Jessica Jones / Head of Strategy & Business Development / Balmain & Co  / 
Work, Train, Recover, Repeat

story / BD Series / November 12, 2022

I studied environmental engineering. I love sustainability and the environment and thought that’s what I wanted to do. And then when I graduated there weren’t a lot of jobs that weren’t research based. I just had no idea to be honest. I went to work as an engineer for three months and hated it with a deep passion. This is not for me.

I met Danny who is the founder/Director of Balmain, where I am now, through footy and netball stuff at Melbourne Uni. I had worked for three month in a big international, corporate consultancy firm. So when he said, I’ve got this really small start-up, you’ll be doing everything, I was like, sign me up!

I come from engineering and my first ever meeting at Balmain was a branding meeting – talking about symbolism and what branding and marketing meant…I was wondering, what the hell have I gotten into?

I was at Balmain for three or four years at the start. There were four of us, so we were all Development Managers in a way, going between subbies, but also meeting with the heads of ANZ bank, getting our names out there and getting funding for developments. We were an all hands on deck kind of thing. As we grew, I went into a more traditional CA/PM role on site. I knew that I needed to know what they did and have experienced it. I didn’t hate it but I knew it just wasn’t for me and it wasn’t forever, but it was a really good learning to actually be on site, managing a project.

It’s always the first meeting. I get a lot of, ‘Oh I thought Danny was coming as well…’ but then at the end of the conversation, they don’t want to deal with anyone else. It’s that hesitation at the start … of seeing a young female. Of course, there’s an age thing too. They think you have no experience, but I guarantee I’ve had more time on site then most people I’m meeting.

In 2018 I moved to London for two years. Worked for the complete opposite company, the biggest developer in the UK, in their commercial team. Similar role, to be honest, but a very different company, with very different scale of projects. So that was eye opening.

When I came back, everyone asked if I was going back to Balmain. I answered ‘no’. I knew I didn’t want to be on site full time, and there was no role that existed other than a lot of office based roles like estimating, or finance. But the guys who I kept in touch with the whole time wanted me to come back and to completely change the business. We didn’t have business development (BD) or any strategy. They said they needed to have someone who was not ‘Delivery’ so I thought, in that case – yeah alright, let’s do this! It took me a long time to get my head around that it would work, I was not convinced. We had never had a full-time BD role. What am I going to do? Where do I start? I also felt a little bit like I was going backwards, because I went back to where I was. And I was nervous that I would get dragged back on site, but I didn’t at all. From there I have grown that role and that’s where we are today, in a role that didn’t exist two years ago.

Every day is so different, which is what I love. With the strategy part of my role, the company strategy is now set and we have goals for the next five years. So it’s now monitoring, managing, and changing and adapting that with people, times, whatever it is; market conditions, supply chains, labour conditions. We adapt the plan and keep coming back to it. But it was important for me at the start to establish why we are here, and what we are doing.

Balmain is still a relatively small business. We had a vision on our website, but it wasn’t something we were necessarily passing onto our staff. Our why. As a Contractor, we are not actually doing the building, we are managing. Our people are our entire business and we need to keep them involved in those decisions. Our people need to buy into the vision.

The other part of my job is the BD stuff, which is actually then going and putting the strategy into place. Meeting the right people. The question is, where do you spend your time? At the moment there is an unbelievable amount of opportunity out there, so where do you focus your energy? Who are you talking to? Why? What kind of projects? What’s your spread like?

We are seeing a lot of ECI’s come through now as opposed to two years ago when it was – here are 90% tender docs, go and tender it and you’ll start on site in three months. Now it’s twelve months between tendering and starting on site. So what can we manage from a cash flow perspective, we need a balance of projects in all phases.

There’s some days where it will be all meetings and catching up with everyone, then there will be days when I’m researching what jobs are going through town planning, researching the developers and you get really involved…this developer is working with this architect and you know this architect, but then you look at their projects and they are working with this other developer and it’s just a rabbit hole of people.

