Getting started in business is never easy, particularly when you’ve got next to no capital. Rebecca Spicer caught up with two dynamic businesswomen who’ve built a successful recruitment company with some government assistance and a clear focus on making people the priority.
Born in the Whitsundays on Queensland’s north coast, Gemma Kelly established early on that she wanted to have money—and lots of it. "Not so I could say I have money but because growing up on the Whitsundays, I saw what money bought: nice boats and luxurious holidays. It was about being able to make choices," she says.
Coming from a small business family, Kelly always thought she’d like her own one day and she left her seaside haven to study and then work full-time for Sydney University’s Department of Finance. A chance lunch with a retired recruitment agency owner and family friend turned into a business deal when the two agreed to start their own recruitment business. "I was 22 at the time and didn’t have any hang-ups about jumping off cliffs, and so that’s how it started," Kelly says.
In 1996, Staff it was born. In a market already starting to swarm with recruitment companies, Kelly knew Staff it had to have a unique approach. "A lot of that was based around the candidate and the candidate getting serviced and making them feel like people rather than a number," she explains. "The flip side of that was always the clients. Because at the time the service levels in our industry weren’t particularly high."
Staff it began slowly with Kelly still working a day job to support herself in the start-up process. "Despite there being low start-up costs, my first business partner didn’t want to put in any capital and I didn’t have any capital. So I thought, I need money. You can work a job and work your business as well but there comes a time when that’s impossible. I thought, I need some form of income to pay rent and living expenses."
Realising she needed help if the business was going to survive and grow, Kelly became involved in the Federal government’s New Enterprise Incentive Scheme (NEIS). "You do a six-week course which culminates in a business plan, which was good because it went through a lot of stuff I probably hadn’t thought about. From there you go through quarterly check-ups and work with a mentor as well. The whole program goes for a year, and overall it did help financially and with the business."
A few years later, 18-year-old Emma Brown started as a staff member and soon became Kelly’s co-director. "At the same time Em joined the business, my other business partner was ready to go and do other things so that’s when Em bought in. We’ve been business partners for around seven years now," she says.
She believes the duo complement each other well in the business, and seeing them together it’s easy to sense a strong friendship there too. "We’re very different, but similar in a lot of ways. I think the main thing is trust."
Brown also took advantage of some government assistance to further develop her skills as a manager and business owner. In 2001 she participated in the Women in Business Mentor Program, which is funded by the NSW government. "I had run blind until then," she says. "My mentor was the first person to ever put me in my place. I do tend to have a lot of ideas, but she captured that and made me put those into action.
"Overall, the program helped me learn about discipline, being accountable, and staff management as I was new to managing people." And Brown says she got so much from the program she’s considering becoming a mentor herself one day.
In 2001 and 2002 both Kelly and Brown participated in the Small Business Expansion Program (SBEP) run by the NSW Department of State and Regional Development. The program assigned a consultant to Staff it to work with the directors to create a growth strategy. "We were looking for an opportunity to take the business to the next level, and this seemed like a great tool," says Brown.
Since then, the duo have gone from strength to strength, growing Staff it steadily. Kelly stays focused on the back end of the business and growing the partners’ wealth, while Brown concentrates on the front end, being the face of the company and managing a staff of around 12, which is also growing. They were just about to take over more floor space on their level and will start looking at other floors in the building in the next year or two. "But again, it’s going to be controlled growth, otherwise our whole mission goes out the window," Brown says. "If our quality starts to go down and we can’t treat our candidates and clients well, then we really don’t have a point of difference."
Staff it’s reputation for looking after its candidates has already been recognised in winning the title of Australia’s Favourite Recruiter in their category for the 2003 and 2004 SEEK Annual Recruitment Awards—a big advantage given the current candidate-driven employment market.
Their focus on people, however, doesn’t stop with candidates and clients. Kelly and Brown often surprise their staff with rewards, the biggest being an annual team-building trip, which has taken the group and their beloved pet dog, Zac, on trips to the Whitsundays, New Zealand, and New Caledonia. "Recruitment is very fast-paced and it can be quite stressful at times when all the clients and candidates want everything at once. So we do try and have a lot of fun in the office, but also reward the staff quite regularly with various things," says Kelly.