The rise and RISE of Talent International: Richard Earl interview (parts 1 & 2)

Talent International (Talent) commenced business in 1995, initially operating out of Richard Earl’s Perth home.

Opening a Talent office in Sydney four years later began an expansion of Talent’s footprint , first across Australia, then into New Zealand in 2009, the UK (in 2012), continental Europe (in 2016), USA (in 2016) with the latest Talent office opening in New York earlier in this year.

YearSalesIncrease on prior yearEBITDA
Increase on prior year
2019$64016%$1245%
2018$55017%$8.394%
2017$47022%$4.326%
2016$38510%$3.4*25%

Note: all $ figures are AUD millions, Talent’s financial year is 1 July – 30 June, *estimate (actual not reported)

In October 2018 Talent announced Sydney-based investment firm Quintet Partners had purchased a 25 per cent stake in its business to for an undisclosed sum with Quintet managing partner Doug Farrell joining the Talent board and Quintet investor and Ingeus founder Therese Rein providing advisory services to the business.

In the last twelve months Talent has been named the recipient of 15 global industry awards including Best Contribution to the New Zealand Tech Sector, LinkedIn’s Most Socially Engaging Staffing agency and Best IT/Technology UK Recruitment Agency at the Recruiter Awards.

Talent this year rose to 87th position (96th in 2018) on the Top 500 Private Companies in Australia, a list compiled by the Australian Financial Review and IBISWorld.

As the Executive Chairman of Talent, Richard Earl now lives in the USA but returns to Australia for board meetings and to stay in touch with the local operations, led by APAC CEO, Mark Nielsen.

Recently Talent came onto my radar with the release of Human: Global perspectives on diversity in tech, a wonderful book published by Talent, which complements the great work of Talent’s community foundation; Talent Rise. 

Last month Richard Earl was back in Australia for just over a week and I managed to grab 40 minutes of his time for an interview.

In the interview Richard answers my questions about Talent’s recent performance, some key Talent executives and the passion he has for making a difference to global workplaces through their initiatives in diversity and inclusion.

Ross: Congratulations on Talent’s full year result, Richard, you must be very pleased with the way the business is performing.

Richard: It’s a strong result. We’ve had a huge year. There are a number of factors for that. Our results, if you look at them straight off the file, don’t tell the whole story. We have invested further into the UK and Europe, and expanded our operations in the US with the launch of our New York office. The results from those markets over the next 12-24 months should be very interesting.

Australia and NZ are performing exceptionally well which is especially pleasing in NZ where we’ve been building for a while. All parts of our Australian business posted very strong results although we need to be careful that the country doesn’t slip back to a two-speed economy so I’ll be closely watching things from the US, where I spend most of my time these days.

Clarius pulled out of New Zealand three years ago. Davidson couldn’t make it work. What do you think Talent have got right in New Zealand that seems to have eluded others?

Firstly, we have a great leadership team. We’ve got a first-rate Country Manager in Bianca Jones, who I spent many years trying to prise from Allegis until she finally came across. She is supported by Kara Smith who has been with Talent for six years and is now GM of Auckland and has developed her team in leaps and bounds. I think they have a great game plan.

I think a lot of the initiatives have worked well in NZ. Talent RISE, for example, has had a huge local community impact thanks largely to the drive and passion of Jessica Te Moananui who heads up RISE in NZ.

Many of the traditional players in the NZ market, such as Beyond, Absolute IT, Madison and 920 built good businesses but more recently the founders of these businesses have either sold up, stepped back or lost interest.

A path was made clear for a newer sort of business to come through. Our game plan with Bianca and Kara has always been to be aggressive and attack this marketplace. What we saw in New Zealand, particularly in the tech space, was a changing of the guard that naturally happens in business and markets. It was then up to us to seize that opportunity.

The previous management was Australian and not only that, one or two of the people we had there were probably a bit brash. New Zealanders did not warm to them too much. I think we have got a business New Zealanders want to deal with now, which is great. The leadership team are all New Zealanders, all female and on top of that they are all of Māori descent. I think we have a business New Zealanders want to deal with. They feel they are dealing with their own rather than an extension of an Australian business. As a business, as a brand, we are taking a more thoughtful approach in NZ.

Talent has longstanding operations on this side of the world and is now growing in Europe and the US. Are there significant differences, or not, in terms of the way clients buy IT recruitment services in each of those three markets?

There sure are. I think the UK still tends to be very transactional and short term in its thinking. There’s a certain style there, I guess. Long term, we’re trying to change that.

Germany is different. Germany views recruitment more as a professional services business. I think they see you as a partner to their organisation. The fees they pay are fairly high. You’re viewed more as a professional services partner, which is good. But they have high standards and if you mess up then it’s all over.

