Ephram Stephenson takes feedback seriously. Even negative feedback.
The Founder and CEO of Collar Group, one of Australia’s fastest-growing recruiting and placement agencies, Ephram once reached out to a person who left a rare one-star review to solicit their feedback. He later hired that same person as a candidate experience manager, with a mandate to speak with "every single candidate we have working for us on any sites throughout Australia".
"I think it speaks volumes about just how seriously we do take the feedback. But most importantly, how seriously we do care for our candidates," he tells The CEO Magazine.
"That feedback is so critical for us to then build, and continue building on the benchmarks and the frameworks that we’ve put in place to make sure that that candidate experience is top notch."
To have that flexibility of a work–life balance and know that I’m building something here, which is in essence going to be left for generations and generations to come, I am very proud of that.
Leaving a legacy
A veteran of the recruiting industry and serial entrepreneur, Ephram has founded a dozen recruitment agencies – 11 of which are still operating. He founded his first recruiting agency from home 18 years ago and expanded it to offices in four Australian cities and London.
His most successful start-up had a A$62 million turnover in just 18 months. Thanks to his vast experience, Collar Group can draw on a database of more than a million candidates – unmatched in the recruiting sector."I think that’s probably our biggest competitive advantage," he says. "It’s all the other experiences and start-ups under my belt."
Ephram started the Collar Group from scratch in late July 2021. As he explains it, he was an investor in another successful recruiting firm. But upon learning that he and his wife were expecting their first child, he returned his equity in the firm immediately, then founded Collar Group the very next day – "with the intention of now leaving a legacy for my little boy," he explains.
Since founding Collar Group, Ephram has put an emphasis on work–life balance – both for himself and staff. He arrives in the office at 7.30am and returns home at 4.30pm to his wife and son every day – rather than starting in the predawn hours as he did just 16 months ago.
"To have that flexibility of a work–life balance and know that I’m building something here, which is in essence going to be left for generations and generations to come, I am very proud of that," he says.
Collar Group has grown rapidly in the competitive recruiting industry. It has hired 75 staff members and opened eight offices in Perth, Sydney, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Adelaide and Melbourne, with three more on the way. Collar Group has also placed more than 2,200 people into full-time & casual positions in the past twelve months within industries ranging from mining, facilities management, industrial, aged care, health care, property, construction and engineering.
But Ephram never allows any space for complacency, commenting, "We’re only as good as our last placement."
To ensure the right placement, Ephram assembled an experienced team at Collar Group and set about creating incentives to retain them. He identified top recruiters in various sectors, brought them into the company, "then built the accounts around those individuals".
We’re only as good as our last placement.
He uses an approach – uncommon to most recruitment agencies – based on client feedback. He probes, asking about their "biggest pain points, biggest issues" and what they most like and dislike about their current relationships with recruiting agencies. Then he designs a plan of attack, "which actually addresses all of their issues and misgivings about recruitment".
"Recruitment is very much a very fast-paced industry," Ephram says. "One of the biggest frustrations I hear on a day-to-day basis is companies using the larger recruitment agencies, but finding that their account managers are changing every three to six to 12 months."
His focus on finding the right talent has produced little turnover among staff with only 11 staff members having left the Collar Group.
Recognition for its workplace practices is coming in rapidly from outside the company, too. Investors in People shortlisted Collar Group for the award of Best Flexible Working Policy. It also shortlisted Ephram Stephenson for the award of Leader of the Year.
Collar Group has also received the Great Place to Work accreditation and Family Friendly Workplace accreditation, along with ISO accreditations in Quality Management Systems, Environmental Management Systems and Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems.
"If you can get your internal talent attraction right, then they’re actually going to do most of the business development for you just on their brand, their reputation," he says. "Clients are very easy to pick up. Servicing them, that’s obviously where you’ve really got to put your money where your mouth is and make sure that you do deliver."
Part of being able to deliver comes from nurturing strong relationships with suppliers. "We work closely with the Apositive Payroll team on a daily basis, for example," says Ephram. "It custom built a portal to manage our onboarding, timesheet, payroll, invoicing and reporting needs for our internal and on-hired workforce.
"The development of this included visits to our WA office to review internal processes in order to scale our business and provide in-house training. It’s this sort of partnership which is crucial to our success."
Focused on staff
When Ephram set out to make Collar Group an attractive destination for top talent, he did so by establishing a high-performance environment, which gives each staff member "the autonomy to grow as an individual".
The company, meanwhile, "trains, develops and mentors them to be the best that they can be and then actually has them grow their own business within the business".
He also established a work environment "completely different to any other agency".
Staff receive 20 days annual leave – as mandated in Australia – along with 10 extra days of annual leave, which the company calls "mental health days".
The wellbeing of our workers is the most essential part of our business because if we get that right and we’ve got a happy workforce, well then they’re going to help us through the peaks and troughs.
Collar Group also closes between Christmas and New Year’s with staff being paid, and they also receive their birthdays off and four additional volunteer days.
"The wellbeing of our workers is the most essential part of our business because if we get that right and we’ve got a happy workforce, well then they’re going to help us through the peaks and troughs," Ephram says.
"What we’re finding is people are sticking around longer and basically they’re enjoying the work. The referral rate in our internal business is incredible."
Adding to the ease of working for the Collar Group, Ephram has implemented a policy that "nobody is bigger than this business. Not even myself".