A Cumbrian businesswoman is playing her part in a drive to increase the number of women in the construction and engineering sectors, by being a role model and example of a woman who has had the drive to succeed in a male-dominated environment.
Juanita Watts is the managing director of family firm, Birkett Bogmats, based in the small village of Rowrah, in West Cumbria. For the uninitiated, bog mats are hardwood timber mats that form solid platforms from which cranes, excavators, dumper trucks and other types of machine can operate, or use to gain access across swampy, rough or uneven ground, or land that needs protecting. They enhance safety on a site and are essential for environmental protection and the avoidance of ground contamination.
From Rowrah, Juanita has built a global business with an export reach extending as far as the Ukraine and New Caledonia. Remarkably, she drives the business, for the most part, alone and handles everything herself, from ordering supplies to pricing jobs, and from inspecting bog mats, that have been hired and then returned, to arranging the logistics of getting the mats to the projects requiring them.
There are only 272,000 women in the UK construction industry, compared to 2 million men. Only 9% of engineers in the UK are female – the lowest percentage in Europe, lagging way behind Sweden with 25% and Germany with 15%. Juanita, however, works in both sectors, liaising with construction managers, civil engineers, infrastructure planners and pipeline project managers, to name just a few of the types of client she deals with, in her male-dominated world.
The #NotJustForTheBoys campaign, recently launched by Cabinet minister, Esther McVey, is one that Juanita fully backs. Ms McVey says she needs to find role models in the construction industry, uncovering Becky the Builder, rather than Bob. If she took a trip to Rowrah, she might just find her.
Juanita entered into this world of hard hats and hi-vis jackets when an existing customer of the family business, Laing O’Rourke, desperately needed to source some bog mats. At that point, the Birketts business, established in 1974, was based on fencing supplies, but Juanita did not wish to let the client down and went the extra mile, delivering a superb level of customer service by finding her client the bog mats they needed. This led to her identifying a gap in the market and, from there, she directed the business down the bog mat route.
Despite not really knowing much about the worlds of construction and civil engineering at first, Juanita proved a quick learner. Since taking the decision to focus on bog mats in xxxxx, she has now managed to create a company with a £4.2 million turnover, of which £1.8 million is generated by exporting.
She monitors the world markets daily, identifying fluctuations in the prices of wood and other elements of the supply chain that could affect her own pricing strategies. She goes out on site, to see how the construction and engineering industries are using her bog mats and picks up useful information that can then be fed back into her business planning. She takes bold decisions, when it is best for the business and strategically plans how she can continuously stay one step ahead of the competition.
Her resourcefulness and unswerving commitment to customer service are what differentiate her from other suppliers. She has built up a great reputation amongst French contractors, due to her efficiency and ability to keep jobs to time and to budget, but is equally efficient at providing an end-to-end service, completely overseen by herself, to UK-based projects, some highly prestigious. For example, Birketts’ bog mats were used during the construction phase of London 2012 and also at the equestrian venue, during the Games.
Juanita has many a sleepless night, thinking about how to move the business forward and satisfy client demands and is constantly identifying new markets, such as solar farms, in which she is now picking up good contracts.
The trade union for women in construction, UCATT, carried out a survey that found that 51% of women in construction felt they were treated worse than male colleagues, because of their gender. Four in ten said they had suffered bullying and harassment. Juanita has had her share of issues, but rides above them, seeking to earn respect for what she does and how she does it. As a result, she has become the go-to supplier of timber access mats for many project managers across the globe.
Juanita says: “I try to champion roles for women in construction and civil engineering, but there is a long way to go before we can change attitudes and encourage younger women to get involved. I’m delighted by the fact that Laing O’Rourke had pledged to aim for 30% of its apprentice and cadet programme places to be filled by women by 2016, as that’s a big step forward. More organisations need to follow their lead, however.”
Juanita has proved that jobs in the sectors in which she operates are #NotJustForTheBoys. She’d be delighted to have Esther McVey visit and find out how she’s proving that, on a daily basis.
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