Co-founder, chairman and CEO of Drake International Bill Pollock sheds light on a lifetime in HR
Even now, at the tender age of 88 years, Robert William “Bill” Pollock – the co-founder, chairman and CEO of global staffing and human resource management company Drake International – still types with two fingers. To save time, he peppers his intra-office missives with abbreviations from a list of about 100,000 kept in a little notebook, including “TUFSUTWM” (“thank you for sharing your thoughts with me”).
During one of his visits to Hong Kong, Pollock shared his thoughts on the history of recruitment and talent management in the HR industry in an interview with the Classified Post.
The co-founder, chairman and CEO of global staffing and human resource management company Drake International says his entrepreneurial spirit has driven his career.
“You can say I ended up in this sector accidentally, simply because we discovered the need for temporary staffing, and we saw a big opportunity to serve that need. It was a no brainer,” he says.
Pollock recalls that he always had an entrepreneurial drive, starting with his sale of bookkeeping and accounting machines from IBM and NCR in the early 1950s in Winnipeg, Canada, soon after finishing a commerce degree on full scholarship at the University of Manitoba.
“That was when I realised that companies were basically overstaffing. They were staffing for the peak period, but when workload fell, productivity declined – because there’s not much work, but you still had all these excess staff,” he says. “This showed me that there was a huge potential to improve productivity if companies would just reduce their staffing and outsource the work to us.”
Coaxed by Pollock, then 22, and Jim Shore – an equally youthful entrepreneur Pollock met at Burroughs Corporation (which later became Unisys) – a handful of companies in Winnipeg outsourced peak loads, such as inventory calculating, sales analysis and system installation, to Office Overload – the firm that the duo set up in 1951.
When some of their clients said they couldn’t outsource the work, they asked Pollock if he could send Office Overload people in. It signalled the birth of temporary staffing, or flexible labour, which was partly responsible for bringing housewives and mothers back into the workforce.
“Women did not appear in offices in those days once they got married. Husbands wouldn’t allow their wives to go to work. Our ads in the classified section appealed to women to ‘get a new lease on life’. There was a lot of resistance, but somehow it worked,” Pollock says.
Indeed, things somehow always worked out for Pollock. He was born in Winnipeg during the Great Depression. His Polish father was a blue-collar railroad worker while his mother, who came from Austria, stayed home to look after him and his eight siblings. His older brothers had all moved to the US by the time Bill was toddling around, so he grew up with his sisters.
At school, he entered the armed services under Canada’s national compulsory cadets scheme and was set to enter the Royal Canadian Air Force when the second world war ended.
At age 17, Pollock “accidentally” started his own business while studying actuarial science at the University of Manitoba. “I started working for a lawn-laying company that was owned by a crook – he disappeared without paying us our wages,” he recalls. “So I ended up getting a lawnmower and mowing people’s lawns on my own. By the time I left university, I had 22 guys working for me. That’s when I knew I wanted to have my own business eventually.”
Pollock is also credited for expanding the Young President’s Organisation – which he joined at the age of 27 in 1956 – and establishing branches in Europe and Australia, creating a global organisation for entrepreneurs like himself. Office Overload, which became Drake Overload, started as a three-person team in Toronto, offering temporary hires in its first few months and growing to five within a year, Pollock says. Five more were recruited when money started flowing in, and units such as Drake Personnel (for permanent hires) were set up, with expansions in key Canadian cities. The group, now under the Drake International brand, has at least 1,500 employees in more than 10 countries, competing with giants such as Adecco and Manpower.
Pollock can’t recall having anybody in his family or circle of friends who fuelled his entrepreneurial drive. He says setting up shop in a place like Winnipeg was extremely difficult in those days. “I had to sell my lawnmowing business to gather enough capital for my business machines venture,” he says. “Looking back, I somehow regret selling that landscaping business.”
That last statement has to be taken with a grain of salt, as the soft-spoken and self-effacing Pollock is known for his tongue-in-cheek humour. But the venture that emerged from the sale of that lawn-mowing business is nothing to laugh about.
Along the way, Pollock acquired a number of technology firms in the 1990s, enabling Drake to deliver of a full suite of HR products and services, and winning for its founder the unofficial title of “Mr HR” in the industry.
In 1967, Pollock became the sole owner of Drake when Shore and several top managers were tragically killed in a plane crash. Divorced with no children, Pollock is a Canadian citizen who calls Monaco home four months a year. He travels the rest of the time, to visit his teams in Canada, US, UK, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, South Africa and Australia (he’s never missed the Melbourne Cup for the past 30 years).
He is coy about succession plans, but associates say Pollock has been structuring his global operations to outlive its founder, relying largely on a senior management team he has personally chosen. Drake Holdings, through which Pollock controls his global interests, is privately held, so it’s hard to pin down Pollock’s net worth. In August 2007, one of his online ventures, Laureate Education, was sold for US$3.4 billion (HK$29.6 billion), leaving Pollock a reported windfall of US$183 million.
His advice for budding entrepreneurs is simple. “Always keep your eyes open for opportunities, for where there’s a need,” he counsels. “The basic concepts are always the same – it’s about working with opportunities that are out there, and presenting it to potential clients in such a way that it becomes meaningful.”
Pollock says he has never stopped studying.
“Look around and see what’s new and what’s happening, dig into it and get something to read about it, and then test your ideas,” he says. “I always believe in doing tests and research – or TRI, as I would type it: always test and research your ideas.”
Bill Pollock lays out five management mantras
Value veterans “There’s a bias for hiring young workers, but this overlooks the talent, experience and knowledge of older workers – and that’s extremely valuable.”
Be inclusive “We should promote women, honour them and respect what they can do. Women have a lot of talent that was not recognised for a long time.”
Appreciate your staff “I spend a lot of time with my managers. And I make it a point to take my best-performing workers on annual trips as a way of rewarding their performance.”
Balance your talent “Calibrate your workforce and workload. Don’t pay a full-time salary for a part-time job.”
Lead by example “I work seven days a week, but to me that’s a good work-life balance. I read a book years ago about growing old disgracefully. The first chapter’s advice was to work yourself to death because, statistically, people who retire early pass away early.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Personnel touch.