Remote Lessons: Joe Fussell
Don’t confuse offshoring with outsourcing – they are two very different propositions, as AS White Global Founder and CEO Joe Fussell explains.
Just over a decade ago, Joe Fussell fell into the business of offshore staffing solutions. "It was really by accident," he tells The CEO Magazine.
At the time, the then-CIO of EML, one of Australia’s leading personal industry claims managers, was busy ensuring the business had the IT services in place to match the steep growth trajectory it was on during a period when it ballooned from a staff of 100 in New South Wales to a team of more than 2,000 across Australia and Asia.
"Then, like now, it was incredibly difficult to access IT talent in Australia, so I had to look at alternatives," he says.
The year was 2011 and at the time, the done thing was to look at outsourcing providers in India – something that didn’t fit in with EML’s culture and model centred around building and owning what it creates.
"Although I knew we needed to look overseas for talent, I also wanted to build something that was integrated into our business, our culture and our team," he reveals. "Most importantly, I wanted this to be something long-term and sustainable."
Previous experience had shown him that there was one country in particular where he should be looking for software developers: Vietnam. "While at that time, Vietnam wasn’t seen as a place to build a software development team, I decided it was the place for us."
The health crisis has definitely proven that your talent does not need to be in the office to have an efficient, productive team.
Joe spent a week on the ground in Ho Chi Minh City interviewing potential candidates. By the end of the week, he had an initial team of 10 software developers.
"Over the next six months, while navigating company set-ups, office fit-outs and getting to know the culture, the team steadily grew from 10 to 60," he recalls.
His efforts didn’t go unnoticed. "During this time, people within my network, and also those in the EML network, began asking me if we could do software development for them with our team in Vietnam."
Having previously run a software house, Joe was quick to realise that this was not a path he wanted to head down. "I suggested, however, that given how impressed I was with the talent in Vietnam, I could help out by recruiting a team for them, which they could integrate into their team and processes," he explains.
"We would look after the recruitment, payroll, HR, office space and employee value proposition, but the day-to-day operation management was up to them."
It all started on little more than a handshake. "I took a fairly nimble approach," he says. Little did he know that, 18 months later, a whole new business would be created: AS White Global. And along with IT, he’d branched out into accounting teams as well.
"Long story short, the approach worked based, in no small part, on the quality and attitude of the people who joined our teams."
Now, 11 years down the track, Joe can reflect on how that loose model of building a remote IT team has matured and grown into a "nice independent business that accesses talent and builds teams for Australian companies in Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines".
"We have over 1,500 staff and 100-plus clients, and we are currently growing by 70 staff a month," he adds. "We have also branched into local recruitment in the countries we operate in. We are in the process of establishing in Thailand and Indonesia as well."
Offshoring not outsourcing
The success of AS White Global has hinged on one key differentiator in the market: offshoring rather than outsourcing. "When we began 11 years ago, if you were looking overseas, the typical model was centred purely around cost savings, focusing on cheap, relatively unskilled resources," Joe points out.
However, he notes that this resulted in disappointment for everyone involved. "The companies in Australia did not really get the outcomes they were looking for, while the staff in overseas locations were not treated well and did not have a great career path," he admits.
"The industry had ended up with a pretty poor reputation and unfortunately, the people in overseas countries unfairly had their reputation tarnished."
We partner with companies that are not only looking for a saving but also want to build a team to grow their business with people who are integrated into the fabric of their company and will treat them as their own.
His initial impression was that within Australia, there was the belief that it took two people overseas to do the job of one person here. "I also saw that the staff being employed by outsourcing were not receiving the same conditions and opportunities as people in Australia," he says.
"The focus was on companies moving low-end roles offshore to save money on their bottom line, as opposed to accessing skilled professional talent to build up their business to increase revenues and market share."
According to Joe, those three observations would become the base for three strategic pillars that, today, continue to be "the grounding of everything I still do". First, demonstrating that the talent AS White Global accesses in the countries it operates in is equal to, if not better than, the talent in Australia.
Second, that talent receives the same, if not better, benefits, conditions, development and opportunities as people working in Australia. Third, to be selective about its clients, or as he calls them, "partners".
"We partner with companies that are not only looking for a saving but also want to build a team to grow their business with people who are integrated into the fabric of their company and will treat them as their own," he asserts.
By building a model that integrates talent into Australian businesses, AS White Global is facilitating a win–win situation for both the business and the talent.
Breaking down barriers
Today, the company counts Australian brands such as MedHealth, M.J. Bale and Cleanaway among its clients. It has seven offices in four countries (Australia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia) and more than 1,000 employees, but growth hasn’t come without certain tests along the way, particularly in breaking down some well-worn stereotypes.
