Meet the members: The barrier breaker, the business builder, the globe trotter

2 September 2013

A surveyor, an entrepreneur and a risk-taking safety officer have vastly different stories to tell about their careers to date. Denise Chevin reports. Photographs by Edward Tyler.

Sajedah Maka MCIOB
Lancashire county council

For many people, the school holidays are a chance to slow down and take a bit of a breather. But for Sajedah Maka MCIOB it’s quite the opposite. Over the summer she’s been juggling around 35 small projects up to £25,000 in value for almost as many different clients.

Maka is a district surveyor for Lancashire County Council in charge of the Central Preston and South Ribble area, a job that involves advising on and supervising works across 60 different public buildings in her patch. The summer holidays is the busiest time as schools race to complete works before the start of term.

“It’s a really interesting role – very diverse. I don’t know what I’m going to be involved in from one day to the next,” says the outgoing 34-year-old Lancastrian. “At the moment a great deal of effort is going into remodelling schools to create extra classroom space to cope with the increased numbers of pupils.”

One day she might be advising on costs and bids for a school extension, the next doing the design for minor works such as a new kitchen area in a youth club.

Maka joined the county council as trainee building surveyor after graduating from the University of Central Lancashire with a building surveying degree. In 2007, she left for a brief spell as a maintenance surveyor for the UCL, before rejoining the council in the property department, becoming chartered and then being appointed as a district surveyor.

Maka says she loves the work, but has at times has found it difficult being a woman in a male-dominated industry, particularly earlier in her career, though she did get a lot of support from colleagues. “I’m one of the few women in the department, and I find it can get quite lonely having no female companions. The job’s quite isolated, as I’m on the road quite a bit.

“When I was young and inexperienced, it was hard to prove to clients and contractors that I had the knowledge to be able to do the job professionally,” she says. “They’d say things like ‘don’t do it like that love’, and ‘do you really know what you’re talking about?’ You’ve got to make sure you’re firm in what you say and stick to your guns.”

"As a Muslim, it wasn't a common career path for a young girl in my community to pursue. It was hard for people to accept and understand my position and what it involved."

Her choice of profession also meant overcoming a few cultural prejudices – it’s the medical and accountancy professions that tend to beckon young women from Asian communities. “As a Muslim, it wasn’t a common career path for a young girl in my community to pursue. It was hard for people to accept and understand my position and what it involved,” she says.

In fact, Maka originally wanted to study architecture but no courses were available locally and she was also put off by the length of time required to study. Six weeks into a graphics and business studies degree she came across surveying and made the switch.

Maka lives with her parents helping to care for her mother who was left severely disabled after an illness in 2009. Her employer has been accommodating
of her caring responsibilities, she explains, and as she lives quite close to the office she is able to drop in at lunch time. As a devout Muslim, she prays five times a day so being close to home is helpful in this respect too.

In her spare time she enjoys cooking – Madhur Jaffrey is her favourite cook, but she’s also a big fan of Nigella – training at the gym and helping the community. She and some friends recently held a fun day and raised £10,000 for children in Gaza.

Her long-term aims are to work abroad or possibly start her own practice. “I’m quite career-minded,” she says. But her immediate aims are to find other women to network with who also have to juggle family life and work, and to get involved with mentoring other young women in the industry “so they don’t have to go through what I went through”.

She adds: “I’d like to see professional bodies like the RICS and CIOB encouraging more women into construction and for the government to do more too. I think we need to exercise positive discrimination until there’s more of an equal split and get away from the notion it’s a man’s job.” As a practical step, she suggests setting up bursaries for women to do a construction course in the same way they are available to attract people to teach maths.

Above all, though, Maka is keen to highlight what a rewarding career she’s pursuing. “The impact a building surveyor has is huge, but too few people have any idea what a building surveyor does. We need to promote it harder.”

Jamie Barrett MCIOB, evolution5

When George Osborne talks of small businesses being at the heart of the economy and the driver of growth, he could well have in mind the company started by Jamie Barrett MCIOB. The 35-year-old contracts manager resigned from Mansell in February 2007 after seven years, determined to fulfil a long-standing ambition to set up on his own. Little did he know that “credit crunch” was soon to be the phrase on everyone’s lips and the economy was about to nose dive.

But six and a half years later, his company, Evolution5, is now a team of 12, and fees for the Southampton-based company, which offers construction project management, cost management and construction management services, are just short of a £1m a year.

“At the time I started the company I was doing an MSc in Project Management in Construction and we’d just had our first daughter. It was certainly hard work and full on, but that’s me really.”

Barrett certainly comes across as confident and supremely energetic. As well as building up the business, the father of two competes in triathlons and is heavily involved in the CIOB – he’s the chairman of the Hampshire Branch and vice chair of the South East region.

He says of starting Evolution5: “I’d always wanted to run my own business, so it was all about confidence and timing. I had to have enough experience to be credible. But when I left no one had any clue the banking crisis was round the corner. Two months after I resigned, the housing market had collapsed and sites were being shut down.

“When you set up you have to be realistic. Initially I started off offering construction advice and freelance work. The first 18 months I was acting as an outsourcing service for other companies before moving on to deliver project and cost management services.”

"As an SME it's nigh on impossible to win work directly by OJEU - PQQs are not structured to suit SMEs at all and there is always mountains of paperwork."

