It was 1999 when Nick Waterworth and Paul Lyons started Ambition in a tiny Sydney office. No pun intended, but they had ambition in spades and building a little cottage industry business was never on their radar.
But here’s where things got interesting.
“We listed Ambition on the stock exchange in November 1999,” recalled Nick, who acts as the group’s CEO.
“We essentially listed a business plan. We were a startup before they were called startups. And that was unusual,” he added, noting that it was “very hard work. It might be some of the hardest work I’ve ever done.”
That influx of capital enabled them to hire more people, put better systems in place and “grow more aggressively than we would have been able to with just our own capital.”
From there, the only way was up, with the first office outside of Sydney being established in Hong Kong in January 2001. “Paul had been working in Hong Kong before we started the business,” said Nick, making that first decision easy. From there a presence was established in Melbourne and in January 2008, the group went to London and has grown ever since.
“We’ve done a couple of acquisitions. It’s primarily been organic growth with where we stand today.”
With two decades under their belt, there’s been plenty of lessons learned along the way, a few of which Nick generously shares below:
On the challenge of finding and hiring great talent
“I wish we had a magic bullet for this. It’s the constraint on growth in our business. Broadly, the market’s pretty good everywhere we operate. There are lots of opportunities. But a couple of thoughts…One is that talent joins talent. What we’ve seen is that where we have a great team leader or a great country MD, magically, they get good people. That’s just what happens. If you have great people that are leaders in your business, they will bring in other talent. Conversely, what I’ve absolutely noticed over the years is that if you have a leader who is not cutting it, he or she will find it almost impossible to get people.
Secondly, the most successful thing for us is to hire rookies (associate consultants, but that’s how we lovingly refer to them as). People who are either raw graduates or with a little bit of experience doing something, but not in recruitment. And we train them up. We find they have the most flexible mind, the greatest appetite to learn. Sure, it takes a while to get them productive but that’s the biggest mechanism for us is bringing in rookies. We do hire experienced people. But we have to make sure that we don’t get seduced by the résumé because the person’s experience is only half of it. They might be terrific at X, Y or Z. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to work at Ambition. So we have to get cultural fit right as well.”
On culture fit and holding on to talent
“Like all recruitment agencies, we do have staff turnover, although much less in our most successful offices. We actually rarely lose people who are going really well. Most of the people we lose either leave the industry or they’re not actually going that well. The job of a coal face recruiter is quite tough. There are all sorts of things coming at them. There’s a lot of time management required. There’s a lot of pace required. It’s a tough job. If you get it right, it’s a very rewarding job in terms of job satisfaction and financial rewards. But that’s not enough to keep people. They have to feel that they’re in an organisation that has values that match their values. I think they have to feel they’re in an organisation where they can express themselves and to a reasonable degree, do things their way within the confines of the company’s approach.
We also strive to be a global boutique. We’re an international recruitment firm, we’re in five countries, but we want it to feel like a boutique. Good resources, good people, good career prospects for them, but not too much of a corporate feel.
They also have to feel they work for a company that gives a toss. I like to think that we do care about our people. We will go the extra mile for people that have been with us for a while or are doing the right thing. It matters to me that we have a caring culture.
We do a lot of CSR initiatives. For example, this is our 20th year and so we plan to carry out 20 CSR actions to celebrate that. Recruitment is a hard-nosed business but getting involved in various CSR initiatives is a good thing.”
On service-market fit
“In the early days, we were very conscious of not reinventing the wheel just for the sake of it. So when we started in Sydney, the thing that we knew best was finance recruitment. So we did finance recruitment. There’s plenty of other finance recruiters out there. We just tried to do it a bit better than a lot of the competition. When we went to Hong Kong, that was the market that Paul knew. Again, finance as in accounting and banking were the areas we knew best. So that’s what we started in. Those things fell pretty easily into place. And we did all those under the Ambition brand. That was kind of a no-brainer.
The AccountAbility side of things was interesting. We started AccountAbility back in 2005. And in Sydney, Ambition was predominantly active in the qualified and up markets, so finance managers and so on and a little presence in the accounting support markets. But it was very small. And we were struggling to grow that.
We were interviewing somebody to come in and build that part of the business. We were very serious about hiring this person, and I remember very clearly. Paul called me one evening (we were intending to offer this person the job the next day) and said: “I think we should think about this differently.” He said we could bring this person in and have them run sport on the Ambition brand. It’s just another division. But I think we could do something more exciting and start a different brand, start a different company because this person is very entrepreneurial. It made a lot of sense to me. Then Paul said:
By the way, I’ve got a brand name. I think we should call it AccountAbility.
