Bert Miller

Are you interested in learning strategies that will help you retain and grow your talent pool? On this episode of The Staffing Show, Bert Miller, CEO of Protis Global and the MRINetwork, shares his experience founding two companies and working in search and recruitment for more than 25 years. He shares his thoughts about the changing landscape of work arrangements as well as his philosophy of hiring people who have forced multiplying capabilities. He also talks about the importance of staying the course amid perceived failures.


David Folwell: Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining us for another episode of The Staffing Show. Today I am joined by recruiting and hiring expert, Bert E. Miller, who is the CEO of Protis Global and the MRINetwork. Bert has over 25 years of leadership experience in the world of work. Bert E. Miller currently serves as CEO of Protis Global, ace Talent Curators, and he is the president and CEO of MRINetwork, a network-centric recruitment organization that offers consulting, training, contract staffing, and community building to over 325 search firms worldwide.

Bert’s expertise in search and recruitment dates back to 1995 when he founded Protis Global and MRINetwork, an award-winning search and recruitment firm specializing in F&B, CPG, cannabis, and hospitality industries. Protis Global has built some of the most iconic brands in the CPG space that’s consistently ranked in the top 10 of MRINetwork offices over the last 15 years, generating over $75 million in permanent placement fees. 

Thank you so much for joining us today, Bert, super excited to have you here. To kick things off, why don’t you tell us a little bit about how you got into the staffing and recruiting industry?

Bert E. Miller: Yeah, David, thank you very much for having me, it’s great to be here. It’s always interesting when people introduce you and they say 25 years or almost 30 years, and I’ve been there, I’m listening to it and I just feel like, “Man, I’m getting old.”

Anyway, the way I got into it is probably the way many, not everybody, but many of the folks in the talent access space got into it. I wasn’t in my backyard playing on the swing set as a kid saying, “Hey man, I want to get into recruitment someday.” This was really driven a lot around my life, my personal scorecard life and my children were nine and five. My background out of school was I went to Ball State University and studied education and health science and came out and went to, actually went to work for Revlon. So much for the education and health science. But I jumped in, spent seven years at Revlon. I mean, sorry, I jumped out of school, went to work for Gallo, then was recruited by a recruiter and went to Revlon and spent seven years at Revlon. And as I mentioned, my kids were nine and five and they were starting to play sports and wanted to get off the jet fuel a bit and spend some time with the kids and raise them.

And talent access became the place that I defaulted to, helped kick off some recruiting for college, recruiting for Revlon. And at that point in time it seemed like a good place to go. It was a much different in executive search than it is in college recruiting, but that’s how I got in it, man. It was just really, when I looked at the industry and did the research, it was all about supply and demand and that’s where we’re living today.

Folwell: And when you went out and did you go out and start your own firm immediately? Did you go work as a recruiter for a while and then jump ship? What was that path like?

Miller: Yeah, I took the lumps early, David. I started the firm from scratch from day one, and—

Folwell: Wow.

Miller: Yeah, it’s I think in the first 10 months I quit my own company three times. I resigned, my wife would come, she goes, “No, man, you’re not leaving. You gave up a great career to do this. Let’s go.” So she continued to keep me inspired and sure enough, we were able to turn around and build a really nice firm.

Folwell: Awesome. And so I know that looking at your website, having a conversation with you that Protis Global is approaching things a little bit differently. Could you tell me a little bit about what makes Protis Global different from other search agencies?

Miller: Yeah. When I think of Protis Global and some of the differences that we had, David, was this: When I was being recruited from Gallo to Revlon, it was really interesting to me because it seemed very transactional. There was a fee associated with it, as you know, when you had something and they thought that you would be able to bring it to the recruiter, they certainly would spend the time, necessary time with you. When you didn’t, it was very difficult to get a call back. So it was very, very transactional. It didn’t feel like we were really building a company or a career at that point in time. And so, the opportunity I saw was is really to bring more of a white glove approach to the business where you really build it around the individual versus the company.

