Changing the candidate experience

With fellow executive director and co-founder Greg Madden, former accountant Greg O’Shea leads [axr], a specialist provider of search and selection recruitment services. He speaks with Business First about why the company is so determined to change the recruitment candidate experience.

Today, multiple careers seem to be the norm rather than exception. However, it is rare that an individual well entrenched in accounting would turn his attention to recruitment.

Yet that is exactly what Greg O’Shea did.

“I had been in the accounting industry for some time and was questioning my next move,” O’Shea says. “I’d had mixed experiences as a candidate dealing with recruitment firms and was starting to become disenchanted with my treatment.”

“It was at this time that I met Greg Madden, who was working with a major recruitment company, Michael Page. Greg motivated me with his insights into a dynamic and rewarding profession – “where exactly what you put into the profession you get out.”

O’Shea joined Madden at Michael Page, but 15 years ago the pair decided to branch out on their own.

“It was exciting. A chance to control our destiny and change the candidate experience,” O’Shea says.

“We knew we didn’t want to become a large, multi-disciplined business. Whilst we enjoyed Michael Page, we wanted the flexibility to adapt processes and develop new, innovative solutions for clients. When you are large and have a big cost base you can fall into the trap of trying to be all things to all people. When you are niche and have a unique value proposition, you can choose who you want to work with.”

The pair set about creating a business that would deliver a whole new experience in recruitment.

“Greg Madden and I have always had a unique relationship built on trust and respect. We created a ‘values’ based business that provides genuine business solutions to clients problems. We had worked in systemised and fairly regimented organisations and whilst they gave us the understanding of the disciplines required to be successful, we also believed we could add further value from building niche IP and tailored solutions.”

A key part of that value system was to create an environment where [axr]’s employees have the opportunity and flexibility to work in a way which encourages them to build a personal relationship that goes beyond a single business interaction.

The pair has always taken a controlled approach to growth with a focus on sustainable markets.

They were also lucky to attract a number of key clients who supported the company and helped them get through the first two years.


A major factor in [axr]’s success has been the underlying values supporting the business.

“On day one of our business, both Greg and I wrote down separately the five things we wanted to achieve with the business. Interestingly enough, both lists were virtually the same. “We may have had some different ordering and specific wording, but it largely came back to flexibility, focusing on a single market, having fun, operating with integrity and ethics, and reward for all employees. We thought it was pretty amazing at the time but, even more importantly, we still hold them true today.”

These values are demonstrated in [axr]’s approach to clients.

As O’Shea notes, the art of good recruiting is having the skills and network to really understand a client’s needs – and that relates to both the employer and the employee.

“We work really hard with our clients to build a competency profile based off some fundamental questions,” he says. “Once you have that profile, you’re in a position to market the opportunity with a compelling offering. Many of the best people are already entrenched in an organisation, so if they’re going to make a move, it needs to be attractive and a step up. Most people don’t want the same role under a different company name.”

Having access to the best people to present potential ideas is critical. This is the real value of market longevity and specialisation, fostering personal networks and a trusted brand. O’Shea says, “you can’t underestimate the importance of a candidate knowing and trusting your brand and who you are. Importantly if they are not interested it accesses the power of personal referral to other potential candidates.”

This approach positions [axr] as a genuine business partner with its clients and candidates, representing a point of difference in the market.


Given its unique perspective and values based business philosophy, [axr] remains a stable force in an ever-evolving industry.

“We have seen the rise and fall of small and large recruiters, the development of internal recruitment teams, offshoring of skills and emerging technologies. These have all created a much more fluid recruitment environment,” O’Shea says.

However the key to the company’s success has remained the same over its 15-year journey – never straying from the importance of the client relationship.

“Whilst technology has improved efficiency the key success factors have not changed a lot. Our business is based around relationships; building trust, treating people with respect. As a business we have over 70 years recruitment experience in just three of our key people.

The IP and networks these individuals have is invaluable and offers both clients and candidates a fantastic platform for recruitment advice. Technology has been an enabler. It has made information on people more available through the likes of Linkedin and candidate engagement more immediate through job boards.


Personal chemistry is a key influence in matching employee with employer. Whilst there are many other factors, O’Shea says if you know the client and candidates well it does make it easier.

“This is the art, knowing both parties very well, which takes a lot of time and experience. Our years of building networks also plays a key role and the “six degrees” of separation means you always know someone who knows someone.”

So how does [axr] go about match making?

“We are very big on competency profiling. If anyone out there is looking to recruit, there are a number of questions you need to ask. The two most important are:

  1. What challenges will the person face in this role / organisation?
  2. How are you going to measure their successful delivery? If you can answer this, you are in a strong position to know what you are looking for. With the client we partner to develop a compelling value proposition to market to candidates. The client wants the best person – who is usually highly recognised, challenged and rewarded in their current business. To attract them you really do need to offer a compelling career move.”

This is particularly true in the very competitive fight for talent in the Accounting & Finance sectors.

“In Australia, we are fast approaching a skills shortage. There has been a decade of under investment in graduate programs coupled with offshoring of roles. If we are not careful we will need to import talent for the more senior roles.”

That is a concern in itself, so O’Shea believes it is important to develop key relationships to create barriers to entry, which in turn puts [axr] in a stronger position moving forward as a niche provider.

“As the market becomes more skills short, we do believe that clients will need to migrate more and more to niche specialist service providers – to secure their best talent,” he says.

“To us culture is king. If the chemistry isn’t right the recruit is destined to fail. Our experience shows that great people pick up concepts quickly, look to contribute proactively and become long-term success stories.

We also feel in Australia there is a fear of hiring someone who is a little “outside” the box. People tend to love the safe, easy hires – same industry and role. We believe this is at their peril and our job is to open up their thinking and focus on competencies and fit rather than just a skills ‘plug and play’.

This leads to the concept of market mapping.


As part of its service offering [axr] offers market mapping.

Clients utilise it for a number of reasons; part of a mandated search process, to talent pool for future requirements, and to benchmark and understand what their competitors are doing.

“Market mapping helps a business understand what their competitors do and what their talent pools look like. This helps question their structure and put strategies in place for the future. They are important differentiators and key to our business service offering,” O’Shea says.


There is a lot in the pipeline. [axr] has developed a number of programs to mentor candidates and work with them to progress through their careers.

“We have developed a number of key programs aimed at educating future finance leaders on successful career management. Both our CFO Incubator and Finance 2 Leadership programs have been well received. The market has been very good to us, so this is a way in which we can give back,” explains Greg.

“We have grown a successful Transformation business in 12 months and will be looking to grow this business further. Many senior Accounting & Finance professionals play a key role in the management and delivery of organisational transformation programs. We were receiving more and more requests from clients to assist in securing Transformation professionals. It has been a natural fit.” Finally, they are also exploring stronger international partnerships particularly with a focus on China and India. These are the emerging demand areas on the Australian business landscape.”

[axr] is focused on evolving, not becoming complacent and will work with its clients to improve their talent pools and help professionals successfully manage their careers.

Having worked with each other for 20 years and been in business together for 15, this pair of Gregs have a relationship still steeped in mateship.

“If I look back at the five things we wanted to achieve, we can tick them all off. To me the biggest success has been to build a business that gives people the freedom and support they need to be successful.” Says O’Shea.

That success all comes down to trust and respect – built off five fundamental values that hold true 15 years later.

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Business First is a peer-to-peer magazine: written by CEOs and other high level executives, with interviews with some of the country’s best leaders.

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