What about the US?

The US is similar to Germany in many ways. American businesses see the value of a good recruitment partner whether it’s a contingent provider of permanent employees or contract staff. I find that the US understands the value of getting the best people on board and creating the best team. They don’t really mind what they pay for that and are much more relaxed on fees. On contracting it’s possible to get high margins even on high volume supply arrangements.

We work a lot with the biotech and life science sector in California. These sectors move at a fast pace and they work with recruiters in a very collaborative way. They see recruiters as an extension of themselves. The biotech and life science sectors make quick decisions compared to many tech companies.

There’s a different sort of mentality in the US and Germany. I think they see recruiters as a more valuable partner and they treat you that way, it’s a respected partnership. But again, if you mess up, or don’t do things properly, they won’t tolerate it.

What keeps the UK market so transactional?

I think that is partly due to some of the behaviours of many UK recruitment companies who tend to take a mercenary short term approach. They don’t do themselves any favours. The UK recruitment sector can be guilty of being too focused on immediate results. You meet some of the principals and owners and they are all about selling before you have even started.

It can be very sales and profit focused without enough attention on care and compassion for the client or the candidate. That’s what we want to continue to bring to the UK.

Your CEO, Mark Nielsen, has been recognised recently (named both 2018 CEO Magazine Executive of the Year Awards at the 2018 CEO Magazine Executive of the Year Awards), which is fantastic. I am interested, as the founder and chairman, what you see as the single most impressive thing about Mark as a leader?

There are many impressive things about Mark. He’s pretty much egoless. He has a style that doesn’t rub people up the wrong way. He’s very focused on solving the immediate challenge or problem. He works for the good of the company and everybody. You identify that in him straight away. There’s no bullshit and no self-centred behaviours. In addition to all that he’s huge fun to hang out with. That’s a fantastic quality to have in a CEO.

As you may know, Mark is gay and in his earlier professional life, he was in investment banking where he felt he had to hide this part of himself. More recently he’s been able to express himself much more and through that Mark has encouraged others to express their true selves. He wants everyone at Talent to feel comfortable enough to bring their whole selves to work and has created, what I call, a safe work culture; a working environment where people feel they can be themselves. He doesn’t judge and he doesn’t throw an ego around.

Mark has a very inclusive mindset. People feel safe and he’s just great to be around. The best objective indicator of everything I’ve said about Mark is that our staff engagement levels, as assessed by Gallup, are amongst the best in the world.

You appointed a global CMO, Melissa Brown, earlier this year. What did you hope to accomplish with her appointment and how’s progress going so far?

We have the three distinct regions of Talent; APAC, UK/Europe and North America. North America is still fairly young however in UK/Europe and APAC we have a traditional corporate structure with a CEO, a COO, CFO, and a local Head of Marketing.

Over the past few years, we have been focused on becoming a global business and a global brand across those three regions. To get that right, I saw a need to coordinate the activities across those regions linking them all together to achieve certain synergies. So rather than everyone duplicating the same thing in each region, we’ve looked at it and broken it down by specific marketing functions. For example, our graphic design and art function is based in Birmingham, UK; our communications function is based across Melbourne and Wellington. There’s a clear demarcation but linked together across the top. And so far, it is working pretty well.

Melissa was in Hong Kong with Telstra. She started the role in Sydney and got across that and now she is based in San Francisco, which is good time zone for our business. She has a mix of starting around lunchtime and working into the evening as well working in the early mornings to account for time zones. It’s starting to work well. We’re starting to get efficiencies and synergies from that.

It is a big job to try and connect things globally but having a global Head of Marketing is working really well. Rather than having three of everything around the world, we have one that services the other areas.

PART 2

Moving on to Talent RISE; what were you hoping for when you established Talent RISE in 2014?

The idea stemmed from my own disappointment with seeing how a lot of young people’s capabilities were overlooked and going to waste. Youth unemployment rates in Australia at the time were unacceptably high, twice the total workforce average and in certain communities, it was through the roof; around 40% to 50%.

RISE was created in response to this. Our core activity is placing people into jobs so it seemed a natural extension of our business to focus on helping those who need the most support and encouragement and use the leverage at our disposal to do something about the problem.

We work with young people who have experienced barriers to employment and offer them education, training and help them with mentoring, CV writing and interview preparation. We help them complete the journey towards work. Wherever possible, we place them into tech or digital related roles. We have been fortunate to receive a lot of buy in from our clients and the support of the business community has been fantastic.

What has progress been like over the five years of RISE’s existence?

