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Standing out from the crowd

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Geoff Morgan was a founding partner of Morgan & Banks in 1985, which was Australia’s leading recruitment company for many years. In 2004, he and his business partner, Andrew Banks, won a major award for sustained success in business.

In their book, Flourish and Prosper, the pair tell the story of Morgan & Banks, but also provide a manual for creating and running a successful business.

Before delving into the Morgan & Banks success story and the other businesses the pair have been involved in, let’s get an idea about the two of the most accomplished business builders in recent Australian business history.

“It’s a funny story, really, for both Andrew and myself because we both started off in something totally different,” Morgan says. “One part of my family grew up in New England in New South Wales, and I spent a lot of my holidays either there or in Byron Bay, and there I grew a love for farming. So I wanted to be a farmer, but I became a wool classer.”

As a wool technologist he found himself tied up with the trade unions in the Wool Classers Association and ended up as the secretary for the trade union, which Geoff thought was quite an interesting twist.

After a stint in New Zealand, New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria — primarily in country areas – he ended up in Sydney because of union business.

“Then I got sucked into a job for a few years in the shipping industry, and worked on the waterfront managing three or four different unions because I had a background in unions,” he explains. “And I actually found I had a bit of a skill managing tough people — the shearers are not easy to manage.”

International exposure

With that experience under his belt, Geoff followed the path of many young Aussies taking a working holiday to the UK and landing a job — surprise, surprise — in a recruitment business on Oxford Street, London.

“The company was called Josephine Sammons and everyone else said I’d be no good at it, but the lady who owned it said ‘I’m taking a risk on you’ and over a period of 12 months, I loved it,” he recalls. “I was good at it and they wanted me to stay, but I came back to Australia with my wife because we were starting a family.”

By then he had his taste of recruitment. He got a job in a recruitment company in Sydney and his love affair with the industry was set to develop depth and longevity.

He believes his knowledge gained from the London experience gave him an edge. “I think London’s one of the most difficult markets in our industry anywhere in the world,” he says. “And the irony about that is that every time I go to London now, I walk up the same set of stairs into the same tiny little office and they’re still doing everything the same way as they were 25 years ago.”

The other half of the story

The other part of the dynamic duo — Andrew Banks – was another unlikely recruitment trailblazer. He started off studying biology, and thought he was going to be a biologist.

But reality did not match his plans, so he decided he wanted to do something else and found a job in human resources in the UK working for Brown & Root, which was a company managing oil rigs offshore throughout the UK and the North Sea.

“Then he — as a ten-pound Pom — came to Australia,” Morgan reminisces. “And I always say he needs to pay that back!”

Not surprisingly, he secured a job in recruitment in Australia after trying his hand as an actor — he was on the raunchy television soap Number 96!

Morgan points out something coincidentally entrepreneurial about the two mutual business builders, which indicates their inherent programming to own businesses.

“The ironic thing about Andrew and I is that at exactly the same time and in that time period, we both owned restaurants in Sydney around the corner from each other and were competitors,” he reveals. “He owned and was a partner in Sorren’s, which was a restaurant where they broke up peanuts and left them on the floor. That was its claim to fame.”

Morgan was involved with a steakhouse restaurant called On the Inside, in Sydney’s Surry Hills. After their forays into restaurants they then became recruitment competitors and that’s how the pair faced off and go to know each other.

The Morgan & Banks’ seeds were sown when Andrew was running a training session for the industry in his offices in Sydney and Morgan went along.

“It was probably the first training session that I’d ever gone to in the industry in over 10 years, and out of a 100 people we were the only two people talking,” he recalls. “Each time he spoke, I thought ‘wow, that’s not bad, he knows what he’s talking about’ and when I spoke, he felt the same way.”

Powerful duo

The budding mutual admiration society was followed up by a phone call from Banks a couple of days after that training session to have a cup of coffee. (The entrepreneur in Banks could see the opportunity in a link with Morgan.)

“He tried to recruit me for his organisation and I told him that I was going into business on my own, thank you very much but it was a nice lunch,” Morgan says. “About a week later he called me back and asked if we could have another lunch. He wasn’t happy in his job ¬and ironically, both of us left our employers for the exactly the same reason — they wouldn’t share the equity in those businesses even though we’d probably been instrumental in building both of those companies up to be market leaders.”

Their former bosses must be kicking themselves! The irony was, the owners of both of those companies allowed these livewires to go, basically because they wouldn’t share the equity.