"My biggest challenge in the early days was the misconceptions about the quality of talent in our overseas locations, and also about having team members not sitting in the client’s office," Joe admits.
In the early days of the business, he recalls how he worked to convince companies to set up teams with AS White Global so they could then become a reference for others. "Fortunately, I had a number of friends who put their trust in me and we also had a number of functionally different teams for EML," he says.
Joe would also organise tours to take potential clients to offices in each country so they could see with their own eyes the benefits of offshoring.
Landlords, fit-out companies, IT suppliers, cybersecurity consultants, events coordinators, travel agents, accounting and audit partners – AS White Global has a number of key relationships and Joe says nearly all of them have been with the business since day one.
"Many I count as close friends," he reveals, adding that he treats the company’s suppliers the same way he likes to be treated by his clients.
"That means good, open and honest communication when things are going well and also when things are not going well. I like to be fair in business dealings, which means paying a fair price and not trying to haggle. It is like a family, where we can work through problems and also plan for the future."
"This worked incredibly well," he confirms. "Before we left Australia the potential clients would have so many questions and reservations, but within five minutes of walking into our offices and talking with their team, all their questions would be answered and reservations gone."
It was a gamble, but one that paid off. "Although a relatively expensive exercise, this approach had a 100 per cent success rate," he says with a smile.
As the years have progressed, so too have attitudes – and those initial barriers he and his team faced have since broken down. "People now are much more open to working in other countries and are more educated about what is beyond our shores," he explains.
Crucially, clients are enthusiastic about passing on word-of-mouth recommendations. "Most of our business comes from referral," he reveals. "If you are going to entrust someone to build a part of a business overseas, you’ll most likely do that by asking a friend what they do.
"We have a great book of partners, large and small, across many industries, including some very well-known brands that are really proud of their teams and are more than happy to talk about them to anyone who is looking to build a remote team."
In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has normalised remote working. "The health crisis has definitely proven that your talent does not need to be in the office to have an efficient, productive team," he says.
Speaking of the pandemic, what has undoubtedly been the biggest test of Joe’s tenure at AS White Global has also been the source of his greatest achievement. "At the start of the pandemic, I made a promise to all our staff, over 1,100 people at the time, that no-one would lose their job," he says. "It was what drove me for two years."
Thanks to many people, including the major support of the board, which provided the significant financial commitment required to carry the team, he is proud to say that he was able to keep his promise.
"Our clients were incredibly supportive of our teams, especially when we needed flexibility around working from home," he adds. "Our internal support teams also went above and beyond to support our talent to keep them operating remotely."
The most valuable players, however, were the talent themselves. Despite often finding themselves working in less-than-ideal conditions during harsh lockdowns, they not only maintained but often exceeded their pre-lockdown productivity.
As the world emerges to a different working landscape, Joe believes that the current talent shortage in Australia is a real opportunity for AS White Global.
"Our Director of Talent, Sarah Lourie, has worked really hard to build up our talent acquisition team to meet the demand," he explains. "They are an awesome group of nearly 30 people who are enabling us to hire 70 to 80 new talents every month."
Going forward, his focus is on ensuring that the other aspects of the business continue to scale to not only support the increasing numbers of talent, but also new partners. "It is important, however, that we don’t get blinded by the growth opportunities and drop the ball on the service we deliver to all our stakeholders," he cautions.
A leading edge
Careful not to claim that the company is unique in the market, Joe is aware that there are other businesses with similar models that have been "on the same evolution path as us … and some just by replication".
And it’s by visiting any of their websites that AS White Global’s leading edge becomes crystal clear. "Within the first or second page, you will always see a headline about saving vast amounts of money – the normal quote is that you will save 70 per cent," he explains. "The short answer is that we are definitely not in the race to the bottom on price.
"The long answer is that we attract and, very importantly, retain high-quality, well-educated and experienced talent for any professional role in a company."
Whereas its competitors have traditionally been focused on low-end roles that allow companies to easily cut costs in their business, Joe explains that AS White Global prioritises delivering great talent – "and ensuring that they integrate smoothly into our partner’s structure". "We then provide ongoing support," he adds.
"The analogy I use about our model is comparing a full-service airline to a budget airline. It’s the old saying, ‘You get what you pay for’. We are definitely not the cheapest but I am comfortable with saying that we deliver the best product and service, and are still the most cost-effective solution in the long-term."
We attract and, very importantly, retain high-quality, well-educated and experienced talent for any professional role in a company.
There are two figures in particular that back this up. "Our staff retention rate is north of 96 per cent and our client retention rate is north of 99 per cent," Joe says proudly. "With 1,500-plus staff and close to 100 clients, they are very good numbers and not that easy to maintain."
