Susan Oliver Chairman Scale Investors  / 
Oil on Sawdust

story / Interview / October 10, 2016

I was the first woman to graduate from construction at the University of Melbourne in 1969. It doesn’t seem a long time ago to me, but it actually does in terms of the industry and the greater sophistication in systems and technologies today. The first year we did in common with architecture and town planning and then in the second year we started the formal ‘building’ subjects, such as quantity surveying.

There was a lecturer in my second year responsible for nearly all of our subjects. His very first opening remark in the Japanese Studio (our favourite room) was to me, “I am not used to teaching women and;. I believe they belong in the bedroom or in the kitchen.” My colleagues tittered, they thought that was amusing. From then on he marked me to a bare pass. For three years no matter how hard I worked and how well I did.

I started to believe him that I was not very clever. That was hard, that sense of being oppressed and unable to get out of the dark hole. I came to do my final year, part of the assessment was attendance and then I noticed that he marked me absent. I knew he was determined not to pass me, so I left and did a practical year. When I came back and did my final year, I came top of the course, because he wasn’t there. He had gone back to South Africa. I look back at those days and think ‘Oh the torture I went through!’

I’m a very technical person. My father was in my young years, a teacher at a technical school. I used to go and help him in the machine shop. I love the smell of oil on sawdust and concrete being poured. The smell of the reinforcement rods being cut. All of that was really exciting and I wanted to know how it was all done. How buildings were built and how site logistics came together.

We were country people so we’d come to Melbourne shopping. To have the opportunity to look through the awning and see the buildings being built, was to me more exciting than the shopping, I guess. That’s the kind of kid I was. I just really wanted to understand it and unravel the mystery.

My first job was with L.U.Simon. Leo said he’d give his first female graduate a job. I did Supervision work, the working drawings for several hospitals and supervised the Avenue Hospital in Windsor. I learned about poster girls in the site sheds. I learnt about sexual harassment. There was a fair bit of that and I also learnt that it was a pretty tough game.

I lined up every morning with Les, Wes and Des (the other Supervisors). We only had telephones in those days. I was phone number four. And you’d get on the phone to get your subcontractors to site. They’d all be “You ***ing better get your ***ing guys to site… ” and I’d be mildly and politely saying  “Excuse, me, sorry to bother you…” Needless to say the people who came to my sites, were the people who liked that, the gentlemen.

There was one beautiful gentlemen electrician and he suicided. I didn’t know him that well, but he was just a terrific guy. But people would say that the industry was too hard. And it was a tough place to be. Very rough people. Rough behaviours. He was a European man, and I think it was too much. It just struck me at the time, that ‘Gee, this is a harsh environment.”

I should also mention that I had supporters. My father had a very good friend, Ken Woolacott, who actually built the building that is just behind Parliament station. He did a lot of building supervision for Hansen Yuncken and a lot of work out at Latrobe Uni. Ken was really helpful to me in getting through the industry and trying to understand the dynamic of it. In the faculty there was Elizabeth Caldicott, one of the first women engineers in Australia, Blanche Merz one of our first women nuclear physicists and later, Helen Tippett who I believe was the first woman Dean of architecture in the southern hemisphere. Fabulous role models.

It wasn’t a place for women and it was very hard on women. There was little  understanding of how it felt to be victimised . Professor Simon thought he was being supportive but he didn’t know. I was working with a Malaysian-Chinese man Tony Ho and he did understand as he also faced discrimination, and he was very supportive. But on the whole, people thought you were someone from out of space. The girls, were the girlies on the inside of the sheds. When you walked  up a ladder  you knew everyone was checking you out.

What got me down about the industry ultimately, was the level of bullying. It was just ongoing. Sexual harassment you’d call it today, I just called it bullying. It never ended. When there was any promotions or opportunities, it went to the guys. If I look back it’s hard to think of the chronology, it’s sort of more about feeling as if I was never, ever going to get anywhere.

I went from L.U.Simon to Merchant Builders. Perhaps the only innovative housing companies that we’ve had in the last 60 years. They introduced cluster housing, they used Graham Gunn to do design,  Jan Faulkner to do the interiors. They really moved into a quality of housing that had never been done before and they pioneered these innovative planning regulations. It was a really good experience. I did cost planning and building economics.

I was working in government and there was a really big rort and I discovered it. I ended up getting death threats. I was living by myself in Carlton when someone rang on the phone with heavy breathing and threatened me with concrete shoes. I reported it to my  boss who supported me and we took it to his boss and they encouraged me to keep reporting it to more senior people, but as I got above that no one wanted to know. And it was costing the government millions of dollars. There was a lot of instances that weren’t encouraging me to stay in the industry.