“Which makes great sense. I asked how he got the name, to which he replied, “I was at the boat show in Sydney last weekend and I saw a boat called Accountability,” which is particularly odd because Paul can’t swim. What on earth was he doing at a boat show? I have no idea.
Anyway, we decided to offer this fellow a job, offer him the role of starting AccountAbility as a separate brand. And I have to say, that was a great decision. So we now have Ambition that, as a brand, speaks to qualified and above people, those people earning $100K or more. And we have AccountAbility. That’s a little bit funkier and speaks to that accounting support market. And I’m quite certain that we accelerated faster in accounting support because we took that decision.”
On branding and business names
“Paul and I decided we needed to get some advice on [branding], so we went to see a brand consultant [Stephen Layfield] and our brief to him was ‘very crowded marketplace.’ We wanted something that could set us apart from the competition in some way. We needed to have a brand that would work in Asia, something a little bit webby, and we’d come up with a name that we thought was incredibly cool.
So we discussed that with him and he could tell we really liked it. Two weeks later, he comes back to us, reiterating the brief we’d given him. He then added: “If you want something that is the same as everybody else, then you should go ahead and call yourself E-Careers because that’s what everybody’s doing.” Then he quite literally picked up a board that had ‘Ambition’ written on it and said, “If you want to be different, you should call yourself Ambition.” I remember Paul and I looked at each other and went ‘yep!’
Amazingly, the URL was available. We could trademark it. We had it in green, which was a very deliberate decision because, in our sector, there was a lot of blue and red. And green was a good colour in Asia. That’s how Ambition came about.
A couple of months later we had a launch party. A guest I knew well came over to me who had been both a candidate and a client over the years. He had a very serious look on his face and said: “I want to talk to you about your brand.” With further prompting he added: “If I look at your competitors their brand is about them, it’s using their own names. If I look at Ambition, it’s like looking in a mirror, your brand is about me. That’s why I think you made a good decision.” That’s possibly the most eloquent expression of what we wanted to try and do.”
On setting yourself apart from the competition
“We’re a broker in a market, the same as a stockbroker or a real estate firm. In such markets, it’s very hard to come up with a truly hard, unique service offering. If it’s good, people will copy it instantly. I’d love to tell you that we’ve got these five magic things that nobody else does. We don’t. What we have is great people.
We have an expression ‘inch-wide, mile-deep.’ So we never try to be all things to all people.
“We stick to narrow channels in our markets. We become an expert. One of the best examples is or London office. They only recruit accountants and marketing people for professional services firms. Nothing else. That’s one of the key things that makes them successful. They’ve got great people.
If you consistently compete on price it’s only got one conclusion. You’re going to disappear if you keep doing that. There comes a time when some business is not good business. And you just have to walk away. I think you must have strong self-esteem as to the value that you’re providing and stick to that to a reasonable degree. Price is a factor, but if it’s the biggest factor and you simply agree to everything your clients ask, you won’t be around for the long-term.”
On repeat business and attracting new clients
“Repeat customers are good because you don’t have to re-learn what they look for every time. You can get more and more efficient in recruiting for those clients. One of the things smart employers do is build relationships with their recruiters so the recruitment is efficient. From their perspective, there are fees to pay, there is a cost to their business and they rightly negotiate that. The smart ones though, see it not simply as price. They set about building relationships with their recruiters. Firms that do that have a much higher success rate and quicker time to fill, which is good for us, but also really good for the employer.
As an extension of that, you can have clients that in 2018 were hiring a lot but in 2019, for some reason, you might lose the account, or they’re not hiring as much. You can’t rely on that. You have to develop a new business program. It ends up being a juggling act regarding the composition of the client portfolio.”
On core missions and value propositions
“Let’s talk about Watermark [Ambition’s executive search brand] for a moment. In the early days of our mission, we had tried unsuccessfully to move into executive search. We just couldn’t make it work under the existing brands. In early 2005 I received a call from someone I knew quite well. They were representing an executive search firm that was looking to merge with a larger group. I wasn’t sure initially but they convinced me it was a really good business with good people. That was Watermark and it’s turned out to be an incredibly resilient business.
We’ve always pursued the strategy of ‘one kitchen/two restaurants’. We have one back office which services Ambition, AccountAbility and Watermark.
But Watermark has its own brand, its own website, and their own database so they think of themselves as Watermark employees. If a candidate or client was to go to the Watermark website, they wouldn’t be able to figure out it’s part of the Ambition group. That’s very deliberate because they need a different experience. We’ve sacrificed cross-selling to some extent to retain the integrity of the Watermark brand and culture.
