie tycoon tells Jane Cadzow how she made it to the top.

All her own work

Julia Ross is sipping tea on the terrace of Villa del Mare, the ornate limestone palazzo overlooking Sydney Harbour that she bought last May for $21.5 million. The six-year-old house is a whimsical mix of chandeliers, cherubs and Corinthian columns: Mediterranean glamour meets Beverly Hills glitz. Even the real estate agent who sold it to her cheerfully describes it as “a little over the top”.

But Ross isn’t talking about her splendid new home. Not for the moment, anyway. Nor is she discussing the international business empire that has made her Australia’s richest self-made woman. No, she is mulling over her complicated love life. “It’s very difficult to stay in relationships,” she says, looking across the manicured lawn to the swimming pool. “Quite hard. Which sounds ridiculous.”

Ross is queen of the Australian recruitment industry. Her company, Ross Human Directions Ltd, has 19 offices around the nation, seven more in London, Dublin, Hong Kong, Singapore and New Zealand. The firm is valued by the stock market at about $65 million, and Ross, who built it from scratch, holds just under half the shares.

When she sold the other half five years ago, she pocketed about $25 million.

At 51, she is not only wealthy but winsome – a pert and permanently tanned blonde bombshell with a down-to-earth manner and throaty laugh. Or, as she says, “laff”. She grew up in a working-class family in the north of England and even now, a couple of decades after moving to Australia, can sound like a character in a gritty British soap. When she says, “My last husband was in air-conditioning”, the “g” is hard, as in “go-getter”.

Husband one was in motorhomes, husband two in hotels, but Ross created her fortune entirely on her own. Such is her drive that she reportedly persuaded her obstetrician to induce the birth of her only child on a Thursday so she could be back at her desk on Monday. Ambitious? As she told BRW magazine: “I’m one of those people who, when we made the first $10 million, said, ‘Now $20 million, now $50 million, now $100 million.'”

Whatever it is, she wants more. “She has always had her sights on something bigger and better,” says her oldest friend, Yvonne Sanders, who attributes Ross’s success, at least in part, to sheer force of personality. She may be small – less than 160 centimetres – but she is formidable.

Says David Walker, recruitment sector analyst with equities research group Aspect Huntley: “She is probably the most aggressive, determined, tough chief executive I know.”

“Very, very tough,” agrees Sanders. “I’ve often thought she is almost like a male in a female body. For instance, she wouldn’t think twice about sending a bottle of champagne to a man at a table. She’s not demure. She’s not the sort who would wait for a man to make the first move. And by the way, I’m saying that as a compliment. She takes charge of things.”

Getting a date has never been a problem. “She always has a guy in tow,” says another friend, journalist Daphne Guinness. “She wouldn’t be Julia without one.” But Ross tends to tire of her suitors after a while. “I need somebody who is intelligent and challenges my thinking,” she says. And frankly, most of them don’t measure up. Or if they do, and graduate to the rank of long-term companion, they start expecting her to keep house and run their lives for them – as if running a company with annual revenue of more than $350 million weren’t enough.

For a frenzied fortnight before she listed on the stock exchange in September 2000, Ross worked herculean hours pitching to potential investors. “I was under enormous pressure,” she says. “I had two weeks to do it – sell the stock. Thirty million dollars’ worth of stock is a lot to sell.” Driving home at the end of a particularly stressful day, she looked forward to a chance to rest and clear her head. “I opened the door and my partner said, ‘There’s no milk in the fridge.'”

Obviously he had to go. “Shame though,” Ross muses. “There’s nothing wrong with people like that, often. They’re nice individuals. They just don’t understand.”

Ross lives in Wolseley Road, Point Piper, recently described by The Australian Financial Review as the most expensive address in the country. While she was house hunting, she looked at two other mansions in the street – disgraced stockbroker Rene Rivkin’s Craig-y-mor and retail property investor Kerry Manolas’s Mandalay. She also flirted with the idea of snapping up Rona, the Bellevue Hill estate of debt-ridden cleaning services tycoon John Schaeffer.

