01 Dec 2006
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The Hard Way

Nothing came easy for Sarina Russo, but that didn’t stop her from living her dream.
by Roger Thompson

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Every successful entrepreneur can look back and, with the clarity of hindsight, identify a pivotal moment when the future of the business hinged on a single decision. For Sarina Russo (OPM 28, 1999), founder and president of the Sarina Russo Group of education, employment services, and property companies, that moment came in 1993 when she risked everything to buy a twelve-story office building in downtown Brisbane, Australia. The building was four times larger than she needed for classrooms and a serious stretch for her balance sheet. “I was scared to death,” Russo says, looking back on the experience.

It was a risk she didn’t need to take. Her job training company, the Sarina Russo Schools | Australia (formerly “The Office” Business Academy), was doing swimmingly, ensconced on the 26th floor of an upscale downtown high-rise. The stunning views from the city’s tallest building inspired her company slogan: “See You at the Top.” That’s exactly where her upstart business had landed after fourteen years of training and placing job seekers. Why should she risk financial ruin on a big-ticket real estate purchase?

The idea first surfaced when Russo’s accountant matter-of-factly suggested that she stop paying office rent — upwards of $350,000 (Australian) a year — and buy. Captivated by the idea, she set out to find a three- to four-story building.

At first, no real estate agent returned her calls. She chalked it up to sexism. “They weren’t taking me seriously,” Russo recalls during a recent visit to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to participate in a Women’s Leadership Board conference. Such affronts were all too familiar in a country that, at the time, had few women entrepreneurs. When an agent finally responded, he gave Russo serious pause by showing a building far larger than she had stipulated. Upon reflection, it was a challenge she felt prepared to take on. After four years in the Young Presidents’ Organization — the first woman from Queensland invited to join — Russo had sharpened her business skills and bolstered her confidence through seminars and conferences, including a weeklong YPO program held at HBS. She screwed up her courage and agreed to take the building.

Her banker, however, refused to loan her all the money she needed. That should not have come as a surprise given that her school’s enrollment would fill only three of the twelve floors, and Russo had no plans to sublet the rest while she grew her business floor by floor. Undaunted, she found a banker willing to stake her acquisition.

“She laid out her vision so clearly that I could see it and understand it,” Paul Anderson of the National Australia Bank explained in Russo’s 2002 motivational biography, Meet Me at the Top! “It was clear to me that it was time for her to take her business to the next level.” To this day, Russo declares that Anderson’s decision to approve her loan “was the biggest turning point in my life.”

Nine empty floors could have led to a cash-flow disaster. But for Russo, it was a time for bold moves.

First, she put her name on the building — the Sarina Russo Centre. “It was time to cash in on my public profile and cement the connection in people’s minds between training and job placement and Sarina Russo,” she explains.

To fill the center’s nine vacant floors, Russo won government contracts for training and job placement programs for the unemployed. Those contracts filled three floors. Next, she restarted her English language school for international students, a side of the business that faltered after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in China and Beijing-mandated withdrawal of all Chinese students. The language school soon attracted enough foreign students to fill the remaining six floors.

In relatively no time, Russo had turned a high-risk acquisition into a high-profile success. Her name now personified the company, and her determination propelled it to new heights. Even then, she recognized that the purchase would have personal ramifications as well. “I knew that was the start of me not even thinking about marriage or children because I had made a commitment to my profession and to my company,” recalls Russo. It’s a commitment that her tradition-bound Sicilian mother, now 93, has never understood. Upon seeing the Sarina Russo Centre for the first time, her mom grumbled: “Oh my god. Why don’t you go and find yourself a husband?”

Her Father’s Apprentice

Had Russo’s parents prevailed, she never would have started the business. The youngest of four children, Russo was born in Castiglione, Sicily, a picturesque agricultural village she describes as devoid of economic opportunity. When she was one year old, her carpenter father booked himself passage to Brisbane. After four years of penny-pinching, he purchased a house and summoned his wife and children.

As the years passed, hard work and frugality enabled Russo’s father to buy several rental apartments and a small vineyard. Sarina, the most adept at English, became his translator and apprentice. (Neither parent ever mastered English, and Russo still speaks Italian with her mother.) As a schoolgirl, she was put in charge of advertising apartment vacancies, collecting rent, and even threatening evictions. Weekends were filled with endless chores at the vineyard. When it came time to market the grapes, Russo negotiated the transactions.

At age 17, she left high school after failing to pass a requisite Grade 10 English exam and quickly parlayed her one marketable skill — typing sixty words a minute without error — into a clerical position at a shipping company. (She subsequently earned a high-school diploma at age 21 and started, but never finished, college.) Thus began a decade of dead-end secretarial jobs, most of which ended with her being fired.