We have an internal saying [which came from a Sydney Swans AFL football coach] which essentially translates to wanting people who don’t have massive egos, that can work in a team. We also don’t want passengers and we don’t always get that right.
Externally, our mission is ‘building better futures’. I reckon if you asked any of our 265 employees, they would know that. I think that’s a pretty good start.
“It’s simple, it’s three words and I think it means something in a recruitment company.
One thing Paul brought up in the early days was that to be really successful, we’ve got to pass the BBQ test. Say, on a Sunday at a BBQ you’re speaking to someone and they ask you what you do. You mention that you work in recruitment. They then ask who you work for. You say Ambition. They respond with: “Oh really? I hear they’re really good.” BBQ test passed. That’s the way you can have it. It comes back to building better futures.”
On recruitment’s ups and downs
“Not long after we’d set up in Hong Kong, SARS came along. It was brutal. And it scared the whole place. So many expats left Hong Kong. For 3 months we made no placements at all. I remember we had a board meeting after the third month of no revenue and we talked about closing down. Thankfully, we had a non-executive director on the main board of Ambition who lived in Hong Kong and he said:
You must not pull out. If it means you’ve got one employee in a serviced office, you’ve got a shingle in Hong Kong, because it always bounces back.
“That’s pretty much what we did. I think we got down to two people. Hong Kong did bounce back and is now absolutely a star office for Ambition. A few learnings there…have good advisors and listen to what they say!
Then came the GFC [Global Financial Crisis]. September 2008 was our best month since starting the company. In October, the revenue completely collapsed. Within a period of about three or four weeks, the world stopped hiring. And it was very scary. It was a very sudden downturn in revenue, particularly permanent revenue and contracting dropped as well.
We had a view of the pipeline but we knew it looked ugly. Our reaction was to cut hard and cut early. And sadly that does mean people. Secondly, for a period of three months, we put everybody on a four-day week. We agonised about that because it’s a pretty big thing to do, giving people a 20% pay cut. Yet we had zero arguments from anybody because the world was turning upside down. It was calamitous in an economic sense. Nobody knew the bottom. Nobody knew how bad it was going to get. So to have 80% of a job was better than having 100% of nothing and that 20% over a three-month period saved us. That was a lifeline and everybody was on board with it. I think some recruitment companies can get themselves into trouble if their financial metrics aren’t strict enough. One of my early recruitment bosses said “details, details, details” and it does matter. There is an element of black and white. The numbers don’t lie. But then there are qualitative elements to decisions like the Hong Kong one.
On the flip side, something we tried to do is invest hard when we know we’re onto something good. When we know we’re onto a good leader or the market conditions are good. We really encourage them to hire to push more deeply into markets.”
On the value of having mentors
“There’s my wife, who not only listens a lot but she’s in business herself and is very wise. My business partner Paul. I think we’re very different characters with different strengths. We’ve had a director on our board called Paul Young, who is a very sage advisor. He’s not a recruitment person which I think is good. He’s a finance individual. So he’s been great and obviously he’s been with us since the beginning. The last person to mention was my old boss at Michael Page called Terry Benson, who was the group MD. He left a few years prior and about five years ago we hired Terry as our advisor in London. He’s quite a tough guy. He’s pretty outspoken and he will absolutely disagree with me. He’s a wonderful sounding board for our MD over in London.
I think it’s a fatal flaw if you believe you can solve everything yourself. I don’t know if there’s anybody that can do that.
On virtues needed for success
“I would say authenticity. I think if you’re truly authentic people will walk over hot coals. I really do. Patience is part of it as well. In any industry, you get people that are very volatile and that absolutely won’t work. Business goes up and down. That’s what happens. Painting a picture of the future is important. I think if you can paint a picture of the promised land in a broad, possibly even slightly hypothetical sense, that gives people a view that we’re going somewhere.”
On building Ambition
“We talked about leaders and what I’ve seen is that there is a 100% correlation between when something goes well, it’s down to the person running it. When something goes badly it’s down to the person running it. So you can be in the best market in the world if you’ve got the wrong person running that office, you’ve got no chance of being really successful. Or the other way around. You can be in a terrible market but if you’ve got a great person, things will still be OK. So leadership is just hugely important. Nurture good leaders, develop good leaders, internally promote talented people, back them for promotions and then back them to hire people.”
On growing a small agency
“Let’s say, you’ve got a single office firm and it’s yourself plus 15-20 recruiters and you want to double it. They can’t all be reporting to you. You’ve got to take some trust and build a little structure and have some people taking day to day responsibility for different teams within your company. I think that’s a big thing. And sometimes people fall down on that. They’ve been very hands-on and they struggle to let go.