Although the client was paying our fees, we started very, very early building it around the individual. And that seems to have been a really nice formula for us as we started digging in people’s personal, professional financial goals, which are all of our motivators. And when you understand that, you’re able to build a relationship at really at a personal level and the people feel, the individuals feel like you’re taking a really interest in their career journey. And that’s really been a really nice recipe for us.

Folwell: And so it sounds like shifting away from transactional, really focusing on the human, the talent side of it and what their needs are, even though you’ve got the client telling you exactly what you want? Do you have any specific processes that you put in place to make sure that your team was more relationship-based? Is there anything, specific tactics or tips you’d share with the audience?

Miller: Yeah, there’s a couple, David. I mean, like I said, there’s three legs on the stool that motivate all of us, personal, professional, financial, right? So, they’re not all created equal because we’re all different, but they have to be somewhat aligned and well-balanced. And so we created a document and a talk track, if you will, around personal, professional, financial, and getting into the conversation with the individual. As it related to how we went to market with the clients, we were, I slid from contention to retained very early, about six months in, and that created a whole different dynamic of how we trained our team. And really when we trained our team we trained on three components. We trained the communication model, as a communication model around S.W.A.T. and listing skills. And then we trained the executional components of a search, all the continue, the five key executional components of making a placement.

And then finally, what was the specific Protis Global story? What was our value proposition and what was our mission and what was the lens we could give the client or the individual that they would be going through? And when you’re able to dial that in with your team and keep it fairly consistent, although every person on our team is their own individual, but they, long as they have the basic understanding of that flow, it tends to then replicate itself. And when you have something that’s replicable, you could scale it.

Folwell: Awesome, I love that. And with that, in terms of scale, what is the kind of the current size and what has been the growth of Protis over the years?

Miller: Yeah, Protis, I mentioned we’re a retained firm, so Protis is a $6 million executive search firm. We have 19 people in the firm. Half of the people don’t even work a desk. We’re strong with a platform with operations, marketing and sales operations as well, that we provide those resources and platform to our team. We have a head of people who does a lot of our internal recruiting, internal training and development for our individuals, because the best thing you can do to continue to grow is really, not only hire for your firm, but make sure you’re rehiring the people you have and retaining them. And so their own development, skill development is really critical.

And then ace Talent Curators. We started out about three years ago, David, and we grossed almost $3 million last year in the contract staff, which threw off a really nice sum of net cash, which was great. So as you can see, the world of work is, it is shifting, and it’s about where people want to dial in on their careers. That work arrangement, that solution set has been really good for us as well.

Folwell: And one of the things that you kind of mentioned there, and I know we talked about briefly earlier was that they’re changing how people are learning the business? I know you’ve talked a little bit about that in terms of how they view talent, but do you have anything else that you kind of like to elaborate on that front?

Miller: Yeah, with MRINetwork, again, we’re a 300 plus franchise organization that we bring back and provide a platform to the owners of those firms. So, one of the things that there’s a huge gap, we’re very good at getting people started in the business. The good core training is really strong. We’ve even evolved it where we’ve added in digital components to it, because it’s a very analog, old archaic business that we work in. That’s a solid foundation that we have. But our gap that we see in the industry, including what we offer is how do we continue to take people down that journey for themselves in their career and develop them and how they’re engaged in the marketplace?

As a team we also see the fact that it’s how we’re helping people and transferring that knowledge. People always want the answers, as you can imagine, David, right? They ask you, “Push this button.” And we’ve all been too ready to do that and talk at people. And we’re using a different approach with our folks, our network, and it’s working out quite well. And that is really using curiosity and inquisitive methodology by which we really are working with a team to allow our owners to do more critical thinking on their own by asking questions, getting them to engage, asking them where their gaps are, things that they would like to do. And that approach has really worked out quite well.