At this point he was joined, as planned from the outset, by Mansell colleague Chris Moss MCIOB as construction director. The team was then expanded with the arrival of Darren Foy FRICS as commercial director, while Barrett is managing director. Much of their work is in Southampton and surrounding areas, but there’s work in London too: Barrett says the firm has its sights set on working nationally and opening up an office in the capital is very much on the cards.

About 75% of the business’s workload is in school and health work. For example, it’s acting as a Tier 2 contractor on London secondary schools under Babcock providing commercial management, working for clients directly providing cost planning, pre-construction and project management services or taking the role of client’s agent.

Barrett says there has been a noticeable pick up in enquiries in the last couple of months and there is “lots more positivity around”.

But with so many professionals branching out from big brand mega-firms to start niche businesses, Barrett acknowledges it’s a competitive market. He believes that the firm’s contracting and technical background gives it the edge, though: “When we look at the programme and design documents we know what we’re looking at.”

He says the most stressful times have come when people don’t pay on time. “It’s all about cash flow – luckily we’ve had an understanding business-friendly bank which has been really helpful.”

But like many SMEs in construction, Barrett believes EU procurement rules have worked against Evolution5. “As an SME it’s nigh on impossible to win work directly by OJEU – PQQs are not structured to suit SMEs at all and there is always mountains of paperwork. I’m delighted to see the arrival of the revamped PAS 91 [the standard pre-qualification questionnaire], but it’s one thing saying the right thing, but until they [government] mandate this document it’s kind of meaningless.

“Generally, though, I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve heard in the new Industrial Strategy in terms of reducing carbon emissions and the call for industry leadership.”

And does he think that can come from organisations like the CIOB? “Absolutely,” he says emphatically.

Mark Starling MCIOB, Kier

Safe to say, there can’t be many people in construction who have walked to the North Pole and planted the company flag. Step forward Mark Starling MCIOB of Kier. He’s also raced 150 miles across the Sahara Desert in six days of consecutive marathons, and completed a 125-mile international canoe race from Devizes to Westminster earlier this year.

With Everest in his sights in the near future, plus a little light skiing to the South Pole one day, extreme sports enthusiasts don’t come much more fanatic than Starling. Yet though he faces dangers that most people would consider a risk too far, this MCIOB’s day job might surprise you: he’s a safety, health and environmental manager, obsessed with minimising risks to others. For Starling himself, it’s not so much poaching and gamekeeping as pursuing the same goals in both his personal and professional lives.

“You look at life and value it in a different way after you’ve tested yourself in hazardous environments. I understand risks better; it’s given me a new perspective.” 

And taking on some of the world’s toughest challenges makes him better at his day job, says the 39-year-old. “You have to be incredibly methodical and on top of everything – if you lose a glove in the Arctic you’re in big trouble. It’s the same with my health, safety and environment role, everything has to be in order and totally organised.”

The high from pulling off an extreme challenge is immense, says Starling. “You feel so alive. Really, really alive. You can’t get that feeling any other way. And I’m always looking for the next event.” But he’s not just doing it for the buzz, he also raises huge sums for charity – £50,000 to date. “Whenever I take on a new goal, my aim is always to make money.”

"Our workforce expects professionals like me to always be looking for ways to prevent accidents and deliver a 'zero and beyond' incident culture. We owe this to every construction worker who turns up for work each morning."

Starling raises money mainly for the COINS Foundation, but also for the Kier Foundation, which supports Barnardo’s. Meeting and beating fund-raising targets is a good motivator during events and in the training leading up to them. “If my ability to be determined and keep going can help the COINS and Kier Foundations, I don’t worry too much about the pain,” he says.

He’s currently training for the COINS Coast to Coast event, a 130-mile bike ride from the Lake District to Tynemouth. And next year’s challenge is also in his sights: a 290 mile race comprising  a bike ride from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to Calais, canoeing to Folkestone and then an 85-mile run to the finish line at the Marble Arch.  

Being an MCIOB is another source of great satisfaction for Starling. “I’m the proudest member you’ve got. Being a chartered safety professional and a chartered builder go hand in hand. I believe it adds real weight to the advice I give on site, not only knowing how the building is put together but how to do it safely.” 

Starling started in construction 20 years ago, when he joined the erstwhile Property Services Agency and gained a solid background in site management and construction, including relevant qualifications. He worked his way up the management ladder in a variety of construction sectors. After nine years, he switched to safety, health and environmental advice and consultancy, joining Kier’s 90-strong SHE management team in 2007. He works across a number of Kier’s London sites. 

“I was a good site manager but I’m a more naturally suited to the safety, health and environmental adviser role. It’s something that comes very intuitively to me, I’ve got an innate ability to work with the management team and identify high-risk tasks and assist in reducing the risk.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he doesn’t subscribe to the tabloid line of “elf and safety gone mad”. “Our workforce expects professionals like me to always be looking for ways to prevent accidents and deliver a ‘zero and beyond’ incident culture,” he says. “We owe this to every construction worker who turns up for work each morning.”

He accepts that the health and safety culture is more intense these days, but it has to be. “The improvements made in construction safety over the past 10 years have been a real success story for the UK. Long may it continue. We’re always looking to improve the way we build. The London Olympics, with zero fatalities, was fantastic, and shows what can be done. We’ve all learned from it.”

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