Founder and CEO Steve Rousseau on the success story of House of Talents: ‘Growing too fast is a luxury problem’
At school, Steve Rousseau was, by his own admission, a terrible student and was labelled ADHD. But the West Flemish businessman made his way through life as an entrepreneur and, in doing so, thumbed his nose at the non-believers. His HR platform House of Talents, founded in 2008, is a success story. And his recent management of the country’s largest basketball club puts a non-entrepreneurial exclamation mark on that success.
First steps on the Dutch market
In 2008, the Kortrijk native started Sales Talents in Brussels, an HR service provider focused on sales professionals. Over time, he added Care Talents, Financial Talents, HR Talents, Executive Talents, ICT Talents, Food Talents, Science Talents, Technical Talents and Engi Talents – always with a focus on bottleneck professions. Thanks to this continuous growth, House of Talents tripled its turnover between 2015 and 2018 (to €100 million) and quadrupled its gross operating profit.
In early 2019, Baltisse, the Belgian investment company led by billionaire Filip Balcaen, replaced Sofindev as new majority shareholder of House of Talents. Rousseau remained on board as CEO and still owns 40% of the shares together with the management. In short, House of Talents was and is an enduring success story.
In 2021, the company took its first steps into the Dutch market by acquiring The Human Network, an HR company with 600 employees that is also specialised in bottleneck professions. To give you an idea: last year, House of Talents posted no less than 85% turnover growth in its consolidated annual accounts, a scenario that the once poor student would probably never have believed.
An accounting degree
‘It’s true that few people at the time would have bet money on me ever being successful’ , Steve Rousseau admits. ‘Moreover, I come from a dark red, socialist family (Ed.: his half-brother Conner Rousseau is chair of the Flemish Vooruit party). When I announced to my family that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, they barely kept from burning me at the stake’, he laughs. ‘But I persevered: after I earned my accounting degree and completed a management course at Vlerick Business School, I flipped a switch and went full force into entrepreneurship.’
‘The focus on accounting during my studies proved to be very valuable: as an entrepreneur, I’m convinced that you have to be engaged with your finances because you can only spend a euro once. Moreover, many entrepreneurs mistakenly think that the money in the till is also the profit they make – and that has many consequences. If you really want to succeed, you have to know how your business works on a financial level.’
Training: the new recruitment method
That focus is clearly paying off because House of Talents is still going strong. It is no coincidence that the CEO’s motto is ‘success is an attitude’. But what does he mean by this slogan? ‘I actually got it from Darwinism’, he says, somewhat surprisingly. ‘It means that if you want to be successful, you first have to project that success. That way, you’ll attract other successful people, or people who aspire to success. That is how you can start to create a climate in which the focus is on success, which is what it is all about for me when we talk about entrepreneurship. And how do you project that success? It’s simple: lead by example. Simply make sure you succeed and communicate as much as you can about that.’
‘As an entrepreneur, I get the biggest kick out of success; that’s what energises me’, Rousseau explains. ‘At the same time, I love to multiply that success by sharing: I give people orders and responsibility, and then I enjoy seeing the impact and progress they make.’
‘Aspirational leadership is paramount to me, and I pursue that by inspiring and exciting people. I also think situational leadership is crucial; every individual requires a different approach. My boardroom bears our motto: “Hire the best people and sleep better at night”.'
‘For all these reasons, one of my most fundamental values at House of Talents is entrepreneurship: I want everyone in the organisation to have enough freedom to do what they want to do and to focus on their own strengths. We achieve this through the emphasis we place on creativity, complete transparency, clear communication and a flat structure. Everyone at House of Talents must be able to do their own thing and thus get the greatest satisfaction from their job.’
‘Are they allowed to make mistakes? Absolutely, as long as they are supported in finding the right direction afterwards. That’s why, we founded the Care Academy, the Recruiter Academy and the Young Potential Academy by Science Talents, among others, a few years ago: to take people to the next level. I’m firmly convinced that scarcity on the labour market means that internal training will become the new recruitment method, now more than ever’, Rousseau says.
Focus on sustainable profitable growth
House of Talents is growing rapidly and mainly organically, but also in combination with acquisitions at home and abroad. Today, the HR player is active in Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Germany, with the ultimate ambition to build a pan-European network of HR companies specialised in supplying the right expertise for bottleneck professions. Within two years, the CEO wants to double last year’s 85% growth and €190 million turnover, especially since the scarcity on the labour market will only continue to increase.
We wondered whether Steve Rousseau ever worried about growing too quickly. ‘I put a lot of emphasis on sustainable profitable growth, on doing business with a long-term vision’, he replies. ‘That’s a bit easier for us because we’re not listed on the stock exchange: nothing has to be done. Still, growth remains an ambition we share with Baltisse.’ And growing too quickly, as we asked? ‘I see that more as a challenge, or even a luxury problem: we’ll deal with it as it arises.’
Learning lessons from basketball
Since last year, Steve Rousseau has also been general manager of the House of Talents Spurs, the largest basketball club in Belgium. In that role, too, he is quite ambitious: he wants the men’s team to advance to the BNXT league by 2025. Are there lessons from the game he can bring to his business or vice versa?
‘Whether you want to make it in basketball or in business, the same three mottos apply: will, skill & drill. Talent is important, but it’s not enough to achieve top results: you also need to have the drive to break through barriers and the willingness to train and persevere. Then you can achieve a lot, even at an early age. For example, I was once one of the youngest office directors of a bank, and my half-brother Conner became Belgium’s youngest ever political party chair. But I have no ambition to go into politics myself; my contribution to socialism is that House of Talents helps 2,500 people in Belgium find work.’
Winning is more important than participating
Steve Rousseau takes another lesson from basketball. ‘Basketball players are generally likeable people, but the moment they put on their uniform and step onto the court, they can turn into relentless goal getters, especially when it’s money time. That attitude is also important in business if you have certain goals. Eyes on the prize, I always say, maintain the drive to score. That is why – in both sport and business – I’m not a fan of the Olympic adage that ‘participating is more important than winning’. I rather cherish the thought that there are no points for second place.’
‘Would I like to put on my basketball shorts again and take to the court, like I once did? Not right away, no’, laughs Rousseau. ‘Having said that, I did take up another challenge last year and ran my first marathon. But I must admit that every time I enter an arena, the urge to step out onto the court and throw a ball gets hold of me again. So never say never. But for now, I’d rather focus on entrepreneurship.’