And then we just launched, last week we just launched Vision 25, which is a group of nine offices with 11 people that are representing those nine offices. And the energy in that room for eight hours was incredible. Joe led that, and along with Annette Wehrli, our head of learning and talent development. And that whole dynamic there, that process of getting people to really think about what they want to get done, but more importantly, for them to be able to think for themselves. And when you can help people think for themselves, it allows them, it gives them a journey or a path to learn. And when they have that path to learn, David, then certainly they can become better people. They can become better professionals and they’re able to build their companies.

Folwell: I absolutely love that. And I also notice that you’ve had a few articles, one on, one on Forbes about how to fix our broken workforce. And it sounds like you’re doing a lot of that with the learning and knowledge that you’re putting into place right now, and trying to give people the tools to grow themselves. Are there any specific things that you’d recommend for staffing agencies when it comes to retaining their current talent, or even if it’s retention of the people they’re putting to hire, putting on that job?

Miller: Yeah, here’s how I would answer that, David, it’s really around quality, hiring people that have forced multiplying capabilities. I would take the quality over a quantity of people and scaling a large group if I’m hiring the right people. So the way I’m approaching is you really hire from mindset, intelligence, diligence, the response, if they’re responsible, we can train the rest. I mean, we can really train. It’s really around those characteristics and attributes that they bring to the table. And as I mentioned earlier, keep rehiring your own team. The best hiring strategy is just keeping and retaining your own top performers and those that are already there. And then you certainly have the hiring brand message. You have to be able to articulate your north star, your vision, your mission, your why you’re doing what you’re doing, and show people how you’re going to grow and scale, especially in today’s world.

When people can see and learn what they can become at your company, versus just taking a job with good pay, the good people tend to lean toward that path. And then finally, as I mentioned earlier, when you’re offering that platform, you’re hiring quality, I would much rather, I’d prefer to have three people that are high performing contributors, not only in results, but culture and values, that are team-driven with three open roles, than having six people with, they’re capable, but they don’t have the multiplier effect. Because those three out-worth those six.

Folwell: And do you actually, I love the concept of the force multiplier and I try to identify that based off mindset. Do you have specific assessments that you do for that? Do you have training around how to identify that? Or what is the process to help kind of make sure you’re getting those people in the door?

Miller: I think a lot of it’s intrinsic, right? So, whoever has the intrinsic motivation. The only thing we can do it is inspire to bring it out of them. The tendency that many times we have is we want our people to like us. We don’t hold them necessarily accountable and we want them to be comfortable when real reality, that comfort is not helping them grow at all.

So we go through the process of our personal scorecard, which I’ve mentioned earlier, along with using the Wonderlic Test specifically. If you want to know what it is, it’s about a 12-minute time test that they go through, then they score, comes in and relative to the role that they are applying for. And that we use that to kind of understand their intelligence and their ability to empathy and agility and the things that they bring to the table. And then, of course you have to have a process that you onboard, a process you continue to offer up. That’s why we’ve invested in the head of people. And then the people themselves, if they’re intrinsically motivated, you bring that out and inspire it. Certainly people with passion and energy and grit, they’re going to have a work rate that’s going to be far superior than the average person.

Folwell: Absolutely, I love all of that. And thank you for sharing the details on the test as well, that’s super helpful. One other thing I noticed, and kind of shifting gears a little bit, but you guys are very focused on some specific verticals. You got the food and beverage, retail, banking, cannabis, beauty industries, and it sounds like a little bit of that might have started with your background and your initial job out of school, which I have similar experiences with. But how did you select the verticals that you are in, and which ones are growing the fastest for you?

Miller: Yeah, well we, coming out of school and going to work for Gallo was, certainly I got an incredible amount of experience with two terrific consumer products companies, Gallo, and then ultimately Revlon. And both of those are outstanding classical training grounds for the consumer products industry. And so it was an easy pathway. I love the industry. I literally have a passion for consumer products. And to this day I will go look at wine sets or I’ll go look at the drugstore, look at a Revlon set against L’Oréal or whatever. And my wife thinks I’m crazy. So all the women in there are looking at me very strange, but no I’m looking at, I really have a passion for consumer products. So it really lent itself quite well to align myself in this industry with that particular focus in that sector.