Another part of my role is cadet mentoring. It’s a part of the business that is really exciting for me. What I’ve found is the difference between a mentor and a good mentor, is taking that information and doing something with it. Because it’s really easy to listen, but harder to actually put an action plan together. We didn’t have a cadet program, so we came up with one to start with and in that it made sense that since I was coming up with this program, I took that management role on. I want to be a part of all their lives. I feel like I’m the one that brings them in so I want to nurture them a little bit.

So how I’ve worked it, to take pressure off me, everyone that comes into the company, is given a mentor, aligned with where they want to be to start with. Most of the mentors themselves are men, because they are the ones in the senior positions at the moment, and then slowly that will change. And I oversee the whole program. What we’ve found is that we’ve got these young kids who are eighteen or nineteen years old, and we are sending them out to a site, but they don’t even know how to read drawings yet. So we’ve put together a twelve month syllabus and they get together monthly – which is good to get them all in a room, and they do some key learning of ‘how to read drawings’, ‘what meetings are’, and ‘what terminology stands for’. I ask them to tell me what they want to know and then put together a bit of a syllabus and then hand them to people in the company and tell them they are going to run a session.

When it came back to our strategy, one of our goals was more women in construction and as part of that my plan, was originally, ‘let’s just steal all these amazing women from other companies’ but when I actually thought about it, my approach is now to keep in contact with people and try to pull senior women across, and as a long term strategy, instead we now take a 50/50 intake of cadets. That’s the easiest way to get good people in from the start and what will eventually, (hopefully) be a more even representation on site.

Getting 50/50 is the easiest thing. We are definitely getting more male applicants, but there are plenty of candidates that are amazing. Getting them early is good. Once a graduate is in a company it’s hard to convince them to leave and join us. We’ve had to put our foot down sometimes, as people have been offered stupid money and we can’t justify that…I’ve had three female candidates in the past few months, where I’ve laid out what we can offer and their long term opportunities, and they have never worked a day in their life but they are getting offered $120,000 elsewhere. I’m like, ‘take it’…what the hell! There is a fine balance.

The biggest challenge for me personally in the BD space is where there is no one that has done this before in Balmain & Co. There’s no manual in terms of Strategy, Mentorship, or BD. I’m not learning directly from anyone. I have some great mentors outside, none of which are BD specific. You aren’t following someone else’s path. My role didn’t exist two years ago and now I’m run off my feet and we are looking at bringing more people in.

With the way the market is at the moment, you can get sucked into the ‘Oh we don’t want to go to a tender, the market’s so hot, we just want to work with you…’ but then you find out you’re just the check price. The more that I do it, the more I can pick up on that quickly now. Two years ago I was a lot more naive. It only comes with experience though. I’m a very trusting person by nature so you kind of have to believe the best in people, but then slowly figure out how to cull them.

The industry is so cutthroat at the moment. I find it really hard when we lose projects that I have put everything into. There was one last year where I just cried. We put everything we had into it and I just couldn’t believe it. My boss was like ‘you’re so emotionally invested’ but that’s my whole job. We said no to every other tender, so we had to win it.

The biggest issue for us, whether you boil it down to supply or whatever, is labour. I’ll just put this bluntly, the fact that the government is pumping all this money into these amazing massive government projects, big massive land tenders, big green field sites…it is fantastic for the economy and if I was a labourer, I would absolutely go work on the tunnels for $200,000 a year. No shit. I have friends that work on these big infrastructure projects, what they can pay a subcontractor, when they need it, all that is doing for us, a measly Tier 2, Tier 3 contractor, is sucking all the resources out from our subbies. Our subbies are losing everyone. Their factories, their suppliers. All of that material, due to the labour moving into other spaces, and into these big projects. We can’t offer what they can. Money. Status. As the builder, the Developer always thinks you are loading margin on top of everything, but at the moment we rely on our subbies and most of our subbies are working 8 days a week, their factories run 24/7, but they are with a quarter of the staff of a few years ago. Opening the borders, actually letting labour in, would be a massive problem solver. There are issues that come with this, but something needs to shift.

