Career Advice Successful High flyers’ story

Boss trumpets career success

Albert Ellis, CEO of Harvey Nash, a top executive search, recruitment and outsourcing group with 40 offices worldwide, was a professional trumpet player for four years before going to the University of the Witwatersand in South Africa.

He graduated with a degree in accounting and business law and moved to London. To his surprise, he ended up taking a job in the recruitment field, joining the international recruitment firm Hays. Six years later he was headhunted by Harvey Nash, where he has worked ever since.

How did you get into the recruitment business?
When I went to London, I really wanted to combine my musical interests and career goals together and work for EMI, which was the biggest music company in the world at that time in the early ’90s.

I went to a recruitment agency, which put me through a long process, but ultimately I was unsuccessful.

I accepted another job offered by the agency, which was with a company I had never heard about – Hays. At that time it only had a UK franchise and a small business in Australia.

I was with Hays from 1993 to 1998, during which time it expanded into Europe, all over Australia and into Asia. Now, of course, it’s a household name.

I was working in the finance department and we were really highly acquisitive. We spotted Harvey Nash and realised the positioning it could give us in the executive market. They turned us down, however, and floated on the stock market in 1997.

Then I was headhunted by Harvey Nash – they remembered me from our previous meetings – and became their CFO. In 2005 I was appointed as CEO.

What are the characteristics of today’s talent market?
Today’s talent is very mobile, extremely agile and people can easily relocate. Communication without the internet was very old-fashioned. Now, messaging is instantaneous, and globalisation means a 24-hour world. It’s quite interesting to see what the internet and the global market has given this new generation – Gen Y – who want to fast-track their careers. They all have a very similar culture – they almost all share the same style, the same ideas and the same politics in many cases, no matter where you go in the world.

In terms of work, they want to join corporations that are more agile, fully technological, which have community-based values and are socially responsible. The mentality that “we can make it happen” or “we can make the office fantastic with skateboards and bicycles” is very attractive to them. They don’t want to join companies that ban social media, they want to join modern ones.

Internally, how do you respond to this trend?
Generally speaking, money is important, but is not everything. If we look at our employment survey, the thing that’s getting more important now is about community and social responsibility. As for Gen Y, career and skills development on a continual basis is very important. If that’s not there, you’ll lose them.

Gen Y likes to gain exposure to international experience, so we try to move people around – to the US, to Europe, to Australia, to Asia. This is great experience for them and it’s something they can put on the CV.

What are your main working responsibilities?
I think 70 per cent of my time is taken up with client relationships, marketing and external relationship-building activities, because I think the CEO is actually part of the front line.

Most of the people who work for me make sure the operations are running smoothly. What I am not doing is micro-managing the whole group across the world. I delegate that.

My working life very much reflects the season. At the beginning of the year, I spend a lot of my time on the achievement of our targets. I set the strategies for the coming year as well.

During the second quarter, I look internally at a lot of our events, particularly our CIO [chief information officer] survey, which is one of the biggest in the world. We meet over 1,000 of the world’s top CIOs. Meeting all these people gives me a real insight into technology trends.

During the summer I have a holiday, so I take maybe a week or two off. From September until the end of the year I am fully focused on the company’s targets, such as budgeting and strategies for the next year.

My work is pretty segmented and focused, as I think you have to focus on a theme, otherwise you can end up doing everything and achieving nothing.

Who are your role models?
I am very much influenced by Warren Buffett. I’ve read most of his books, as well as the books about him. He is very honest and loves to accept failure and defeat. He also loves to tell his shareholders where he’s gone wrong – so unusual for a CEO. One idea I got from Warren Buffett for our company was to pay a dividend, because shareholders appreciate the cash return. Paying extremely good dividends is one of Harvey Nash’s features.

I also enjoy the books of Benjamin Graham, Buffett’s mentor. In his books Graham talks about the margin of safety as a business and I apply that to Harvey Nash. We don’t have debts because we don’t have assets like factories and land. Instead, our people are our assets.

I have been very much influenced by Apple and Steve Jobs. Not necessarily by his character, but by his vision.

What are your hobbies?
Cycling is my real passion. In fact we have a strong cycling community in Harvey Nash. Two years ago, for example, we rode from Oxford to Cambridge, a distance of about 160 kilometres, in one day. Last year we did London to Paris in four days, while earlier this year we did the Olympic road race track in London.