View from the top: the success of Sarina Russo

After sending thousands of young Australians on their path to the top, the Sarina Russo Group now has its eye set on conquering Great Britain's employment market.

Specialising in education, training, job creation, recruitment and real estate, the Russo Group tested international waters two years ago and is continuing to power ahead with expansion.

Founder and managing director Sarina Russo says she is hoping to secure further contracts throughout the United Kingdom in time for the New Year.

"It's been very important because it's given us the opportunity to expand our expertise and also trans-fertilise our capacity within the UK and vice versa," she says of the shift abroad.

With a clear idea of job seekers' challenges and industry know-how, Russo shares her career highlights and reveals plans to become a corporate entity.

FIRST BUSINESS VENTURE

Russo, whose father emigrated from Italy in 1952 followed by her mother and three older siblings, grew up in the Brisbane suburb of Spring Hill.

Having worked in various legal secretary roles and as a part-time typing teacher over the years, Russo finally went out on a limb and launched her own business in 1979.

What started out as a simple typing and commercial practices operation soon evolved into the Sarina Russo Group - an international business spanning various portfolios.

The Russo empire includes: Sarina Russo Schools | Australia; Sarina Russo Job Access Australia and Great Britain; Sarina Russo Institute - Skills for Industry, James Cook University Brisbane; Russo Recruitment; Sarina Russo Apprenticeship Services; VOICE; Sarina Russo Global Initiative (not-for-profit arm) and Sarina Investments.

Last year, the group - ranked 8th in
Q BR's 2009 Queensland 400- celebrated its 30th anniversary and now employs more than 1,100 people.

Today, more than 5,000 students graduate annually from the Sarina Russo Schools | Australia and more than 25,000 people are placed into employment by Sarina Russo Job Access (Australia & United Kingdom) each year.

UK EXPANSION

One of the biggest milestones for the group throughout its development was breaking into the UK market - something which Russo admits was "very challenging".

"It caused a lot of pain but a lot of joy as well," she says. "It involved little steps along the way."

Once Russo's business model had taken off in Australia, she says it was a natural progression to expand internationally.

In early 2008 the business started writing tenders for work in the UK, and in October 2009 began a sub-contracting arrangement with IT training company Serco.

Sarina Russo Job Access soon hit a chord with UK jobseekers, and is helping more than 13,000 18-24 year olds into work placements with community and voluntary sector organisations.

Through its Community Task Force Program, Job Access delivers services from 14 offices throughout London, Brighton and the West Midlands.

Still proving a hit in the UK market, Sarina Russo Job Access is currently undertaking a tendering process to win further contracts for 2011.

BUILDING A BRAND

The ability to break into overseas markets such as the UK is something which requires a lot of back end work, according to Russo.

When it comes to building a respected and lucrative brand, she says time is simply "not enough".

"What you need is to be is focused and driven. Take on every opportunity and every challenge," she says.

"Interpret every problem that comes to you as an experience of learning."

Like most SME owners struggling to get their ideas off the ground, Russo has faced, and ultimately overcome, her fair share of obstacles.

"Last year when the Rudd Government made changes to the job services contracts in Queensland I was at risk of losing 160 staff and closing down something like 12 offices," Russo says.

"I decided that I was going to keep all my staff and keep all my offices open and we re-engineered ourselves."

Not only did Russo manage to retain all her management team and staff, but Sarina Russo Job Access achieved the 5-star seal of approval (system to assess performance of job network providers) across various Queensland offices.

Rising above the barriers put in place by legislative changes, the Sarina Russo Group went on to secure multi-million-dollar contracts with the government with its re-vamped training vision.

In December, Sarina Russo Institute - Skills for Industry will hit the $10 million mark for its Productivity Places Program, which is part of the Australian Government's skilling Australia for the future initiative.

"You need to elevate your thinking and be able to lead and take your team and your people with you," Russo says of overcoming hurdles.

"You must become self empowered to do more and become more."

QUEENSLAND

Russo's enthusiasm and dedication to her industry has not only made herself, but her business, somewhat of a Queensland icon.

"I started here 30 years ago in Queensland and I think Queensland people have acknowledged our company in many ways," Russo says.

"We've built a reputation and we have an extraordinary performance where the brand has trust.

"When jobseekers are looking for jobs they think of the brand name Sarina Russo, and when people want education they look for the brand name James Cook University Brisbane."

Synonymous with training excellence, the Russo Group has used Queensland as a launching pad to achieve international success.

"I think that the brand has really evolved on a state basis, national basis and international basis," Russo says.

Having moved to the sunshine state as a child, she says Queensland provides the perfect environment, both economically and socially, for start-up SMEs.

"It's a great state; we love being Queenslanders," she says.

OUTLOOK

A believer in "manageable" growth, Russo admits she is not looking to expand into additional overseas markets in the near future.

"I just want to make sure we can hold it together, drive performance and drive our forecasts and be a successful company; because growth doesn't necessarily mean success," she says.

As the company is not considered a big borrower, Russo says it overcame the financial crisis with minimal, if any, damage.

"We have a very low debt ratio which is one of our secret ingredients to formula of success," she says.

"Another one is to be able to exceed the expectation of your customer."

Despite her strong family ethos, Russo says she has a corporate vision for the business.

"I think that you've got to make sure there is a fine line between family and corporate and you've got to get the best corporate structure so that when you grow into global business, your family are integrated with the corporate culture as well," she says.

"I do not see the business going into a public arena … but I do want to make sure we've got more of a corporate structure to cope with the expansion on a global scale."

TIPS FROM THE TOP

Thirty-one years after her brain child came to fruition, Russo still gets a kick out of the daily business grind and works ceaselessly to keep ahead of the pack.

In 1996 she was appointed Honorary Ambassador for the City of Brisbane, has been a member of the Clinton Global Initiative since 2008, and is a former member of the Queensland Tourism Board (2002-2009).

With a goal to "be the best", she says it is all about constantly being passionate and working to enhance someone's life as you would your own.

"Always make sure that as a leader you have the capacity to take your people with you," Russo offers as a key business tip.

"If you have a vision, you have got to be able to execute that vision. You can visualise, but if you can't communicate it to your management, you're going to lose," she says.

In addition to a solid business plan and like-minded staff, Russo says it is equally important to be committed.

"Have commitment to good health," she says. "This applies both physically and corporately."

Finally, Russo stresses the importance of having a full and adventurous life.

"Take risks and enjoy the uncertainty as well as embrace the certainty," she says.

"My goal is to untap my full potential and never cheat my journey of life. If I can do great things, I want to lead as an example of that."