Things weren’t any better on the home front. By the time Russo was 19, her brother and two sisters had married and moved out. Under Sicilian tradition enforced by her iron-willed father, she was expected to live at home until the right young man came along and proposed marriage. Desperate for independence, at age 26 she broke free of her parents and moved into a nearby apartment. The entire family recoiled in shock, with the exception of her brother-in-law, Gerardo Pennisi.

Pennisi, a young lawyer whose immigrant family came from a village not far from Castiglione, understood Russo’s plight and supported her quest for personal freedom. “He saw in me what no one else could,” says Russo. She later turned to him for legal advice and appointed him codirector when she launched her business, a position he still holds.

The same gritty determination that gave Russo the resolve to strike out on her own came into play a year later when she was fired from yet another secretarial job. Devastated and fearful that she would lose her apartment, which she had recently bought, Russo grabbed onto a “half-formed idea” to open a typing school. With A$2,600 in her bank account and no business training, she launched an improbable quest to become her own boss.

Russo located an unfinished, one-room space on the third floor of a bank building and sweet-talked her brother, Giuseppe, a carpenter, into building ten desks. Her other brother-in-law, Ricardo, agreed to paint the interior and persuaded Russo’s father to help. She opened for business with ten students on September 17, 1979. From day one, she knew she would not succeed if her students failed to get jobs, so she immersed herself in their job searches and all but guaranteed their placement. It worked, generating powerful word-of-mouth buzz for her fledgling academy.

More importantly, Russo understood that she was not just in the job training and placement business. She was in the life-fulfillment business. “Yes, we improved their chances of getting a job, but I wanted to offer more than that,” she explains. “I wanted to give them the confidence to go out and get a job. We had to be passionate about enhancing people’s lives.” Her daily motivational pep talks came at no extra charge.

Russo quenched her own thirst for confidence-building inspiration by attending seminars, reading books, and listening to tapes of master motivators like Tony Robbins, Jim Rohn, Denis Waitley, and Zig Ziglar. A true believer in the power of positive thinking, she eagerly spread the word. “I kept saying to my teaching staff and my students: ‘We can all be champions, we can all be extraordinary, we can all be outstanding.’” She offers herself as living proof.

“When I started the school I never, ever dreamed that it would ever turn into this,” says Russo, reflecting on the fact that the Sarina Russo Group now includes twenty separate businesses, employs more than 800 people, assists over 3,000 students (half international) and 50,000 job seekers and apprentices each year, and will gross roughly A$70 million in 2006. “All I wanted to do was to pay my bills and never return to a legal office because I hated it so much.”

As her business matured, so did her understanding of how her domineering father — who died in 1986 — had laid the foundation for her success. “Everything I am today I owe to the apprenticeship at my father’s side,” she says. “I learned how to ask the right questions and how to process the answers. I acquired a thirst for knowledge and an instinct for reading human nature. And I developed a driving ambition to build something that would give me and my family financial independence.”

All in the Family

Today, Russo continues to build her business and reap its rewards. In March 2006, she launched a joint venture with James Cook University to open several new campuses, the first of which is in Brisbane. In recognition of her business acumen, she was recently appointed to the advisory board of Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World and to the board of directors of the Challenger Financial Services Group, one of Australia’s leading public financial services companies with assets, investments, and loans under management of more than A$36 billion.

Secure in her own success, Russo has made good on her desire to include family. Six of her nephews and nieces work for her company in key management positions, a source of real pride for her. And she has reached out to her extended family in Castiglione by offering scholarships to all of her nieces and nephews there to study at her schools.

Russo savors the irony that she has built a thriving education, training, and job placement business without having completed college herself. Perhaps that explains why the YPO programs and completion of the OPM Program at HBS have meant so much to her. “Harvard for me was like my dream of driving a Porsche,” she says. “It’s been the engine of my life for the past twelve to fourteen years. It gave me the confidence and the tools to drive this small business into a multimillion-dollar international business.”

Close friend Francine LeFrak, an award-winning New York City television producer and president of LeFrak Productions, describes Russo as “a force of nature.” “She wins people over with her directness, her brashness, and her disarming way,” says LeFrak, who first met Russo in Paris four years ago when they were inducted into the Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World organization. “I can’t say that she is the most driven person I have ever met, but she’s right up there in the top tier. Whatever she sets her mind to, she will succeed at brilliantly.”

Success, however, hasn’t bred complacency. Russo still works nonstop and can’t live without her BlackBerry and cell phone. Her biggest worry is that the younger generation is not sufficiently committed to the rigors of hard work. “What I’ve learned is that if you want something in life, you have to be totally focused, you have to be driven, and you have to be disciplined,” explains Russo. She remains true to her own advice, and despite her misgivings about youthful softness, she remains a wide-eyed optimist. Says Russo: “I don’t know what’s ahead for me, but I just see a blue sky all the time.”

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