Recruitment Market Segment LS
Recruitment Market Segment RS
Tuesday, 05 August 2008 16:00

Ross bucks the recruitment market trend

While the most recent figures show that the IT jobs market has been surprisingly resilient in the face of a softening economy, listed IT recruiters have still been severely punished by the market. However, one recruiter stands out from the rest in terms of its relatively benign treatment on the local bourse.

Ross Human Directions, founded by Julia Ross in 1988 and publicly listed in 2000, has by no means escaped the wrath of investors. It is after all a small cap stock and small caps have been, to put it mildly, out of favour since the beginning of year.

The share price of Ross is about 40% off its high from one year ago. However, this could be viewed as an achievement compared to other recruiters playing in the IT space which are typically down more than 55%, regardless of their financial performance.

The recently appointed president of the Ross and Julia Ross divisions for Australia and New Zealand, Sheryle Moon, believes that the company's resilience with investors in the face of adverse market conditions is largely because of its diversity.

"We are the only listed recruitment company which has a complete full service offering across the business," Ms Moon says.

"We've got the Julia Ross brand in the low-end professional, clerical, secretarial space. Then we've got the Ross recruitment brand, which is in the IT and specialist professional space. And then we've got the Ross non-recruitment brands, including IT and HR consulting practices. We've also got managed services, which is a complete recruitment process outsourcing group. In addition, we've got business process outsourcing which is quite independent of recruitment.

"If you look at that spread then, depending on how the economy moves, we have a breadth of opportunities that most of our competitors don't have."

IT recruitment has grown within the Ross organisation to the point where it is now almost 20% of the business, with the vast majority being in the contracting space.


Ms Moon, who was until four months ago CEO of IT peak industry body the Australian Information Industries Association, is no stranger to IT and says she relishes the opportunity to work for an Australian publicly listed recruiter.

"Prior to Ross Julia Ross, I had only worked for American multinationals," she says.

"There's a real attraction to work for a listed Australian company. It provides an opportunity to see a direct impact of what I do potentially on the earnings per share - some really hard line commercial measures."

According to Ms Moon, recruiters - especially IT recruiters with large contractor bases - have been put under pressure because of rising interest rates.

"There's no doubt the recruitment industry, because they pay temps and contractors before they get the money in from the clients, carry not just organisational debt but also financial debt," says Ms Moon.

"So good management around the terms and conditions that you hold with your clients and ensuring that your debt collection is first rate is really important because - let's face it - over the last 12 months the cost of money has gone up considerably with both interest rate and bank fee rises.

"Most organisations will be travelling quite well. It's just the extra burden that the cost of money increases places on them in running their day to day business."

However, the upside of having a large contractor base in the IT industry as well as other recruitment areas is that there is less risk than with businesses relying primarily on permanent placements.


"It's good to have a constant (cash) flow," she says.

"If you look at recurring revenue then a real solid temp book and a really solid contract book - particularly when you hold those with major clients - is definitely a good place to be in. You still need to balance that with perm because as the economy changes organisations move between temp and perm as they seek to balance their work forces.

"We also have an executive search arm who do higher level placements and they're quite busy at the moment."

As far as its IT client base is concerned, Ross does a lot of work at large IT development shops within banks, telecommunications companies and especially the federal government.

"In both the contracting and consulting spaces we're very fortunate to have a book of vetted contractors and employees'" says Ms Moon.

"We've developed a practice around supplying very secure people government agencies that require high levels of security."

While some other recruiters have noted that both the banking sector and the federal government sector have seen a drop in jobs on offer, Ms Moon sees no real evidence of this as far as the Ross business is concerned.

"Banks are large enough to accommodate a number of sectors. There is quite a difference in the economy in the marketplace in wholesale banking, retail banking and financial planning. If I look right across the banking and finance sector, including the large banks, second tier banks, mortgage institutions and overseas banks, there are specific areas where we've seen some drop off but we've also seen some pick-up in other areas. We've seen more decline in the international banks than the local banks."


Likewise, Ms Moon believes that the federal government cannot simply be lumped into one sector.

"It depends on which agencies. Most recruiters would have a plethora of contractors in maybe one or two agencies and their competitors will have a plethora in another couple of agencies. In the sectors that we work in, we haven't seen a massive drop off in cointractor numbers or revenue volume year on year.

"In addition, we got our temp and consulting businesses to help us balance and to onsell. We're very good at cross selling the products and services from different parts of our business so you get a better spread across a client. The more products and services you deliver into a client, the more difficult it is for them to move away and the more work you put into understanding their requirements and adjusting as you go along."

So while it certainly hasn't been an easy ride for Ross investors over the past 12 months, it does appear that the market pretty much agrees with Ms Moon that the recruiter has got its balance right. However, IT is just 20% of the company's business, so as far as technology jobs are concerned the jury may still be out.

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Stan Beer


Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.



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