A great team – one that has been with the company for a long time – is a key ingredient in keeping AS White Global agile in the face of change. "We know and trust each other to work on changes with a minimum of fuss," he stresses. "And when things don’t work out, it’s not about blame, instead we work to fix the problem."
Particularly for a company in the talent space, culture is key, and Joe explains that he fosters the culture he wants at the company by living it.
"I once heard someone say that the culture and values of a company are not what is written on your coffee cup at work, but what you see the people around you do when you turn up on your first day at work," he reflects. "Perception is everything. I always remember that on the days I am tired or sick or just not in the right mood!"
At AS White Global, new starters will quickly discover a business with a flat structure. "Org charts are banned in our company but if we did draw one it would look something like a spider web," he says. "Since the very beginning, we have always had a really open culture around communication and feedback."
Thanks to these open lines of communication, the business has always been a hub for fast feedback and information on what is working or not working, and what is changing in the industry, market or countries where it operates. "I have a great relationship with the AS White Global board and their trust," Joe explains. "So if we identify a change that is required today, we can start working on it tomorrow."
There’s also the understanding that together, they are creating a sustainable business, something that won’t be achieved overnight. "We don’t link our financial plans to the fiscal year cycle but to a five-year cycle," he points out, adding that this means decisions are not bound to making a profit or recovering a cost on an initiative within a year.
"At a management and a board level, we have always been focused on building a business that will be here in 20 or 30 years’ time.
The board and I are in the twilight years of our careers so seeing talent with smiling faces at work and at our events and clients who genuinely care about their teams is definitely just as satisfying as seeing a nice profit and loss.
"Most importantly, and I think very relevant in these days of startups that come and go, we never discuss the value of the business in financial terms. We are just comfortable that we are making a sustainable profit, that our talent and partners are happy, and that we continue to attract new talent and partners.
"The board and I are in the twilight years of our careers so seeing talent with smiling faces at work and at our events and clients who genuinely care about their teams is definitely just as satisfying as seeing a nice profit and loss."
Joe can reflect on the lessons of a career spanning 25 years to pinpoint what set him up to build AS White Global. "I started this role in my 40s and had been fortunate that, up until that point, I had a varied career with experience in consulting, small business and corporate across many different industries," he says.
"I had been lucky to have worked with a lot of amazing people as clients, suppliers, managers and colleagues who I was able to learn from through mentoring or often just by observation."
He laughs that he also had "so many opportunities to observe people that I didn’t want to be like and the impact their behaviours had on people around them".
"To be honest, by that stage, I had also made my fair share of mistakes at work and in life, which I had learned from," he adds.
It also helped that he had an existing relationship with those who would invest in the foundation of AS White Global through their involvement with EML. "This meant I was able to have open and robust discussions about what I planned to do and how I planned to do it. There was a level of trust that allowed me a significant level of autonomy that possibly an unknown new starter with no history would not have had," he reveals.
Quickfire Q&A with Joe
What do you love most about your job?
What’s the one thing you’d change about your job if you could?
Supersonic travel would be good so I could spend more time with the team without being away from my family for long stretches. Teams/Zoom is great but you can’t beat hanging out with people over a meal!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received during your career and how does it inform your work today?
I heard someone say at a seminar once that there are three fundamentally important things people want when they go to work. They want to be part of a team, they want to be valued and they want to be able to contribute. So whether it is the team I work closely with or the teams we build for clients, I really like to focus on these three points.
When you’re not at work, how do you unwind?
Spending time with family (I have eight kids) is a big one for me, closely followed by a good glass or two of wine. Ideally, the two can be combined!
What does leadership look like to you?
There are a lot of answers to this one and again, this is something I heard and it is the one I use: leadership is about getting people to volunteer to follow you.
What qualities do you think the board of AS White Global sees in you?
Personal responsibility, perseverance, an agile/nimble approach and, probably most importantly, honesty in all situations.
"This was critical as it allowed me to try many things that didn’t necessarily pan out the way I had hoped without that being seen as a failure, as opposed to a learning."
From the very early days of being CEO, he knew this job would be different to others. "I remember clearly an understanding that this role was going to be about people: attracting great people, retaining great people and, most importantly, creating an environment for them to be their best and their team be their best," he says.
And it’s that purpose that continues to get Joe out of bed every morning. "Providing career opportunities and growth has always been my focus, while also helping Australian companies by offering them access to great talent, something which, in the current climate, is becoming increasingly important," he explains.
"The way I have built our brand is by constantly focusing on the value proposition we deliver to our clients and talent. As the line goes in the movie, ‘If you build it, he will come’. I like to think the brand represents quality and opportunity."