Then she saw Villa del Mare, offered for sale by property developer Nati Stoliar, and the contest was over. The search for Mr Right may have been long and frustrating, but she fell in love with the house on the spot: “I walked in here and thought, ‘This is it.'”

Ross watchers agree the place is perfect for her. “A match made in heaven,” says real estate writer Margie Blok. The price was the second highest paid for a house in Australia, beaten only by $28 million for Altona, also at Point Piper. For Ross’s $21.5 million, she got a 1700 square metre block of land – not waterfront, but with a panoramic harbour view – and a three-level residence of about 2000 square metres (or 220 squares). “The power plant is the equivalent of a motel’s or a small hospital’s,” says Chris Norris, who built and decorated the house for Stoliar. “There is 33 kilometres of cable. There are 850 lights.”

The villa is what is known as a “smart house”. Its lighting, heating, cooling and security systems are run from a computer room near the solarium, gymnasium and

wine cellars in the basement. “You can ring the house from a boat on the harbour and get all the lights to flash,” says Norris.

Or you can point a remote control at the billiards table and make it disappear. “I don’t show people this very often,” Ross tells me as the massive piece of furniture descends slowly below the floor and three rows of chairs rise to replace it. If you press another button, the curtains in the room swish shut and wooden wall panelling slides away to reveal a cinema screen. “Pretty tricky little number,” she says.

According to Norris, construction of the house took 100 people two years – “but that included all the artisans”. Blacksmiths forged the wrought-iron balustrades; potters hand-made the terracotta roof tiles. Though Norris is proud of the finished product, he happily concedes “it was a very serious folly”. And if he hadn’t kept Stoliar on a firm rein, it might have been more ostentatious still.

“I remember a couple of times I said to Nati, ‘A little bit less Hollywood, a little bit more style. Not so gold! Not so glitzy!'”

As much as Ross adores the place, she has decided to tone down the decor. Heaven knows, she is no minimalist, “but it’s a bit too Rose Hancock for me”. Recently she got a $120,000 quote for removal of some of the gaudier details. Stonework cherubs and so on. The heavy drapes at the french windows will be coming down, too. “I’m thinking of a nice billowing organza…” she says. “The whole house has to change to a degree. I’m tempted to go a bit more modern.”

Norris wonders if she has had a close look at the scene painted on the skylight in the domed ceiling over the entrance. “I put a sixth toe on one of the cupids,” he confides to me. “I’ve never told anybody. I’ve been waiting to see if anybody would pick it up.”

Ross rarely relaxes. “She’s one of those relentless people who have to go on proving themselves,” says Daphne Guinness.

“I think perhaps her next goal is to be accepted by what we laughingly call Sydney society.”

If so, she has an enthusiastic ally in one of her closest confidants, Lorenzo Montesini. The urbane former Qantas steward ended his own chances of making the A-list when, in 1990, he went to Venice to marry heiress Primrose “Pitty Pat” Dunlop, only to bolt with the best man. Since then, he has found solace in the life of the mind, organising Proust readings, piano recitals and similarly highbrow events while working tirelessly to promote cultural ties between Australia and Egypt, where he was born. But he is itching to help his chum Toti, as he calls Ross. “I’ve often said to her that this town is free for the taking,” he says.

It is late in the afternoon of a scorching day, half an hour before guests are due at a soiree Montesini and Ross are co-hosting at her house. The party is in honour of the French consul-general, but for Montesini it has an additional purpose – the launch of Campaign Toti. “This is ‘I’ve arrived’,” he says. “It’s a golden moment in her life.”

Exquisite flower arrangements are dotted about the house. Caterers work feverishly in the kitchen while smartly dressed waiters mill about expectantly. Outside by the pool, in the blazing sun, Ross poses for a Good Weekend photographer. She is wearing a coffee-coloured satin jacket, a tight brown flounced skirt and towering stilettos adorned with diamantes.