Our first incarnation of it didn’t really go too well. We had well-meaning people but they were very much administrators and we did not make much progress. I was fortunate to meet Jane Tewson CBE. Jane has her own groundbreaking NFP organisation called Igniting Change and is probably one of the most creative and successful philanthropists in history having created Comic Relief and Red Nose Day in the UK many years ago. She has a long history with Richard Branson and has played a key part in shaping Virgin Unite’s philanthropic impact.

Jane is a wonderful human being, one of the humblest people you could meet so we were delighted when she joined our board a couple of years ago. She takes on the most difficult projects and cases. I was privileged to visit some of the projects she is involved with such as; the Asylum Seeker Centre and Port Philip Youth Prison. I took a lot of inspiration from what I saw and received a lot of support from Jane.

Consequently, we built RISE with a different group of people running it; people who had been through the school of hard knocks; people who could tell their stories, and relate to the young people we were trying to help. As a result, Talent RISE really took off in Sydney, then Melbourne and now has great momentum.

Talent employees are involved with mentoring so the whole team is behind RISE. Some of our regular recruiters moved into working with RISE. The skillset is similar but the conversation is different and as a result we saw a completely different reaction from our clients. . Our customers didn’t see us as an annoying recruiter with a short-term agenda. We were blown away by how much RISE was embraced by the corporate community. It’s been a fantastic thing and we keep developing it.

What are the future plans for Talent RISE?

We are looking to roll it out in all our regions in Australia. It’s in New Zealand, where it’s going very well. London and Manchester both started about a year ago with Birmingham, Bristol then Europe (Germany) soon to follow. Eventually, we will launch fully in the US although we are already doing some great work with the homeless community in San Francisco. It’s been fantastic and we are learning along the way. We also recognise that for some of these young people the support never actually ends.

What’s been interesting is that a lot of RISE clients are not necessarily using our main business. Maybe they resisted our overtures over the years to be a supplier but picked up with us on RISE. It’s great. I don’t mind. It really has been so uplifting internally for the soul of the company. The sales teams got on board and they experienced first-hand the joy of seeing the lives of these young people change when they were given a second chance in life or even a first chance. It’s had a transformational impact on the offices. It’s been fantastic.

We are not going to rest until Talent RISE is in every part of our business. And we want to encourage other organisations to copy what we are doing. It’s been one of the pleasing and impactful things during the history of this business.

I love the whole premise of Talent Rise. Moving back to Talent and your recent publication; Human, how did it come about?

We were reading research around the benefits of a diverse workplace but not much about the experience of specific individuals. So we created Human: Global perspectives on diversity in tech. We deliberately did not include statistics and figures. We went around the world and interviewed about 25 people from diverse backgrounds, from different countries, with different stories and each facing different challenges. All those people who shared their story with us were delighted to participate.

While we have always embraced an inclusive and diverse approach, it made us realise … wow there are some great stories here. It reinforced our desire to keep doing that. Then we said let’s share it with everyone out there and demonstrate why it’s important and why they need to do it.

What’s been the response to Human?

It seems to have taken off and it’s been well received. A lot of people have picked up on it with over 200,000 views and thousands of shares. We hosted Human D&I events in Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, Wellington and Manchester featuring panel discussions with panellists from diverse backgrounds. We are very humbled by the overwhelmingly positive response it’s had and very grateful to the participants who shared their stories and learnings.

What I loved about Human was the fact that you are sharing success stories rather than telling employers what they should do or might do. It’s actually providing examples where it’s not just the individuals who have overcome something but they have changed the organisations they have been a part of. What are you hoping it will do to the people who read it and the communities it reaches?

I hope it helps to create greater awareness and understanding for people of all backgrounds and persuasions and challenges the perception of individuals, leaders, and organisations. And by doing this I hope it encouraging them to create more inclusive work environments.

Sometimes I think ‘culture fit’ is a cop out, and companies use it as an excuse to only hire people who are like them. Culture fit shouldn’t be someone who went to the same school as you and knows the same people.

Culture fit needs to be about finding people who share a similar purpose and vision to the company, maybe a good work ethic and aligned views on how to treat others etcetera.

All the evidence now is showing that if you actively embrace diversity, the results are amazing. It broadens the minds of the existing employees. You end up with a better business.

We’ve seen it with RISE and elsewhere; when someone who’s had challenges or comes from a diverse background is given an opportunity they tend to seize it with both hands. It’s what we have learned and we decided to share it via this book and we hope it inspires people.

What do you see as the role of the recruiter in educating the hiring manager, or the end user client, about diversity and inclusion?