The other thing, if you take a look at what runs the world, there’s basically three things that run most of the GDP in the world, and that’s healthcare, digital, and consumer. So it’s a good place to be. People are going to eat and they’re going to drink. And then two areas that I would add onto that we really added to our portfolio, we have a team that we, they focus on cannabis. It was a really easy transition to what’s going on in the world of wellness and what’s going on as we watch it develop medicinally. And then certainly CBD in its own right, a non-psychoactive approach to wellness has been a big hit. And we’ve been able to go into many of these at the highest levels, placing their executives, helping them grow their organizations. And they like people out of consumer primarily.

And then we just recently in the last year launched a food tech division, which is amazing in its own right as it relates to the technology component, whether it be in hospitality or how they’re overlaying themselves with distilled spirits and that the tech of, you can make a bourbon. It takes, call it five, six years or maybe an eight-year-old bourbon, whatever it happens to be. You can make a five, eight-year-old bourbon in a matter of days now through the technology component, it’s really fascinating. So we’re getting in that as well. And that then points the gun toward building our relationship with private equity and family offices, which has allowed us to get in at the very, at the initial seed rounds. It’s allowed us to get into these companies and really develop their business and grow it from the ground up.

Folwell: That’s really awesome. And as you’re talking about this, I mean, I feel like the specialization is a key part of your growth and success. Also, the effort and kind of the way that you process talent, make sure that you focus on their goals and what they’re doing. Is there anything else when it comes to sourcing and making sure that you’re finding the right talent that you’re doing differently, or you think that is unique to your firm?

Miller: I don’t know if it’s unique to my firm, because we’re really, we’ve introduced this to MRINetwork. So Protis, we started going in and doing interviews and video in 2011 and started bringing digital at that level into our firm. And we would create these little videos and they weren’t very good at all, they were actually terrible. But we saw about 10 years ago where this industry was going. I did not invest as deeply as I probably should have during that time, but we kept going step-by-step into a digital flow and a way of introducing that to our recruiters and watching over the last four to five years how the phone has gone from the lead off batting position to now batting third or fourth in the lineup.

And then certainly I’ve known Joe Mullings for over 20 years and have been good friends over that period of time and talked, spent hours on the phone earlier in our careers. And when I bought MRI, I knew that was where I wanted to go. I called him and I said, “Look,” because he took the leap. He put in a lot of money into investing and building out a studio and really making himself better at doing that. And so what I did was I aligned with that and we together kind of created out MRI, that’s very unique for industry. I mean, it’s a way we approach it. We approach it from a hiring brand mentality and from a way of communication around information, education and inspiration versus, “Hey, look at us.” And that methodology then we’ve trickled down into our own firms, that now is being able to be educated, and we’re now training the MRINetwork. And candidly, I think it’s now bled over into other parts of the world of work and other recruiters.

Folwell: Awesome, awesome. And with that, where do you see kind of the future of recruiting going, or any kind of new major trends? And there’s so much shifting right now with the Great Resignation, and I know contract hires, there’s a lot of things going on. Where do you see things going from your perspective?

Miller: Well, I could talk about a few. A couple come to mind. One, the work arrangement’s changing rapidly. Pre-pandemic we were 65% perm and 35% contract. That work arrangement, the pandemic has really accelerated where we were already headed. We just now, we’re getting there about 10 years earlier. And so, you’re seeing more and more people take the contract work arrangement, David. And the reason that’s important in terms of this part of the pie is that you’re seeing these contract roles and the perm roles converge in both in time and the role in the position and obviously grow and converging in the number of work arrangement in contract versus perm. And so you’re seeing the lines really, really converging.