Montesini admits he prefers her in simpler ensembles. “I’m not censorious at all,” he tells me, sipping iced water. “But I have an image of what is elegant. I like her in the car when she just wears buff Prada pants – very tight, because she is a little girl – with a silk shirt. The classic look.”

By the time Ross joins us indoors, she is sweaty and out of sorts. The jacket is sweltering, she says, fanning her hand in front of her face. Honestly, she is melting. She will have to go and repair her make-up. Montesini offers a drink and murmurs soothingly, much as he must once have done to overwrought airline passengers. Ross smiles grimly and heads upstairs.

Maybe it’s the humidity, but the party is rather a flat affair. Towards the end, the lights on the terrace flicker on and off, and guests look about uncertainly. Is this a signal to leave? Perhaps someone is phoning from a boat?

A computer malfunction, apparently. “The electronics are just out of control,” Montesini says bitterly when we talk on the phone a couple of days later. “The lights go on and off. All of a sudden the curtains will open and close.” Why would anyone want a smart house, anyway? “That stupid Stoliar!”

As far as Montesini is concerned, the evening was a disaster. Ross “was in a very strange kind of mood with me – with everyone,” he says. “Everyone kept saying, ‘What’s wrong with her?'” Admittedly, things had got off to a difficult start. “She wasn’t happy with the outfit she was wearing, she was hot, she was this, she was that…” But he would have expected her to recover her good humour. “She was so tense!” he says. “When you and I were talking in that sitting room, I could see her outside, like a caged beast.”

Ah well, it’s back to the drawing board. Montesini is extremely fond of Ross and convinced that she has the makings of a social lioness. There is still “a great opportunity for her to be numero uno – to take over the mantle of someone like Mary Fairfax”, he says. When she puts her mind to it, Ross can do anything. Be anyone.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen photos of her in the past,” he says. “Extraordinary how she has reinvented herself.”

Ross was born and raised in Staffordshire, south of Manchester, where her father worked as a builder. The youngest of eight children, she remembers finding ice on the inside of window panes during the bitter northern winters. “It’s a hard climate,” she says. “And if you haven’t got much money, it’s a tough existence. You grow up quite resilient.”

In the evenings, she sat around the fire with her brothers and sisters as they cooked up plans to make better lives for themselves. “We all wanted to have our own businesses,” she says. “All the conversations were about that. It was never about going to work for anyone else.”

Nonetheless, after school she joined a big construction company, Taylor Woodrow, starting as a clerk in a section that rented out forklift trucks, excavators and cranes. The blokey nature of the enterprise didn’t bother her at all. On the contrary, she discovered an affinity for heavy machinery, learning all she could about hydrostatic transmissions and front-end loaders as she worked her way rapidly up the corporate ladder. At just 21, Julie Strain – as she was then known – was

the youngest ever chief executive of a Taylor Woodrow subsidiary and a finalist in the British Businesswoman of the Year awards.

She switched to the recruitment industry in 1982, aged 29, hired by the venerable Alfred Marks firm to manage its 15 Thames Valley branches. She was later sent to Australia as head of Asia Pacific operations but in 1988 had a row with her boss and quit. As she had recently separated from her second husband – John Ross, an Australian – she decided to go home to England. On arrival, she discovered she was pregnant.

Returning to Australia, she tried and failed to revive her marriage, then weighed up her options. She was single, pregnant and jobless – and unlikely to land a senior position if prospective employers knew she was expecting a baby. “I thought, ‘I can’t go back to England again now. I’ve been back and forth. I’d better think of something to do here.'”

In such a tight spot, many would have acted cautiously. Ross decided to gamble everything she had. She sold all her possessions, raising $100,000, and hung out her shingle. She has never doubted her ability, she says matter-of-factly. “I can look at anyone – I can look at Kerry Packer and think there’s absolutely nothing he does that I couldn’t do.”