So I went off on my own. I decided that I could be a Consultant. Amazing and probably stupid courage, but I got great work and excellent opportunities to make a difference. I project managed the Emerald Hill urban renewal project in South Melbourne and worked with Peter Lovell on a renewal project in  Footscray. I probably worked in the industry for ten years in one way or another.

I am proud of what I achieved in the Emerald hill project. I project managed it to  time and  budget. I initiated tenant consultation, employed external architects (in those days the housing Commission had internal architects who were not very innovative) to get some innovation and attention to customers. As a result, I was offered a job in the government housing department working on policy and reform White Papers, so I did a lot of policy work. They kept promoting me and promoting me, until I became a senior manager in the public sector by the age of twenty-nine. In my early thirties I was taken across to technology and that was the end of construction. Technology and manufacturing was the new horizon for me.

My dad was my influence. Is that too cute? My mum’s been influential, but she was a literature person. That’s the direction my sister went in. I still love art, but I was my Dad’s girl. He’s very inquiring, very innovative. He’s eighty-eight and still working out things to do, writing new plays. He’s very community minded, very determined to do the right thing in the community and contribute to the community. Which I’ve got in spades as well.

My mother went back and did an adult year 12, around the time my sister and I were doing it. While my sister and I got second and third class honours, she got all first and sailed through. She’s really the brains of the family. It wasn’t until I was eighteen that my mum went back and had a career. She had a traditional role until then, but even though we had a traditional family, nobody said I couldn’t do anything. There was never a sense that I couldn’t do anything I wanted.

I remember lying in bed. I was less than ten years of age, a long time ago, we were living in Bairnsdale and my sister was dreaming about what she’d wear and how she’d be a bride and I was desperately trying to stay awake and desperately bored, and she said “What about you?” and I said “I’m going to be a business woman and wear a suit.” I didn’t even know what a business woman was! I just knew I was going to be one and wear a suit.

I’ve been a non executive director now and a chairman of companies now for twenty years. Right now, I’m deputy chairman of Simonds Homes, and I’m on the board of CMPR, which is a residual of Centro. I was one of the board members who did the restructure of Centro. I am the independent member of the investment committee for Industry Funds Management and draw a lot on my experience of thirteen years on the board of Transurban. Transurban is another high point for me.  In the thirteen years I was on the board, we took it from winning one contract for the City Link in Melbourne, to an ASX top thirty company. So that was a great journey. I’ve had a really broad diversity of experience.

I think my story is about reinvention. I am determined never to be at the end of a phone hoping someone will ring me to give me a good job. In 2012 I decided to set up a women’s angel investing group after I saw a great model of how it could be done in NY. I found some strong shoulders to stand on and these are now my colleagues and co-founders of Scale Investors – we are an angel network of over 100 (mainly women) who invest in women led startups. We are addressing the really poor participation of women in this innovative economy. I think it is the future of work and I am determined that women should not be left out, or indeed select themselves out of the future economy.

I am 65 years of age. I feel great. I am looking for a new challenge and I like where I am and who I am. The building course I did at Melbourne University all of those years ago has served me well. It has given me confidence to understand technical things as well as business and has given me a great love of the built environment and infrastructure.

I played tennis a lot as a child and mixed doubles with my Dad. He was keen we understood all of the lessons from sport – teamwork, striving for excellence, graciousness in loss and win. And when we played together my father always told me to go for it…I think that is the overriding message.

 

Sitting with Susan in her new apartment in East Melbourne was surreal. We couldn’t believe we had found the first female to graduate from the construction degree at the University of Melbourne. Susan is the ultimate trailblazer. Her tenacity forged a path for all of us to follow. We were gobsmacked by her countless stories.  Susan is a wise women. She’s direct, bold and bright. You can’t put anything past her. Her stories show how it’s important to never give up and to chase your dreams no matter what your obstacles may bring. Thank you Susan for shining a light on experiences from your past. You are such an inspiration with a wealth of knowledge to share. 

2 thoughts on “Susan Oliver Chairman Scale Investors

Lavanya   October 10, 2016 at 10:38 am

I saw Susan speak at the launch of Melbourne Uni’s ABP Alumni Network and needless to say she has overcome mountains to get to where she is.

She gives hope that women can ‘get there’ and break the barriers that we need to in order to achieve.

Love hearing her speak in person and reading her interview

Thanks ladies for a great ‘smoko’ read xx

danielle   October 10, 2016 at 10:51 am

That’s what we are here for! She had so much commitment and dedication and yet we all need that commitment and dedication now – to keep forging her path into the future. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go!

xx