I believe us, by us being in the talent access space and offering a full solution in different solutions sets for the world of work and our clients puts us in a really solid position. Certainly when I think of recruitment and I look at the technology and I look at where we’re heading, there’s two different things happening as well. One, what does the future firm look like? And two, what does a desk look like for the individual recruiter going back 25, 30 years? Right before I got in the business it was a metal desk and a ashtray and a phone book. And if you’re lucky enough, you’re able to have a terminal with a DOS operating system and you started putting stuff in this electronic file cabinet.

That’s now evolved up to using, you’re using LinkedIn, you’re using all these various tools where you’re aggregating data, data intelligence, business intelligence at the desk level and at the company level. But media, marketing, your messaging in the marketplace, how you’re playing to have the touches in the marketplace are not all through cold calling, but through creating your own hiring or creating your own brand that’s allowing you to almost warm up the areas in your sector. And ultimately if you take the journey from being a subject matter expert sitting in a single office, and you can now become a leader in the marketplace through digital and then becoming a voice in a digital, you’re now warming up your sector where they may know you, you may not know them, but they know who you are. And so I really see, that’s why I say the phone is really the most important weapon we have as recruiters will know, but it’s just batting for fourth in the lineup it’s not hit lead off.

Folwell: Right, that makes a lot of sense. And it is interesting seeing all of the transition to more contract. With, I’m going to go ahead and jump in into kind of the second section of the interview today with some personal questions, a little bit more fun questions. What advice do you wish you were given before entering the staffing industry?

Miller: Great question. I wish that I had been trained around creative financing and learning how important it is to structure deals from a financing component, from how to engage and network within that finance community. Not that I want to be a CFO or dealmaker in an investment bank, but I think it would be very, very important to understand those types of things so that you are able to have those boardroom discussions with the people that are making those decisions in the executive suite with the companies you’re working with.

And over time I’ve really learned a lot of that, but it would have been really nice early on to have understood that both as I worked with clients and internally, how do you manage cash flow when cash is at a premium back then? And when you hire somebody, there’s a, how do you create a formula? When is the time you hire somebody, and is there a formula, or do you use your gut? I mean, is there a number, is there certain ratios that tell you, “This is the financial ratio,” that you should hire somebody, or just make that decision? So I wish I would have had that.

Folwell: I second that. As a business owner there’s a lot of lessons that I wish I had learned earlier on that front. Do you have any resources or books or anything that you have identified that have helped you, or has it been kind of learning as you’ve done?

Miller: Yeah, well, I’ve aligned myself with people. I’ve aligned myself with people. I mean, I have an advisor who has done a multitude of deals and different structured deals, creative structure that I learned an incredible amount from him. The first hire that I really made at MRI was a CFO. That was my first hire. So, that kind of gives you some perspective. I just, by aligning myself with people like that. And then of course, I’ve done the strengths finders and…all that, I like to learn. So one of my biggest strengths is learning. So I’ve really worked at learning the financial components, learning GAAP versus cash and all the various components around reserving money, reserving issues and then making sure that you’re planning down range and making that part of your P&L. So you don’t get to the end of the year and all of a sudden you have to pay a bonus that’s not accrued, and how to accrue those monies while you’re doing it. So, it’s an interesting area that I’ve learned a lot.

Folwell: That’s great. And I’m also, top three learner was one of mine as well. So, that’s great. So in the last five years, what new belief, behavior or habit has most improved your life?

Miller: Well, I was a staunch 100% you have to be in the office. Yeah. So, of course we have four or five generations working together now. So I’ve learned to embrace some of the new ideas of working remote. In fact, what has changed my mind is the, how I could really scale and grow my own company through a remote mindset versus them being on site at HQ. And so it’s actually become a benefit from that perspective. I still believe in coming to the office on a regular basis and having camaraderie and that type of thing, because it’s so important, particularly in our business, but that is the biggest thing that has changed for me really in the last three years, let alone five years.

Folwell: That’s great. And will you ever go back to full-time required in the office, do you think? 

Miller: No.

Folwell: Yeah, it’s amazing how much that’s changed in the last couple of years. What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? Could be an investment of money, time, energy, et cetera?