And if you don’t let go, you just can’t grow.
“Another part is the inch-wide, mile-deep aspect. You think, “we’re doing well in finance recruitment, and there are opportunities in legal. We’d better do that.” Well, of course, there are opportunities in legal but that doesn’t mean to say you should do it. So stick to your knitting. Push deeply into markets and invest in systems [like a decent CRM or finance platform]. It won’t work at scale otherwise. Systems can be very expensive but if you don’t have the right ones in place it will hold you back. Select carefully and it won’t kill you financially but will be an enabler for a decent-sized business to operate in a coordinated fashion.”
On the importance of candidate experience
“Our mission is building better futures. If that relates to one group, it’s candidates. I spoke about the BBQ test before. It’s in our DNA. That’s the thing. You’ve got to get it in your DNA. You can have systems, you can follow up, you can ask for feedback, you can do net promoter scores. That’s all good and we do that. But the biggest thing is to get it in the life flow of your company because candidates become your clients. Candidates obviously who have friends who they can refer to you. It’s critical that you get that into your culture from the top down, that the CEO believes it, that the directors and managers believe it. Therefore, the consultants at the front line believe it.”
On shifting from recruiter to agency owner
“Take a gun recruiter. To be one, you’re often very self-focussed. In a leadership role or to run a recruiting business, you can’t be self-focussed. You need to be orientated to the business as a whole, having a team approach.
You then need a commercial mind. That’s definitely more than simply generating orders from clients and fulfilling those orders.
You need to be able to develop and stick to a plan. It’s very easy to bounce around in recruitment. You come across the next shiny thing, but I think changing direction is important if there’s a real reason to do it. But it’s very important to have a plan and have the resolve to stick to that.”
On keeping up with recruitment technology
“I would be completely overwhelmed. It’s just a complex landscape. I have sympathy for people as time management is more important than it’s ever been. We spend quite a lot of time on learning & development, helping people to use technology well. You can have a great bit of technology, but if you’re not using it well, you either don’t get the best out of it or worse, it can slow you down and hamper you in the job.
We make lots of technology decisions. We don’t get them all right.
I think where you don’t get it right, you’ve got to be brave enough to cut it loose and move on. Stop putting good money after bad.
“You certainly need to be aware of the technology landscape in recruitment but don’t get too distracted by it.
The best recruiters are still prospering. Pre-Internet, you could be a below-average recruitment firm and still make money. You can’t do that anymore. So the bad die young.
Then there’s the speed. If you don’t get faster, you’re gone. So that is one thing that we concentrate on, as much of our work is competitive. You know, when I started in the recruitment industry, we didn’t even have a fax machine. I’ve seen a lot of evolution. A good recruiter in 1980, when I started in the industry, would almost certainly still be a good recruiter today. They’d have the same core skills.”
On the numbers to track
“It’s very difficult to pick one number. Debtors are extremely important as you can get yourself into real strife if you’re not managing your debtors carefully. So the actual quantum of the debtors and the days outstanding is an extremely important thing for any business. Being on top of your accounts and having integrity in your accounts is important. It’s about knowing where you stand and having faith that they’re accurate. You’re going to get into awful strife if you’re not measuring that.
At the front one, one that I believe in a great deal is first interviews arranged with clients. Not just interviews, but first interviews. And as an addendum to that, the number of first interviews per job. So if you have one first interview on a job and the client’s interviewing four people, you actually have a less than 25% chance of filling the job. If you have three interviews on that job and you know the client’s interviewing four people, for a good consultant, you probably have a greater than 75% of filling the job. Human inclination will often take you in the first direction, but you may as well go to the casino.”
On recruitment marketing
“I think marketing has always been important but the nature of marketing has changed enormously. The marketing has been skewed more towards candidates and the client-side has been sales orientated. I think that’s broadly still true, but we have many instances where we win clients or retain clients because of marketing initiatives. It’s important to have a brand strategy and brand guidelines and stick to those. I’ve seen a couple of instances where you allow things to wander in terms of the way the brand is managed or implemented. And it can end up like a dog’s breakfast. So have a brand strategy, brand guidelines that are written and make sure that you’ve got somebody who owns the brand and that they adhere to it.”
On Ambition’s future
“We’re looking to invest in what we’ve got. We’re not a market leader anywhere and that’s a good thing because it means there’s an enormous amount of growth, even without opening any new offices. The biggest thing on our radar is more headcount, possibly more service lines in existing offices.”
Elvis Presley once said: “Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine.”
The group has come a long way and two decades later, are firing on all cylinders.
The next 20 years should be one hell of a ride!