Sarina Russo: How to build a business

From frequently sacked typist, to a multi-millionaire, Sarina Russo knows what it takes to build a business. In fact, Russo knows what it takes to build multiple businesses; taking The Sarina Russo Group from humble beginnings, to its current state of an ever-expanding empire.

Sarina Russo loves being a dragon. Not a fire-breathing mythical monster, but a panel member of the hit television show, Dragon’s Den. Even in a phone interview, the entrepreneur’s energy is dynamic. This businesswoman knows what she wants and how to get it, and wants the people she works with to have it all, too.

While her business story starts almost 27 years ago, what makes Russo the person I’m talking to today started well before that. Immigrating to Australia from Italy with her parents when she was five, Russo rarely did things like everyone else. By her own admission her teachers voted her most unlikely to succeed, and her parents had their own dreams for her to stay at home and work on the family business until she married and raised a family. Russo had other ideas.

After leaving high school, she was fired from one typing job after another for ‘attitude’ problems. Battling on and determined to prove she could succeed, Russo rented a small room above a bank and with $2,600 to her name, started a typing school.

The Sarina Russo Group, with an estimated turnover of $60 million, is made up of Sarina Russo Schools Australia, Sarina Russo Job Access, Russo Recruitment, Russo Corporate Training, Sarina Investments and, most recently, Russo Higher Education, a partnership with Queensland’s James Cook University.

The biggest driver in her success has been strong leadership, and her strength and no-nonsense approach is evident in our conversation. She surrounds herself with a team of like-minded people. “You need really strong leadership, but that’s not just from me, it’s from the executives to each individual. They need an understanding of the culture and values of the leader. When I started in 1979, it was with a small team and this grew and grew with people who were like me, or complemented me and my drive.”

While the early days were driven by passion, commitment, single-mindedness and self-belief, she admits there was a little bit of self-doubt. There was also a fair share of setbacks, from the education department’s initial refusal to endorse her courses, to a fire that destroyed her school. But Russo never gave up, and it’s this attitude that she implores all SMEs to adopt.

As part of this never-say-die approach, even in the early days the job for Russo was never finished. Not satisfied with simply teaching her students, she sought to place them in jobs (instigating the recruitment arm of the business), instilling in them the same can-do attitude. It was her ability to motivate her students that encouraged her to put pen to paper, co-authoring Meet Me at the Top with Russ Gleeson. Her mantra is simple: “By enhancing others, I enhance myself.”

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Active ImageHer success story is similar to many I hear: she made it through determination to succeed and prove doubters wrong. Running a multi-tiered company is challenging, Russo says, especially when it comes to balancing work and family life. “I don’t find it easy,” she confesses. Which is why she appoints a strong executive team to manage the different areas of the business. She also constantly challenges and provokes her executives, and expects them to do the same with their teams. “I’m always raising the bar and I won’t compromise my standards in any of those things. And sometimes people can’t cope with that, so sometimes I say you either come with me or I leave you behind,” she states, making no apologies. “There are times when leaders have to re-strategise, rethink, ask themselves questions and assess their ability.”

She compares the competitive edge of business with a tennis tournament: you have to lose a few points to win, like the recent Australian Open final win by, Roger Federer. “Every champion [in business and life] doesn’t win all the time, and you do get your disappointments, rejections, and days of ‘is it all worth it?’ A winner keeps on pushing on, continuously and single-mindedly.”

She likes her sporting analogies, which could go a long way to explaining her drive and competitive streak. She has no regrets about wanting to be the best and drives this through servicing her customers and staff. Despite the cliché, Russo says excelling in customer service is the most important part of her business. And to do this she employs the right staff—about 700 of them, in fact. But caring for her staff is equally high on the list, as she constantly challenges them to keep them interested in their roles.

From day one, she says, she has had many mentors, but as the business grew she would outgrow them. As she pushed the business further she would find others to help her to the next stage. “Then you get to a stage in your life, like I have, where you want to give back to the community because you’ve received so much. So I became a mentor for others.” Without investors to back her projects, all financial help came from her bank—reluctantly at first, but then with more confidence.

It’s this background that drives her most recent foray into venture capital.

Investing with Dragon’s Den

Dragon’s Den, a spin-off of the UK and Japanese hits, is a television show where would-be entrepreneurs and start-up businesses put their case to a panel of five ‘dragons’, entrepreneurs in their own right. Joining Russo on the panel are Peter Higgins, Darryn Lyons, Suzi Dafnis, and Siimon Reynolds.

The premise of the show is whether the dragons will invest in the business ideas put to them, buy the company out completely or turn them down flat. And yes, it really is their own money. This is the first time Russo has participated in this kind of investing, preferring property to build wealth rather than buying shares, but it didn’t stop her from investing in three companies over the course of the six-episode program.

“I didn’t go into Dragon’s Den thinking I was going to make massive returns,” Russo says of the motivation behind her involvement. And choosing the businesses and people to back was simple: “I was inspired by people, as much as the product.”

Russo purchased 50 percent of Stikboard, an all-terrain wheel-free skateboard, because it was created by an unemployed Queenslander who Russo felt an affinity with. She bought 50 percent of AJ Wheely Cleaning because she was inspired by how the creators were desperate for work so they started cleaning bins for a living. She also bought a 20 percent stake in Heirs and Grace (with two fellow dragons, who later pulled out of the deal), and put around $180,000 into shares in businesses during the series (all up, the dragons combined spent $1.3 million).

Not wanting to simply be an investor, Russo is keen to be an active partner in the businesses, drawing on the skills of her team to propel them. So, while the businesses were giving up large stakes in their company for a specific dollar amount, they were also receiving invaluable business acumen. In fact, the day after each episode with her new ventures went to air, press releases were sent out to relevant news agencies to build the businesses’ profiles. “That’s why Dragon’s Den was so special to me, because it gave me the opportunity to inspire, motivate and coach viewers as well as people on the show,” she explains.

While the dragons were put together for their like-minded business interests, it was their difference that provoked the most sparks, especially when Russo suggested to one punter that he should go back to uni and finish his degree. The other dragons argued against her, with one instructing the bemused business owner to ignore Russo. That got Russo fired up.

While she doesn’t have a degree herself, Russo is an educator and the importance of an education for entrepreneurs is something she encourages. “I’ve been educating myself all my life,” she stresses. “And while I don’t have a degree as such, I’m educated more than some people with degrees.” Including 10 years study at Harvard Business School doing the equivalent of an MBA.

Will she continue as a television dragon if a second series gets the nod? “Yes. Everything I represent is to inspire and motivate people,” she says, “and television is another medium to do that.”

When offering her advice to new charges and others struggling to make it, Russo gets back to sport. “To become a champion, it’s not just about one thing. It’s food for the body, food for the mind, exercise, self-discipline, dealing with disappointments, managing yourself and managing others, and it’s motivating others to take you where you want to go,” she explains. “You’ve got to treat your body like a Ferrari.” And it’s continual, she adds, especially through the ups and downs of life as a business owner.

For Russo, there seems to be more ups than downs, especially with the recent success of the TV show. And with achievements and awards reading like an honour roll—2003 Centenary Medal, Harvard Business School MBA equivalent, member of the World Presidents’ Organisation, plus multiple board appointments—she doesn’t see herself ever retiring. “I’ve invested so much in this business and I want to hold on to what I’ve got.” Not that she is going to work herself into the grave, she hastily adds, but there are plenty of opportunities to keep this fiery dragon occupied, especially in terms of growing and educating staff to offer the best possible service. “I don’t for one moment think I’ve arrived.”