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Julia Ross became the only female-owned business and largest sole owner business ever to list on the stock exchange in 2000. Founder and CEO Julia Ross joins Peter Switzer on his Sky Business Channel program SWITZER to discuss how she did it.

At time of writing, the business is known as Ross Human Directions. Before getting into the recruitment industry, Ross was working in construction, and says she “really tried to battle with being the only woman in a man’s industry”. One day when it got particularly tough, she went a recruitment company and they suggested working for them. Ross was later asked to work for the business in Australia.

“I just came into the industry by default,” says Ross.

Julia started her own business alone back in 1988. Shortly after, the world went into recession and it wasn’t until 1992 that things started to recover.

“I found that that was quite a distressing time,” she says. “Dealing with people who were coming into see us then – that was possibly worse than what we’ve just been through now.You never know until you completely look back, because we don’t know if this is over. We don’t know if there’s anything worse to come.”

Ross says companies have cut back on staff, but it may have been necessary to do that, particularly in the finance sector.

“Awful as it is, I think businesses need to be pretty prudent during these times and I was very prudent myself,” she says. “You’ve really got to conserve cash, and we all know what the situation is and how difficult it is to get out of debt, so if you really don’t do that, people can be caught out.”

Ross doesn’t believe people overreacted.

“I think Australian companies are quite good at looking after their people, and that’s a last resort,” she says. “They don’t go in severely because they also remember that we’ve come out of a shortage of labour, so [companies] didn’t want to lose good people.” 

A different world

A number of initiatives were introduced during this downturn that hasn’t really been seen in prior recessions. This includes businesses offering shorter hours or less days a week to work. Ross says this is great because “it’s keeping people’s heads above water rather than just mass unemployment”.

Ross gained a lot of experience being part of a global organisation. When the world hit recession, she said she had to find ways to differentiate her business.

“During the recession in 1990, we had singing receptionists and we had jokes of the week, and we really went quite mad with it. Because we were a small entrepreneurial organisation … we could have fun. And we did a lot of that. Since we’ve gone more into executive and other things, we’ve had to tone it down slightly.”

Ross Human Directions has moved into human resources and managing people’s workforces on top of its recruitment business, providing multiple sources of revenue.

“If you think about things like payroll outsourcing, clients that now have our payroll system, it’s digital revenue,” she says. “[Human resources is] not as subject to changes in the economy as recruitment traditionally is.”

Business tip

Switzer asks how Ross has changed as a businesswoman since listing the business. Ross says it has made her a lot more serious.

“I think the fun of just risking your own money when you’re private … it has taken it a little bit away, probably in the middle part when I was just trying to get used to being public,” she says. “I tend now to think probably the most important thing is to run the company correctly and not listen to anyone else and just do what’s right for the company.”

Switzer has been watching Ross since the early 90s and reminds her how she liked to manage everything. To this end, Ross says she is still “pretty detailed”.

She does, however, admit she can’t be across everything and has to trust managers in the business. Like many businesses, having great staff is the key.

“I think it’s just important to be across the important stuff and employ great people,” she says. “If you’ve got great people with you, you don’t need to worry about much at all. That’s the hard thing. It’s just having those really special people that are accountable and feel responsible. That’s the important thing, to surround yourself with those sort of people.”

Published on: Monday, February 15, 2010

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