World

Growing old disgracefully

Bill Pollock started Drake International in the 1950s and still works seven days a week. Nett caught up with the softly spoken Canadian in an exclusive interview.

Someone should tell Bill Pollock to slow down. The man is known as ‘Mr. HR’ is the sole proprietor of global human resources company Drake International; a chronic frequent flyer and workaholic who, at age 80, leaves those half his age struggling to keep up.

It’s hard to know what to expect when you meet a multi-gazillionaire who runs a successful global company. But it was a pleasant surprise to meet Bill Pollock. He’s a friendly, unassuming gentleman who can just as easily dissolve into the throng of businesspeople making their way to and from work in the CBD, as command a boardroom with cutting-edge decisions to alter global workforce policies.

Robert William Pollock was born in Canada, the youngest of nine children struggling to survive the Great Depression. The large family instilled an unshakable desire to not only succeed but excel.

There was a great desire to come first at something most of the time as a lot of people had high expectations of you, he says.

As a child, Pollock learned the value of hard work and not to take anything for granted. While at school, he entered the armed services under the national compulsory cadet’s scheme. He was set to enter the Royal Canadian Air Force when World War II ended.

Pollock was just 16 when he entered the University of Manitoba on a full scholarship. Life on campus was shared with mostly returned servicemen in their 20s. He established a university magazine called Enterprise before graduating in 1949 with a Bachelor of Commerce at age 20.

Like many start-up businesses, the seeds of success were born from failure. Pollock couldn’t find a job.

I was working my first summer of the university for a company that went broke and couldn’t pay my wages, he explains. By the time the company went broke, there were no more summer jobs left. I had no choice but to start my own business.

That first business was mowing people’s lawns. By the end of his final summer at university, Pollock was employing 23 people. He was offered a job following graduation but negotiated to stay with his lawn-mowing business for another year. In 1950 he sold the business for a profit. It continued cutting people’s grass successfully for another 20 years.

Starting Drake

Pollock struck up a friendship with fellow Canadian, Jim Shore. The two met at the Burroughs Corporation (now called Unisys), which specialized in developing business finance booking systems. The two young men decided to set up their own outsourcing business that provided staff at peak load times; a business with the reputation for providing a crisp, clean, quality service. In 1951 Drake was born.

Drake is best known for changing the post-WWII landscape, by bringing housewives and mothers back into the workforce at a time when married women going back to work was seen as scandalous.

In an era where men set the agenda for the home, Pollock and Shore made a calculated guess that husbands might reason a little ‘hobby’ to earn some pin money wouldn’t hurt. They were right.

That was sort of our mission to get them back into the workforce so we could have temporary workers we could contract out, says Pollock. As time went on, we very quickly started to promote women in business and management in our company and we had a preponderance of females running our business when other companies didn’t experience that. In the late 1950s, we were the only company in the business world at that time to hire female sales reps and put them out to sell to our clients and they were extremely successful.

Pollock attributes his progressive for the time attitudes towards women to having older sisters.

I had great respect for my sisters, I think they were a powerful influence in my life, he says. I recognized that women had a lot of talent that hadn’t been recognized in a long time. It’s very different today, but back in those days, it was something new.

In those days people were looking for good sales reps and they looked for males all the time and overlooked the females. We found so much talent in the females that nobody else was looking for that we were able to get outstanding people.

Ups and downs

The business grew and Drake branched out into sub-companies such as Drake Industrial and Drake Technical. By 1953 Drake had offices in every city in Canada. Pollock and Shore alternated the role of company president each year.

In 1956, at the age of 27, Pollock joined the Young Presidents Organisation, a peer network for company executives to exchange ideas; a network that has grown to more than 20,000 leaders in 100 countries. In 1959 Drake Personnel was formed to help companies find the right people for permanent positions. In the early 1960s, Drake expanded into the USA, United Kingdom, and Australia.

Tragedy struck in 1967 when Shore was killed in an aeroplane accident.

It was a horrible surprise because he was flying his own aircraft along with two other members of our company when a very simple accident occurred but it ended up in the death of all of them, says Pollock.

Drake was restructured and Pollock became the sole president of Drake International. He had lost his business partner and best friend but never lost sight of their dream to succeed.

Like almost all businesses, Drake has had its share of failures, notably during the dot-com era. Many seemed to have a great future but few survived; however, Pollock says the losses were comparatively small to other companies.

Today Pollock travels the world visiting his company outlets and keeping abreast of their developments. He lives in a luxury Monte Carlo apartment with a view of the city and beaches below. His famous annual invitation-only White Parties attract the successful, beautiful and famous.

In Australia, Drake has 27 offices across every state and territory and pays the wages of tens of thousands of Australians every year.

Don’t ignore older workers

Pollock now has his eyes on reshaping Australia’s working landscape with a focus on the over-50s.

From 1982 to 1992, 32% of the working population was aged over 45. From 1992 to 2002, that proportion jumped to 72%. In the last five years, that figure has jumped to nearly 85%. Yet, somehow, some business owners still overlook older workers in favor of younger staff.

If you’re looking for talent don’t go looking necessarily for the youngsters who still have a lot of learning to do but take a look at those older workers who’ve got all that experience and that knowledge because that’s an untapped market out there, Pollock says. Those people in the over-50 age group are some of the best people you could possibly look for.

From next year, Drake will be rolling out a national program to make it easier for older workers to find employment.

It comes back to management paying attention to everybody in the company and making certain they’re continuing to grow, he says.

To do this, Pollock suggests businesses look at their staff as their number one resource more important than the product they’re selling and then maximize the returns.

I think it’s very important to do psychological assessments on people to understand their behaviors, their motivations, and by doing that you can communicate with those individuals on their level much more effectively, he explains. You can inspire them simply by being in tune with what their aspirations and goals are. Plus, doing team assessments so they can understand each other can lead to a much more effective and productive team.

The next step is investing time and money into staff. While some bosses are reluctant to sink money into the staff for fear they will leave and take their skills with them, Pollock says doing nothing will make that process more of a reality.

You can cut back on headcount if you don’t need a headcount, he says. …. but I don’t think I’d ever cut back on investment in the growth and development of employees.

In this day and age employees are the most important asset a company has and so the more investment you put into employees, the more you’re going to have a successful company. It isn’t really an investment because it all pays off in such a short period of time.

So, it’s not a case of pouring money into something and then looking for a return two of three years down the line, you get your return within 12 months. It’s doing the right thing and making certain you’re constantly focusing on your human capital and improving that performance and productivity.

Still going strong

Bill Pollock has seemingly inexhaustible energy. Even his downtime sounds tiring.

Fun could be getting up and playing a game of squash at 5.30 am or going dancing four or five nights a week, which I often do in Monte Carlo. It’s a nice pastime, a nice life. It’s got the music. It’s got my passion for wine, women, and song, he smiles. While he could easily pass for a man in his late 60s, Pollock is 80 and single. His fountain of youth comes from his desire to reach perfection in his company, through expansion, diversification, and trying to outgun any competition with modern management practices.

He takes his best-performing staff on annual exotic trips as rewards. In 2008, they went to Moscow. Staff at Drake Australia’s Melbourne head office are clearly motivated; when Pollock comes to visit, it’s a chance to learn more from the master.

People have different views on work-life balance, says Pollock. Obviously many people think I’m quite kooky working seven days a week but to me, that’s a good work-life balance.

I read a book a number of years ago about growing old disgracefully and chapter one was titled ‘˜Work yourself to death. They showed you statistics that people who work hard live longer.

Clearly, Bill Pollock didn’t get past chapter one.

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