I actually started out in advertising, publishing and copy-writing. Then due to family circumstances, I went to help Dad with his domestic carpet business. I found that I could read plans really easily, of course he taught me, but it came naturally. That lead into working in the commercial carpet sector for other people, all purely circumstantial. After years working for others I went out on my own and started up a company called ICE Interiors. At the time, ice was not a dirty word! It was just a quirky name! I built it up to become one of the top three largest commercial contracting companies in Victoria. I still don’t know that there is another female contractor heading flooring in the building industry. I eventually sold that company about 6 years ago and went on a sabbatical for a year in Europe. Now I am operating at the quieter end of the spectrum. I still do commercial work but for corporate clients rather than the large builders.
From the kitchen table I actually went out on my own, I know it’s an old story but I really did. I opened up the plans on the kitchen table and when I got my first job I thought I’d better find a warehouse! I then asked the manufacturers, ‘Will you give me some terms? A bit of leverage?’ And they did. They gave me the squeakiest bit of leverage to work with and that’s it. I went from having a $20,000 credit limit with one supplier to, within two years, turning over $4 million with that company. It can be done, but, you have to chase your money, all the time!
I had years of working for other people. Whether you are working for yourself or someone else, you are doing it for you. You are still building a rapport. When I moved out on my own, people knew of me and my reputation. I had people I could call on and say ‘Would you consider using me? Can I price your next project?’
Once you obtain a core group of clients and you win the repeat business, the biggest challenge in establishing your own business is usually finance. Going into the commercial game, the money that is involved is huge for a single operator. You are constantly looking at how to finance the growth while you’re managing the current work and waiting for payments.
I was jack of all trades when I started my business. I would wear all black, have a pair of safety boots in the car and high heels for the office. I’d go from visiting an architect to being out on site, to then ordering toilet paper for the office. You’re starting at ground zero, so you do it all. If you’re too precious for it, you either have a lot of money behind you or else don’t bother because you will come undone.
The person that put me into good steed was my Dad. When I was quite young, perhaps only 11 or 12, he said to me ‘You’ve got to make sure you can look after yourself first, then you can choose who you are with, and what you are doing with your life.’ So I believe that if you can look after yourself, you choose what road you take, what direction you’re heading and you can say ‘no’ which is a great self power to have.
One of the things that I always remember – never sign anything on the spot. Always take time. If someone is putting you under pressure to act or react, pull back and take your time to digest it before reacting, signing and moving ahead with it. If you are not feeling the love for it, stop and walk away, digest it. Give yourself that breather to decide and reflect on it.
The only thing that scares me about the construction industry at the moment is the lack of apprentice tradesmen that we are seeing coming through. I don’t know why young men and women aren’t encouraged more into a trade. University is great, tafe is great. Not everyone is moulded to it or wants to be in the Uni process. I don’t know why there isn’t more encouragement and fanfare about it. I think there is great camaraderie in the building industry and there’s great pride in having a trade.
I think we need to almost glamorize the building industry. We build some fabulous buildings. I know for my small part, how good I felt that I was part of so many successful projects. The industry is versatile and diverse. I don’t think we are showing that attractiveness of it, especially for females. I used to love going from site to site. On a daily basis you could be going to a different site with a different crew and different demands. Always the time-line pressure, it’s actually a fast paced industry, which people outside the industry would not know and I think it is quite exciting to move around like that!
The construction game is one industry that more females should definitely be in, there are not enough of us to raise the flag. I think it is wide open. My advice to young women, wanting to make an impact, would be to come into the building industry, and find an interesting role. There are many. You will be accepted and there are good prospects. It is one of the few industries where you can start at grass roots and work your way through, with some training, without having to go through a six year University degree, and be in a valuable position.
I don’t know what a balance is to be honest. My work was who I was. My son was raised by two parents that were in the building game and so he grew up sitting in the backseat hearing what was going on. You work it in. There were times when, for example, I needed to submit a price the following morning and I couldn’t close the door on it, so I’d say to my son, ‘Mummy is drawing up her plans, here is a spare one, you draw up yours.’ It has to be done. The more you do and do it well, it (the business) just grows. It becomes part of who you are and your family integrates into it as well.
Be respectful of what you do, who you work with, who you live with and of course, most of all, to yourself.
Romana kindly invited us to her beautiful home in Kensington; a quiet neighbourhood, a stone’s throw from the city. She welcomed us with a warmth that immediately put us well at ease. Refreshingly relaxed and pragmatic, her charm and spark illustrates a stand alone talent. This woman is so genuine. This women knows how to work hard. So articulate and considered. Sitting with her that early autumn evening, we realised that this was the voice of Gazella. Women driving themselves. Creating and sculpting their own paths. Getting out there and having a go. Women like Romana are such important examples of the opportunity to take a non-traditional path, in the built environment.