It is the job of a recruiter to educate a client. We believe that diverse workplaces start at the hiring process and we see it as a duty of ours to influence the companies we work with to look beyond stereotypes and find exceptional people from all backgrounds to join their teams. We encourage our clients and Hiring Managers to see the whole person and the benefits diverse people bring with them to a workplace

Some recruitment companies are brave enough to do this. Some just follow instructions, and hand the client resumes and add little value or insight. I think it is vital that as recruiters, as a recruitment company, you play a part in shaping the hiring strategy for companies. Some companies are already fairly progressive. That’s great. Some need to learn more and be more open minded.

Talent is very connected to Virgin Unite, the entrepreneurial foundation of the Virgin Group, and in particular, a division of it called the B-team. Last year, Talent along with Perpetual helped launch the Virgin Unite B-Team initiative 100% Human at Work. The initiative is very much about educating employers and corporates to see their employees as people, as human beings rather than as just resources. The 100% Human Principles are; respect, belonging, purpose, equality and growth. The initiative is opening the minds of employers to help them think and act differently in order to be more human- focused organisations.

Certain industries have got a way to go in the way they think about things. I think we have to be bold enough as an industry and as individual recruiters to have these types of conversations. And also, be brave enough to not work with organisations that you don’t respect. I have always been a fan of working with people who match your own values. That is important in business. Just work with those who have the right mindset. If, as an industry, we start to think like that, then eventually change will happen.

Do you have any metrics to measure what progress your recruiters might be making in terms of having clients consider more diverse short lists and making hiring decisions that may be reflective of that expansive mindset? And, if you don’t, is that something you are considering?

One thing we are developing is an online tool based around 100% Human at Work. It’s an online set of questions that really enable you to see where you sit on the scale towards becoming 100% human We want to encourage companies to be 100% human and be measured against it and, ultimately, have it as some sort of a badge of honour..

This was our idea. We pitched to Virgin. Instead of having gatherings let’s start a measure. Let’s measure companies. As is their way, they said okay you guys go off and build it. We are currently developing it in conjunction with Virgin Unite as a tool and an accreditation program.

What’s the major focus for you at the moment as Executive Chairman of Talent?

We are on a mission. We want to redefine recruitment. I am quite passionate about shaking this industry up in terms of lifting the level of professionalism, service, compassion and increasing the value we add.

There are some great companies out there in our industry but, overall, I think our industry has let itself down a little bit. I think we are not adapting with the times. We’ve got HR Tech start-ups frantically developing ways to disrupt our industry but in truth, most are struggling. I think there is a lot we can do as an industry to change from within and create a much better value proposition.

At Talent, we’ve invested heavily in a unique platform for contractors and temporary workforces. We are seeing a major shift in the nature of workforces as freelancing becomes more popular. In the process the contracting community, whether it’s in Australia, America or Europe, is experiencing challenges around inclusion, disconnection and communication.

To change that, we built a life hub platform ((Engage) around loyalty, well-being, wellness programs and really looking after our freelance or temporary workforces. It’s an important step. I don’t think the industry does enough. It’s very transactional. Take a timesheet, give pay advice and that’s about the extent of the relationship. We really want to build a close bond with all the contractors we place. The Engage platform has been a big success in Australia and New Zealand. We’ve got about 8000 people on it and we’re currently building the technology the US and UK.

We are trying to redefine the way we operate and hopefully how the industry operates, to take service levels to a whole new high and evolve with the times. I think it’s important. As an industry, overall, we are a little bit dead on our feet. We’re not being inventive enough. Everyone’s just waiting for HR tech to come and support the party.

What do you expect, or hope, you’ll be doing in five years’ time?

In five years’ time, I hope we have gone a fair way towards accomplishing our goal with initiatives such as Engage and RISE and in doing so help reshape the way recruiting companies operate. We want to build a very different sort of business that’s more than just recruiting. We want to be doing all sorts of interesting things to add a lot more value. One of our core values is to break from the pack – and that’s what we want to do!

That’s my personal mission. And, in the process, make Talent truly global. I am very proud that something that started as an Australian business and a Perth business has been able to undertake this.

The US is a big market so that’s why I am there; to personally lead our quest to make it happen.

That’s how I hope it plays out.

Well, you have done fantastically well so far, Richard. It’s great that there is an Australian company that’s not just delivering great financial results but is really making a dent in the world of diversity and inclusion. Congratulations for what you have achieved so far and thanks for talking with me today, Richard.

Thanks a lot, Ross. I appreciate it. I’m very proud of our team.

It’s been good to talk to you.

 

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1 Comment

  1. Bernie on 26/10/2019 at 5:29 pm

    This is great to see such an innovative recruitment company taking the lead and stand out from the pack! Can’t wait to see what other goals Talent are able to achieve in the future.

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