The doors on Morgan & Banks swung open on the Australia Day weekend in 1985, listing in 1994 and it ushered in a period of spectacular business growth that culminated in a very public sale to American giant recruiter TMP/Monster in 1999 and it’s still going, of course.

By that time the company’s sales had reached the dizzy heights of $700m! “We stayed with the company for three years, so it’s still going under the guise of Hudson nowadays,” Morgan explains.

While he recognises these entrepreneurial talents of his business partner and himself, he also acknowledges the role of a changing Australian economy thanks to government policy changes.

“There was a lot of spectacular growth that came out of the deregulation of the Australian economy,” he says. “No one really cared about recruitment in the old days, but Morgan & Banks became quite a famous name post-deregulation in the ‘80s”.

What happened? What changed in that period and was it related to any government policy decisions? (Morgan thinks the answer is yes and happily he and Andrew Banks worked out the impacts of the changes better than their rivals.)

Higher demand

Over that 10-year period before Morgan & Banks, recruitment started to become a value-add for people in the workplace, but that changed when skill shortages started to take place here in Australia as deregulation created growth and demand for workers.

The deregulation of the banking industry was a classic case in point and in fact Geoff Morgan remembers this eventful development with a memento from the then-Treasurer Paul Keating.

“We have a letter from Paul Keating in our office which confirms approval for opening Morgan & Banks, because at that time we couldn’t get the company registered,” he says. “Our accountant tried to get the company name Morgan Banks registered in Sydney, Queensland, Victoria and Canberra and every time we put it in, it got knocked back, and the weird thing was it got knocked back within 24 hours.”

The penny dropped for the pair that Paul Keating could have been putting together a banking licence for the JP Morgan Bank.

“So we rang Paul in Canberra and Andrew and I sat on one chair at our office, and said, ‘we’re trying to open a business called Morgan Banks in the recruitment industry and we can’t get it done’,” he recalls, “And we suspect that the reason you’re stopping us is because you’re giving a licence to JP Morgan Bank.”

After promises that he would call back in an hour, he was good for his word and gave them the go ahead to open the business if they put an ampersand between Morgan and  Banks. They also had to undertake that they wouldn’t go into the banking business. For the record, the Treasurer neither confirmed or denied that a licence for JP Morgan was in trail at the time.

In terms of expertise and talent, the pair were perfect compliments, adding to their combined competitive strengths.

“I was a specialist in sales and marketing recruitment and Andrew was a specialist in banking and finance,” Morgan explains. “And those are the two legs of the business that really took off after deregulation of the Australian economy.”

Behind the success

Asking Geoff Morgan to explain the success story of Morgan & Banks, he was generous with his insights.

“I think, putting it in a nutshell, when we started the business, Andrew and I planned everything before we opened the door,” he points out. “So we actually started it as a proper business. We had a business plan, we had a vision, a mission statement, we had values and we followed those things.
“So, if you like, we planned our business and worked to our plan and in those days, in our industry, they were all cottage industries — there were two and three people in offices and whatever they earned in the year, they took home. We ran it as a professional business and so we created something called a bible, which was a set of rules or a manual and every person that came in followed those rules.”

The impact was significant and was at the core of this business’ success. “We had a very slick professional business and when we said we’d called people back, we did do that,” he says. “When we said we were going to visit a client, we did do that — we did business properly.”

But that’s not all.

“And the second thing I think that made us successful was we looked around the world and we saw things that we thought were successful, we did them,” they reveal. “The irony we found out in business over the last 30 years is that most people have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t work. They just don’t do anything.”

But wait there’s even more! “The third thing we did was build the culture,” he says. “We built a culture in Morgan & Banks that drove the business. We used to say, ‘we make average people perform at above average levels and help them be eagles flying with other eagles rather that quacking around with turkeys’.

“We created a culture which people loved and perpetuated, so after a while we didn’t have to do anything. They did that, they loved the values, they loved the philosophy behind the business and it just took off.”

Point of difference

Since then the pair have opened up Talent 2, which has been making big strides, again, in the world of recruitment.

One point of difference Geoff left out which explains the spectacular growth of Morgan & Banks and that was their marketing plan. They embarked on a highly visible marketing strategy, which was heavily focussed on public relations. They even created a Morgan & Banks survey of small and medium-size business, which gained credibility with the media and kept the company in the public eye.

This should not be surprising considering, as Geoff explains, they were a planned business from the start. There is a powerful tip for all business owners in that masterful message.

Published on: Thursday, June 18, 2009

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