ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN STAFFING SUCCESS MAGAZINE (JAN–FEB 2006)
By Mark Hersberger
He’s been there, done that, seen and heard it all. Over a career spanning 50 years, Joel Biller served his country in the U.S. State Department, then led trail-blazing efforts to open foreign markets to American staffing companies. He served on the American Staffing Association board of directors for 24 years—a record. Now, he joins the staffing industry hall of fame as the 32nd recipient of the Leadership Hall of Fame Award.
But Biller’s work isn’t done—he’s simply not the retiring type. In 2004, Biller embarked on a new challenge as the first American president of the International Confederation of Temporary Work Businesses (CIETT), the staffing industry’s international trade association. He’s come a long way from his native Milwaukee, which, incidentally, is where he started his staffing career and still calls home.
From State Department to Staffing
For the first 25 years of his career, Biller worked all over the world for the State Department, eventually rising to deputy assistant secretary of state for commercial affairs. He was responsible for helping American companies do business overseas.
In that role, Biller became involved with staffing for the first time. His high school friend Mitchell Fromstein was president of Manpower Inc. and solicited Biller’s help on some staffing issues. At about the time Biller was ready to leave the State Department and return to Milwaukee, Fromstein invited him to join Manpower and help expand its overseas operations.
Starting as senior vice president of corporate affairs, Biller managed a number of foreign markets, helped Manpower open new markets, acquired franchises both in the U.S. and abroad, headed up the entire U.S. franchise operation, and even served as general counsel for several years.
The transition to Manpower also initiated Biller’s involvement with the ASA board. First he stood in for Fromstein, and then served as the standing Manpower appointee. He stepped down 24 years later as the longest-serving ASA board member, evidence of his commitment to the industry and the reason he was honored with the Leadership Hall of Fame Award.
Former ASA chairman Jim Essey of the TemPositions Group of Cos. introduced Biller at Staffing World and presented the award. He had endeavored to find out why Biller remained so active for so long. “In his usual diplomatic way,” Essey began, “Joel said it was because our industry and ASA were so important.” Biller also noted the strides staffing has made, from being just a “blip on the labor market” to “a major force with real significance.” Regarding ASA, Biller believes the association has made tremendous progress in promoting the industry’s positive image, Essey said.
Essey also talked to current Manpower president, CEO, and chairman Jeff Joerres. Joerres summed up Biller’s importance to the growth of the industry by saying, “Joel is an exemplary individual who has served both Manpower and the staffing industry with unparalleled distinction for more than 25 years. His current role, as the first non-European to serve as president of CIETT, is a testament to the level of respect that Joel has earned from members of the staffing industry worldwide.”
Essey also relayed remarks from past ASA chairmen under whom Biller served. Not surprisingly, they commented on Biller’s diplomatic approach to problem solving and the thorough, measured analysis he always provided.
Biller left the board in 2003 with fond memories of his colleagues. “I took away many good friendships,” he said in an interview, “and was particularly impressed with my fellow board members and their dedication to the task before them.”
When accepting the award, Biller stayed true to his modest Midwestern roots. Instead of talking about himself, he heaped praise on fellow staffing professionals. “Most of all I want to thank you,” he said to Staffing World attendees, “because it is you who have created this industry, and in the past 25 years or so that I’ve been connected with it, it’s your effort—what you have done with your skills, your hard work, your energy, your entrepreneurship—that has made this a vibrant and a forward-looking actor in the American labor market.”
Eyes on the World
As Biller knows—perhaps better than anyone—the staffing business is conducted on a global stage. As president of CIETT, his job is “to convince economic and political leaders that it is beneficial to the welfare of everyone if the staffing industry is allowed to make the contributions that it is capable of.”
“There is a high degree of commonality from one market to another,” Biller explains, “but also a great deal of differences in the way markets are managed.” American staffing companies, he says, can learn from occurrences overseas how to most effectively manage their own situations and markets.
The biggest challenge in leading CIETT, according to Biller, is no different from that faced by any ASA-affiliated chapter president: “Educate the general population, in particular decision makers, as to what we are all about because there are still erroneous perceptions of our industry.”
At Staffing World, Biller reiterated the importance of promoting the staffing industry’s benefits. “CIETT has a role with regard to keeping things the way they should be,” he remarked. Biller explained how some international organizations can affect what happens in the United States and abroad. Therefore, “we at CIETT are working hard to make sure that what those organizations do does not impede the good things our industry does. That’s our goal at CIETT.”
From Milwaukee to Milan, everywhere in between, and back again, Biller always keeps the international scene in perspective. The international staffing community thanks him for his commitment and contribution. The sentiment is mutual. To conclude his Staffing World remarks, Biller said, “I admire you and I admire ASA, and if this award means that you admire me a little bit back, that makes me happy.”