There is so much work out there, you don’t have to buy jobs – not that we want any of our subbies to buy work, but there’s no tension. I think it’s just the start. When we were starting out in Cremorne in this pocket with all these other little start-up construction companies…we are one of the only survivors of that space. And now we’ve moved into the next tier and ABD/Marcus Group went down, one of our direct competitors and more recently, Probuild. Whilst Probuild is not a big effect for us directly, it affects us in a global sense, as banks and developers start tightening up. This is good for us, because we have a clean balance sheet. The more people wanting to look through quality and credit and finance risk, the better for us.

With Government policies around women…it’s all ‘look at these amazing things that we are doing’ but you as a builder have full responsibility. In the BEP, at the moment especially, if someone does something on site, we can kick them off, but reality is, we potentially can’t afford to get rid of them. For us as a Tier 3 on some sites…for us to replace that trade would cost a stupid amount of money and time and the developers often couldn’t give a fuck about it. But it shouldn’t matter what Tier you are in.

I played for North Melbourne in the VFLW program and now I’m playing for Carlton in the AFLW. There’s a lot of similarities between construction and Footy, and probably any other sports in Australia. I’ve never been at this level before to get my head around it, but it’s the same issue. Men get everything and we are left with the dregs, but we are working on that.

I train most days and nights and really between work, training, rest, recover, back to training, I don’t do a lot else. I knew signing up for this there would be a lot of sacrifices, for the five months of the year. But everyone is super supportive of it.

My best friend years ago said I was designed for football. I was president of my Netball club, and footy wasn’t really a big thing that women were playing. We were a year out from moving to London, and I coached and was so hyper involved with netball, to remove myself from that a year before we were leaving, and start a new sport wasn’t going to happen. But I promised her when I returned from London I would play and that’s what I did.

I came back from London because of COVID and started training in 2021. Started at West Brunswick, a very fun club. If you have never watched football in your life and are the most uncoordinated human on the planet, they have so many teams – from Premier 1, full of up and coming footballers and people that have played at elite level, all the way to people who have never looked at a football and wouldn’t know what it is. There are 80-90 girls at this club. I still go down when I can. I played a season there, it was really fun. We lost the qualifying final, but the best thing we could have done, because we played on Saturday, lost, and had the biggest night out ever – back to 18 year old Jess, with my best mate who made me play! Then by Wednesday or Thursday we were in the longest lock-down of all time and no one played another final. If we had won, we would have been straight to bed for recovery and then we would never have known the outcome. We had closure and the biggest night out. I haven’t been that sick since college.

That was the start of August. I got a message from North Melbourne, out of nowhere, asking if I would come down to North Melbourne for trials. I thought it was a prank. Do they know how old I am? I was about to turn 30, played 6 months of footy, not going to happen! But I realised it was legit. With BD it’s often a lot of drinking and late nights, so the lockdown helped, it was a good opportunity to train and get healthy for trials that kept getting pushed back to November. I was super healthy. My time trials were so good and when we did them again at the end of pre-season I had dropped everything …I was like ‘I work in BD.’

Both my parents always told me to act confident and no one will question you. Own your space, don’t compromise. Both my parents have worked their arses off and have done really well in their respective careers. And they are confident in themselves and their work and I think that comes from a million other things – honesty, building relationships, and just being yourself. Not being afraid to ask questions, don’t think you are the smartest person in the room ever, you can learn anything from everyone, but act confident in yourself and no one will question you.

 

Jess was the first amazing woman we interviewed for our BD series, what seems a lifetime ago now (time has flown in 2022!) Nancy and I were so energised by both Jess’ passion and her enthusiasm. The way she has gone about carving her own path, but also supporting women in Balmain. We can’t wait to see what Jess brings to the table in 2023 and wish her all the best on her new endeavours. N & D xx

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