Miller: Well, of time, it would be investing my time in coaching youth sports. I love doing that and impacted a lot of now young women and now young men today. That was very, very rewarding. In terms of money, the biggest and the best investment I’ve ever made was certainly investing in myself and my family and investing in the team that we have today. And even some of the alumni that have helped us shape and get to where we are today. And then the outside investment, although you didn’t ask that, I do invest quite a bit in a consumer. I was an original investor in Angel’s Envy at the beginning.

Folwell: Oh, awesome.

Miller: Yeah, one of those funds. And then I invested three years ago in VYBES, V-Y-B-E-S, which is a CBD drink out of Los Angeles. I was one of the original investors there. And there’s an elixir and then there’s the CBD side.

Folwell: That’s great.

Miller: Yeah. So, those have been fun and they’ve been good for us.

Folwell: That is awesome. And what is the book or books you’ve given most as a gift, and why?

Miller: Well, I was asked that not long ago. One, as a gift, I was told recently by a business partner to read Radical Candor

Folwell: Yeah.

Miller: So, I love Radical Candor. But Good to Great is a fantastic book that I think most people will, I have it here, they say you had to read things three times in order to really understand and have in your soul. I read it probably three or four times. And then, Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss. Chris is fantastic. And I love that from a negotiation perspective. And then finally, the number one business book in the world that I’ve ever read was The Godfather.

Folwell: That’s—

Miller: Yeah. Well, go read The Godfather with a different mindset and different lens and Corleone and how he led people, managed his business and — minus the murder.

Folwell: Minus the violence?

Miller: Yeah. But it’s a fantastic baseline for how to run a business.

Folwell: That is the most interesting answer to that question I’ve heard yet.

Miller: I love the book. 

Folwell: Last question I have here is, how has a failure or apparent failure set you up for later success?

Miller: Yeah, I have failed a lot, David. And I think, rather than going and giving you specific failures, which I have no problem doing, but I think stems from a standpoint of the outcome or brings the outcome stems from some common learning. One, and I don’t want to be cliché, but you have to just keep going. I mean, at the end of the day, you keep going. If you really believe in something or you believe in an idea, you keep going. All you do is either understand that it’s not going to work and you kind of change to something a little bit different, take a different path. Or the idea may be, the concept may be right the way you’re going about it. And you got to keep opening different doors.

I think the number-one learning that I’ve had from myself and other people, and I’ve seen so many people, right before they’re getting ready to break through, they give up. I mean, right before, I mean, it happens so often where they’re doing so many of the right things and they tend to give up, and a lot of failures occur because of that. And you stay the course. I mean, Protis is a great example. My first year I wanted to quit three times, I just wasn’t going to do it.

Folwell: That’s amazing. Great and great advice. So with that, are there any closing comments or thoughts that you’d like to share with our audience?

Miller: Yeah, I think it’s interesting. We’ve been through something over the last two and a half years, and it depends what part of the country you’re traveling to. Some states where we are, we really don’t have masking. I just went to an event in Baltimore and masks were rather prevalent. I mean, so it just depends on where you go. And I think as business owners or business leaders and as individuals, when things like this happen, I mean, some of the biggest learning I came out over the last two and a half, three years is, I just ensured, from my perspective I just ensured my team was really, really safe. And there’s no judgment here, just ensure they’re really safe. Over communicate and just be visible and available.

And then ultimately, you have to get your executive team together and your entire team to get to level set and huddle and ensure that you’re helping them understand that we have to have an agile mindset to get back to protecting the business. And the last couple years that’s been some of the greatest things that I’ve learned. And I think a lot of people, if they use that approach today or tomorrow, the next time they come up against any crisis, I think that’ll be beneficial for them.

Folwell: Absolutely. Well Bert, thank you so much for joining today. Some really great insights from you, and I really appreciate you being on here with us today, and thank you so much.

Miller: David, thank you. I really appreciate it. It’s a great time to spend some time with you.