See You At The Top
In 1979, Sarina Russo combined inspiration and desperation to open a small typing school with nine students. Today, she is one of Australia’s richest self-made women and the Sarina Russo group is a global leader in education, employment and training.
“I’ll have a cafe latte with soy milk,” Sarina Russo calls out to one of her employees popping over to the cafe down the street.
Meanwhile a few metres behind Sarina, stands another helpful staff member, holding a white cup and saucer of earl grey tea in one hand and a 2L bottle of milk in the other.
“She must have forgotten she asked for this,” she says, smiling at me.
That epitomises Sarina Russo, she is unlike anyone I’ve ever met before, she’s a powerhouse, a pocket rocket, a force to be reckoned with and she moves so fast I had trouble keeping up.
Sarina was in town to officially open the Sarina Russo Job Access Maroochydore office, the newest in her Sunshine Coast suite, complementing Noosaville, Nambour and Caloundra branches. After chasing her around the office, I finally wrangled the queen of job creation and pinned her down for a chat.
Thirty-six years ago, with just $2600 and a pair of shoes to her name, Sarina opened a typing school in Brisbane with 10 students (one walked out on the first day).
“If you can’t hold down a job like I can’t, you create your own,” Sarina says.
“When I started this business I had been fired several times over a period of eight years and bumping my way from one job to another until one morning I woke up and said I’ll do it or die.”
Officiating the opening of the Maroochydore office was Federal MP Clive Palmer, who also happened to play a pretty important role in the making of Sarina Russo.
“He witnessed one of my dismissals in 1978 and he thought there was a murder, there wasn’t, it was me who was hysterical, for then again I was being fired,” she says with her trademark enthusiasm (which I am later assured is genuine and not ‘put on’ for the cameras).
“I was there for two years and all of a sudden I got fired and there was really no reason, I was a good legal secretary, but the boss said, ‘It’s over’ and I never recovered.
The secret is being prepared for the UNKNOWN, taking a leap of faith and BELIEVING you can do it."
“Clive was there to save me, he said don’t worry don’t ever look backwards, look straight ahead and man I’ve done that.”
Yes she has – Sarina Russo Job Access is the largest Australian-owned private sector jobactive provider, opening 55 offices in Queensland, 180 in Australia and 200 across the world.
“I knew Sarina was a very special person when I heard her scream at her boss – I thought she might become an opera singer, but she couldn’t sing in tune,” Clive says in jest.
“Sarina’s boss at the time was very short on good judgement, today Sarina has certainly surpassed her achievements in life and more importantly she’s given it to other people.
“To be unemployed is a difficult situation, I know myself I started out being unemployed and sleeping on the floor at university and being homeless and one of the worst things you can do is think negatively of yourself and not have the self respect and the confidence you need to go forward,” he says.
Sarina certainly had the self confidence she needed to push forward and is now one of Australia’s richest self-made women - worth $103 million.
“I know what it’s like being fired, what it’s like not having a bed, what it’s like not being able to put a fridge in your apartment, what it’s like having no money, what it’s like feeling that sense of despair, I’ve been there,” Sarina says.
“What’s extraordinary is that gave me – a dormant entrepreneur, a hit and I didn’t realise I was an entrepreneur, but it takes a crisis, it takes a desperation, it takes a disruption in your life to elevate your thinking and think I don’t want live like this anymore, I’ll do it or die. That was the turning point in my life and I started a little typing school and the rest is history.”
In Sarina’s 36 years in business she has trained over 1200 staff members across Australia and into the UK – their British base is in good hands too, with Euan Blair, the son of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, as their CEO and Prince Andrew dropping into their Coventry office to check out apprenticeships on offer.
We could never have imagined what it is today on a GLOBAL SCALE, having a partnership with James Cook University in Brisbane, having Sarina Russo Institute, having a massive property portfolio, we could NEVER HAVE IMAGINED IT."
“We’re integrated, we understand education, continuous learning, we understand employers right now are going through disruptive technology, every business is being disrupted,” she says.
“Once upon a time you’d go to a library, now you pick up your iPhone, you press a button, you go to Google and you get all the information you want and once upon a time you’d go and buy books at a bookstore, this no longer exists.
“We have so many disruptions in our business and we’re here to help employers to partner with them on apprenticeships, on vacancies. We understand if you have the best team you will end up with profits and a growing expansion of a business.
“We’re here to serve employers, we’re here to serve job seekers, we’re here to be part of the community … if you win we win, if you fail we have failed and we are here to be here with you forever.”
A major driving force to opening the hub at Maroochydore was a job summit here on the Coast last year, where Sarina says she learnt how much the community yearned for a dynamic service provider.
Along with marrying job seekers with employers, Sarina Russo Job Access also helps people establish start-up businesses.
“When you do a start-up it might be shaped as a round plate,” she says dragging her cup and saucer between us, “it turns out to look like a cup, but you may want it to be shaped as a paper cup or a round plate, but things happen you can never predict.”
The secret, she says, is being prepared for the unknown, taking a leap of faith and believing you can do it.
“Don’t try to perfect something, just get started because it’s going to be different to what you ever could have imagined,” Sarina says.
“We could never have imagined what it is today on a global scale, having a partnership with James Cook University in Brisbane, having Sarina Russo Institute, having a massive property portfolio, we could never have imagined it.
“All I wanted was to pay my bills and survive and never have to go to a legal office ever again!”
While Sarina loves a celebration more than most, the fanfare at their office opening was testament to that, she says she is also a very responsible and accountable person dealing with people’s lives.
“In 2009 when the Rudd/Gillard Government closed us down in Queensland we had a choice, we could have said that’s the decision the government made, but we didn’t, Kevin Ayre my CEO at the time said we’ll go to the UK, we went to the Midlands and what we lost here – $50 million over three years, we won in the UK.
“It’s not what happens, it’s how you interpret what happens, that’s the difference between some ordinary person and some extraordinary person and if you want to be extraordinary you’ve got to do ordinary things extraordinarily well and do it every day.”
So what’s next? “We want to continue driving the passion on the Sunshine Coast, we’re invigorated, we’re excited, we’re competitive, we want to partner with employers for them to give us vacancies, for them to give us apprenticeships.
“We know what it’s like rolling out a business, we’ve set up over 200 offices in less than three months, we know what it’s like doing rollouts and we know what it’s like doing start-ups. We know what it’s like when you lose a client, we know what it’s like when you get a disappointment, we’ve been there. But before you even get through the tunnel you’ve got to see the light and see the vision.
“When you stop growing, you stop living, you’ve got to be excited by growth and expansion or tapping your full potential or doing something that gives you passion. This has certainly given me a passion.
“So ciao for now and I’ll see you at the top.”
And as quickly as Sarina blew in, she’s off again – something tells me she’s never slowing down.