Date posted: 25/02/2019 10 min read

Why CA training is the secret to the Talent CEO’s success

Mark Nielsen halved staff turnover and boosted revenue by 40% at Talent recruitment, and says it’s thanks to his CA training.

In Brief

  • Mark Nielsen CA moved from CFO to CEO Asia-Pacific of Talent recruitment agency in 2016, and since then has halved staff turnover and boosted revenue by 40%.
  • Nielsen believes, from a business perspective, his background as a chartered accountant is incredibly valuable.
  • His most important achievement, he says, is the improved work culture at Talent, which has underpinned the other successes.

Story John Burfitt

Photos Graham Jepson

One thing is abundantly clear in conversation with Mark Nielsen about his approach to business – you can take the man out of accountancy, but you can’t take the accountant out of the man

Not that Sydney-based Nielsen considers he’s left the profession; it’s just that these days he has a bigger role as regional chief executive of a recruitment firm that employs more than 300 staff globally – and had a revenue of A$560 million last financial year.

Nielsen initially joined Talent as chief financial officer in 2013 at a time when the business had recently expanded into Asia and was preparing for further growth. In 2016, founder and former managing director Richard Earl stepped into his current role as executive chair and handed Nielsen the reins as Talent’s CEO Asia-Pacific. Jon Butterfield and Colin Etheridge are Talent’s regional CEOs for Europe and the US respectively.

“Money is, of course, one aspect of keeping a team happy, but people want… a purpose other than just the daily grind. They want to be respected, and they want to be thanked if they do well.”
Mark Nielsen CA, Talent

In his first two years as APAC CEO, Nielsen lists his key achievements as halving the company’s staff turnover rate, overseeing the expansion of Talent into the US, improving earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) by 40% in the 2017-18 financial year, and inking a deal to sell a 25% stake in the company to private equity backers Quintet Partners. Over this period the firm has also opened offices in Amsterdam and Berlin.

But above all, he cites an improved work culture within the company as his most important achievement, and one that has underpinned the other successes.

Terms of the private equity deal, announced in October 2018, have not been disclosed, except to note that Quintet is now the second-largest shareholder behind Earl. Quintet boss Douglas Farrell told the media at the time that he was backing an ambitious strategy to almost double Talent’s annual revenue to A$1 billion over the next five years.

As well as a cash injection, the new shareholders also bring ideas. Quintet investor and committee member Thérèse Rein, the wife of former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd and founder of job services company Ingeus, is now an adviser.

Nielsen is clearly excited as he talks about the Quintet deal and what it means for the future of Talent, especially how they will achieve the planned A$1 billion revenue target in the next five years.

“That’s the dream, our B-H-A-G, our ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal’,” he laughs.

The target is built on three strategic growth pillars: ensuring the current offices are as profitable as possible; looking for new service lines to roll out (including recruitment process outsourcing), and monetising online contractor portal Talent Engage.

Founded in Perth in 1995, Talent now has 17 offices across Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Europe and the US, with a global staff of more than 300. The firm works with more than 10, 000 recruits every year, placing them in contract and permanent roles in technology and digital-based professions across a range of sectors. The Sydney office is the largest and serves as global headquarters, with executive chair Earl overseeing northern hemisphere operations.

How chartered accountant training helped

Mark Nielsen 

As the South African-born executive speaks about his success so far in reshaping the recruitment business, his mannerisms offer an insight into his accounting background. He answers most questions by explaining his points in sets of numbered factors, that he then ticks off on his fingers.

Nielsen breaks into a grin as he admits this is indeed the approach to business he learned while studying accounting at the University of Cape Town, and in the early days of his career as a chartered accountant in roles at EY, Anglo American and JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Immediately before joining Talent he was CFO of ASX-listed mineral sands and titanium miner Astron Corporation. His career experience also includes entrepreneurial stints as a founding shareholder of Afro-Pacific Capital, a PE group focused on the retail sector, as CFO & COO of Vestacor Ltd, a venture capital house focused on early stage mining companies, and later as a co-founder of Myriad Medical Holdings, which raised seed funding to roll-up medical device companies.

“Chartered accounting is probably – from a business point of view – one of the best backgrounds you could have because you learn analytical skills, you really understand numbers and financials, and you know every decision has an important financial component to it,” he says.

“The other factor is you learn how to manage and work with senior people – whether it be audit teams or C-Suite executives or clients on the commercial side.

As an accountant, you’ve grown up with those core skills when you’re very young, and then it becomes a matter of how your build on those skills.”

“A more relaxed environment can still be a high-performance environment. We find people are far more motivated in the way they approach their work.”
Mark Nielsen CA, Talent

Why a strategy for talent management is important

Nielsen says he has taken the strategic planning skills from his accounting and corporate finance background and applied them to the human element that is now his main passion – discovering, fostering and developing the potential of talent. Not just his team, but also the candidates they deal with.

“What I’m really passionate about is developing people to allow them to be their best, and this industry – recruitment – is one industry where you can do this,” he says.

“This is a pure people business and it’s about motivating people to set their ambitions high, and creating engagement with people in order for them to be the very best they can be. At the same time, you are also working to deliver great results for the company.

“When I became CEO, I wanted to take that culture to the next level, and in terms of engagement, staff turnover and increased profitability. We spent a lot of time looking at the values of the people working here and how they determined them.”

In 2017, Talent became a signatory to 100% Human at Work program an initiative of Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson’s B-Team, which aims to create workplaces where people can feel free to ‘bring their whole selves to work’. The program’s five core principles are equality, respect, growth, belonging and purpose.