Recruitment firms are essentially employment agencies, in the business of matching people to jobs. Job seekers sign up with them; employers engage them to find suitable candidates for vacant positions. Ross, working with a couple of offsiders in a tiny office at the end of a narrow corridor in an old building in Pitt Street, specialised initially in supplying secretaries. Now her company has 500 staff and four divisions – Julia Ross hot, Ross hd, Firstwater and Spherion – which cover the whole white-collar market, from call-centre workers to senior executives. Hers is one of the largest Australian-owned recruitment companies, and the only leading firm founded by a woman.

“It’s a low-margin, high-turnover, dog-eat-dog business, but she has done well in it,” says Malcolm Jackman, former chief executive of Manpower Australia. “I think at times there has been a reasonable amount of envy.”

Though Ross is respected, she is not universally liked. Says one Sydney investment adviser: “Some people like to have a go at her, saying she’s got all these flaky eastern suburbs friends and lots of young lovers, but these are just rumours you hear. A high-profile, successful woman is always going to be a target of stuff like that. Mainly from jealous men in the industry.”

Male competitors don’t miss a chance to put Ross down, confirms Rosemary Scott, of Scott Recruitment Services. “I think it’s been very tough for her. Because some of these blokes she’s up against – believe you me, some of them are pretty unpleasant.”

Ross tells me she was taken aback by the reaction of the heads of the big financial institutions when she sought their support for her stock exchange listing. “They wanted to talk to the CFO [chief financial officer] and my board – the men in the room,” she says. “I’m convinced that they didn’t think I actually ran the company.”

Not that she made a fuss. “She knows which side her crepe is buttered,” says Montesini. “She doesn’t want to rock the yacht.” Instead, deciding she needed to cultivate a more corporate image, she added some conservative suits to her vast wardrobe and had her hair dyed brown – “to get everyone to take me seriously”.

In the float, she sold enough $1 shares to dilute her interest in the company to 53 per cent (it has since dropped to 47 per cent).

In 2003, during a slump in the industry, Ross Human Directions’ annual profit plunged by more than 80 per cent to $1.1 million, and the share price fell to less than 50 cents. “Everyone thought it was all over for us,” says Ross, who not only held her nerve but took advantage of the downturn to swallow the rival Spherion Group for $30 million in 2004. Analyst David Walker describes the acquisition as a bold move that is starting to pay off now that recruitment firms are back in the money. In the first half of the current financial year, Ross doubled revenue and boosted profit by 87 per cent.

As she is the first to tell you, her success has been hard won. “In the first five or seven years, something like that, I hardly took a break,” she says. “Often I’d be there until two in the morning. I’d go home, sleep for a few hours and come back. Enormous hours.”

When her son James was a baby, he woke frequently during the night. “It was probably the most challenging time in my life – when he was very small and I was on my own,” she says. “I actually felt quite demented for a while. I don’t know how I got through it.

I stood in the bedroom, tears rolling down my face, thinking, ‘What am I going to do? This child won’t stop crying and I don’t know what to do.'”

On weekends, she and James went everywhere together (by public transport in the early days; she had sold her car along with everything else and says it was only in 1992, when James was three, that she could afford to buy a second-hand Toyota Corolla). From Monday to Friday, nannies looked after the little boy. For some time, he lived during the week at his nanny’s house.

This is a sensitive subject with Ross, whose hackles rise at any suggestion that she has put her career before her maternal responsibilities. She still fumes about being asked during a long-ago television interview whether she ever did tuckshop duty. Such questions strike her as “very, very unfair on females”. In any case, the importance of children being constantly with their mothers seems to her to be overrated. “So long as they have good people around them, I don’t think kids care,” she says. “I’ve had some wonderful nannies for James and they’ve been gorgeous to him.”

Her son is now 16 and the light of her life. “Just a super kid,” she says. “Everyone who meets him finds him adorable.” As far as she can tell, he never felt neglected. “I don’t know, he might get into his 20s and say, ‘Well, actually, I did.'” But so far, so good. “James has been fabulous … There have been no repercussions.” Which she suspects there might have been had she stayed home with him instead of building her firm. “I think I would have resented it and I wouldn’t have been such a good mum.”