“If you make sure the people within the organisation stand for these principles and believe in them, you’ll go a long way in getting a culture where people will not only want to turn up for work, but also be the kind of place clients and candidates will want to work with.”

Some changes were made to senior management, with a sharp focus placed on hiring and promoting managers who adhered to the newly articulated cultural values. Mentoring programs were initiated, workplace principles and values were clearly identified, regular feedback and direction became a standard, as did recognition of achievement. Each team was also working to business plans with clear targets. “In all, this took about two years to complete,” Nielsen says.

Staff turnover decreased from 25% to 12%, against a recruitment industry average of 35% to 40%. A recent Gallup survey of Talent employees found the ratio of ‘super-engaged’ to ‘disengaged’ staff was an impressive 38:1. “A good workplace is said to have a rating of about six,” Nielsen adds.

He feels vindicated that the strategy he rolled out two years ago to focus on Talent’s ‘intangible assets’ – its people, culture and brand – has played a key role in shoring up the company’s future growth potential.

“Having a strategy for talent management is so very important,” he says. “If you go back to 1975 and look at the S&P 500 Index, tangibles were rated as about 85% of the value of your company,” he says. “But in recent years, it’s swung the other way and intangibles are now 85% of your company’s value.”

How to keep your team happy

Mark Nielsen

A major part of Nielsen’s people-focused strategy is investing in training to keep the teams up to date with business and technological developments through a program called TalentEd which includes LinkedIn Learning and direct skills training.

“Money is, of course, one aspect of keeping a team happy, but people want training, they want to be developed and they want a purpose other than just the daily grind.

They want to be respected, and they want to be thanked if they do well.”

While the company does conduct regular staff reviews, Nielsen doesn’t believe in waiting for that formal process to give feedback to staff.

“You can’t sit someone down and say, ‘you should have done this or that three months ago’. By that time, it’s too far down the track to be of any value. As soon as there is any kind of behavioural issue, deal with it straight away, sort it out and move on,” he says. “It’s the same if someone has done well – congratulate them there and then, and move on.”

He believes a more positive work culture at Talent was critical to last financial year’s 40% bump in EBITDA.

“A more relaxed environment can still be a high-performance environment,” he says.

“We find people are far more motivated in the way they approach their work... it’s not rocket science.”

Nielsen says it is important to set goals and targets that are realistic and help staff achieve them from the bottom-up.

“It’s pointless saying to someone, ‘you’ve got 10 clients, now you need to have 50’, if no-one knows where they’re going to come from. It’s a matter of working with your own business plan, so you are keeping track of where you are going.”

Diversity in action

In 2017, Nielsen was a vocal supporter of the ‘Yes’ campaign in the lead-up to Australia’s marriage equality postal survey. Speaking to CEO Magazine in November 2018, after being named its CEO of the Year, Nielsen explained why the cause is such a personal one to him.

“Being gay and authentic was difficult 20 years ago in South Africa,” he said. “Coming out to my conservative parents as a gay person and accepting who I am resulted in me finding my authenticity; meeting my husband; and developing the courage to move out of investment banking and work with entrepreneurs. At the time it was difficult, but I found my niche and have been able to establish a rewarding career.”

“Coming out to my conservative parents as a gay person and accepting who I am resulted in me finding my authenticity.”
Mark Nielsen CA, Talent

A year on from the passing of marriage equality laws, Nielsen is concerned about Australian political pressure to allow religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTI students and teachers.

“Any form of discrimination is just not OK. I think there is still a bit of a stigma for some people feeling comfortable about being who they are at work, and worried about the consequences,” he says. “This is why embracing diversity has emerged as such an important issue in recent times.”

He believes there’s an onus on leaders in the corporate world to participate in public discourse and drive social change. “I’ve been in Australia for 20 years now and we’ve got to a point where we [business leaders] have the ability to help achieve change, and it is good to be part of that.” And he sees himself as part of a new breed of leader who truly understand that people are the core asset of a company.

“As Generation X is now taking hold, there’s a sense of far more progressive attitudes, because we have all grown up in a different environment,” he says.

“Ultimately, what’s the point of a business existing if it’s not actually supporting the environment it’s in? That’s what anyone who’s in a leadership role needs to be asking right now.” 

“Ultimately, what’s the point of a business existing if it’s not actually supporting the environment it’s in? That’s what anyone who’s in a leadership role needs to be asking right now.”
Mark Nielsen CA, Talent

Lessons in staff retention

Slashing Talent’s own staff turnover rates by half over the course of two years remains one of Mark Nielsen’s proudest achievements. These are his tips on how to improve staff engagement and retention.

  • Establish a clear culture within the company.
  • Promote that culture through each level of management.
  • Set a benchmark for behaviour as well as performance.
  • Nurture and develop effective leaders.
  • Set up a system of recognition and reward, and offer clear feedback.
  • Make training and education a regular part of the process.
  • Encourage an entrepreneurial spirit, welcoming ideas on new ways of working.
  • Set up clear channels for communication.
  • Learn to delegate.
  • Have clear business plans for all people and all levels of management.
  • Find out the real reasons why people are leaving, and address the issues you can do something about.

Building brand strength

Nielsen says the way people are valued and treated within your company is crucial to building a valuable brand.

  • Be clear about what the brand of your company is – in all areas.
  • Promote the values of that brand within your team so it is clearly understood by all.
  • Ensure the values of that brand are communicated to your partners and clients.
  • Make sure those drivers are well maintained.
  • Ensure your team feels engaged and involved with what they are working on.
  • Be transparent on the plans and targets of the company.
  • Your team is on the front line; never forget their wellbeing is paramount for putting your company’s best face forward.

Read more:

Available from the CA Library, Building Careers by Paul Golden

Read it here

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