By most accounts Ross is an inspiring boss. She passes on her knowledge, pays generously, issues her employees with shares in the company – even gives them bonus days off on their birthdays. Yet the firm has a reputation for a high rate of executive burnout. “She’s extremely demanding,” says Rosemary Scott, who admires Ross greatly. “She expects people to be as driven as she is. And unfortunately that can’t always be the case.”

At home, too, Ross can be hard to please. “Even though I’m his mother,” she says of James, “I’m probably his biggest critic. I have to stop myself because I’m a bit of a – I like things perfect.”

Yvonne Sanders attributes her old flatmate’s single-minded upward mobility at least partly to the material deprivations of her childhood: “I think what she wanted was to have all the things that she couldn’t have when she was young.” She may be unable to kick some thrifty habits – shallow baths, for instance:

“In England, you never wasted hot water,” Ross tells me – but these days she owns a trophy house in the city, a 250-hectare rural property near Scone in the Hunter Valley, bought from the White grazing family, and a $240,000 black Jaguar XKR convertible in which to zoom between them.

“I think she has taken to this like a duck to water, having the success and the money,” says Sanders, who got the impression when visiting from the UK that, along with the other trappings of wealth, Ross had picked up some fawning hangers-on. She is susceptible to flattery, says Sanders, and “you could see the sycophancy. You know how everyone tells Prince Charles what he wants to hear? That’s what they were doing with her.”

When I mention that Ross is almost unrecognisable in a picture taken in England in the early 1980s, Sanders laughs and says, “She’s obviously had a complete makeover.” Ross declines to discuss cosmetic surgery with me except to say that she hasn’t had as much of it as everyone seems to think. Just changing hair colour can make a big difference to a person, she points out.

The thing is, beneath the high-gloss exterior, Ross is essentially a woman of simple tastes, never more content than when preparing a traditional English roast dinner for James and her close circle. “Virtually every Saturday I cook at home for my mates,” she says. “…Anyone who’s single knows I’m here and they’re welcome to drop in.”

By inclination she is a party girl, often photographed clutching a glass of champagne at mid-week festivities, but she refuses most weekend invitations so as to maximise time spent with her son. Not that this is any sacrifice, she says. “I’m quite a selfish person.

I do what I want to do most of the time. I like coming home on a Friday and staying home till Monday. It’s my thing.” (Despite Montesini’s fond hopes, she maintains she has no interest in conquering Sydney society. Too much else on the to-do list, perhaps.)

When Ross was about 10, her oldest brother drowned after falling from a bridge. Two other brothers have suffered debilitating brain hemorrhages, two sisters have died of cancer and another sister is crippled by arthritis. “I’m basically the only healthy child now,” she says. And it’s unsettling, contemplating the fate of the siblings who once dreamed with her around the fire. The loss of her sister Melinda, 16 years her senior and a mother-figure to her, hit particularly hard. “The pain afterwards was quite difficult,” she says. “Those sorts of things do make you into a slightly different person.”

Melinda died shortly before Ross’s $25 million payday in the float, prompting her to think about her priorities. Her work has always dominated her life. What is it she

is striving so hard to achieve? “It’s certainly not about the money now,” she says. After all, she has more than enough for her and James. If she wanted, she could take a less hands-on role in the company, leaving the day-to-day stuff to her senior management team. But friend and business consultant Charlie Zoi predicts it will not happen.

“She won’t give up,” Zoi says. “The only thing that’s going to take her away from that business, I think, is a hearse.”

Ross thoroughly enjoys her job: she wants to make that clear. “I’ve worked very hard but so have a lot of people,” she says in her office high above Sydney. “There’s some guy sweeping the street down there who’s working incredible hours and has a very tough life. So although I’ve really put the hard yards in, life has been pretty kind to me.”

It’s just that she finds herself with a slightly hollow feeling. “You spend all that time trying to do something or get somewhere,” she says, “and as soon as you’re there, it’s, ‘Well, what was that all about?'”