The UK’s only woman owner of a construction company shares her view on the gentle approach to industrial relations and the ‘battleground’ of the building site.
It’s hard not to resort to clichés when writing about Monika Slowikowska’s career. As the only apparent woman owner and sole director of a construction company in the UK (no one has yet come forward to say otherwise), she is used to hearing patronising phrases about how well she has done to get where she is in a male-dominated industry.
Yet she HAS done well. There’s no denying it’s been an uphill struggle against widely held views within the industry that women just don’t have a place on a building site and certainly not at the sharp end of construction projects.
Faced with that level of prejudice, you’d expect to hear Monika railing against the injustices she has faced over 15 years working in the UK construction sector. It is surprising – and inspiring – to hear her calm views about the state of the industry and how it needs to change. Monika first came to London from Poland 18 years ago for a holiday. She fell in love and has stayed ever since.
She tells me: “I had been working in advertising in Warsaw and doing quite well, almost at director level, but when I decided to stay in London my English was not good and the only work I could get was waiting at tables in a restaurant.”
Gradually, Monika climbed the career ladder, finding work with a structural engineering firm, then in procurement and project management. Later she joined her brother in his building business in London, but it fell victim to the recession and she was forced to think where to go next.
“By 2012, I decided to go solo and formed my company, Golden Houses Developments Ltd. It was a very scary prospect, but I felt strongly I had something different to offer the construction industry, which had for so long been entirely dominated by men and by conflict. The blame game was played everywhere and everyone was suffering.”
Monika decided her company would work to different ethics, based on respect, value for money and high standards of production. “I strongly believe you should treat people with respect and expect it in return,” she says. “It’s an old saying, but a true one, that what goes around comes around.”
The other unusual aspect of Monika’s business is that she builds her team from all skills within the building industry – bricklayers, labourers and electricians. She even runs a joinery factory and architect’s department to keep everything in-house. The only projects she will contract out are in the “super-specialist” fields, she says. In this way, she keeps everyone talking to each other as a unit and friction is kept to a minimum.
“If something goes wrong with a project, we get round a table very quickly and talk it through,” she says. “There’s no horrible emails, no conflict, which can lead to major delays, cost and problems. So many people on building sites never talk to each other because they’re all watching their back.”
Monika says her “all in one place” formula for running the business is well received by clients, many of whom give her the job she tenders for. “It’s not because we are the cheapest, but because of our ‘can do’ attitude. People buy into the peace of mind we offer,” she says proudly. Her unusual work ethic has also earned Monika two top awards this year – best woman contractor at the European Women in Construction and Engineering Awards and Inspirational Individual at the National Federation of Builders awards.
Monika’s team of about 200 clearly love working for her. Every Christmas she holds a big party, which also celebrates her birthday, and everyone contributes to a huge cake. She encourages a family atmosphere within the company and says staff respond to her caring leadership. “If one of them has a problem, for example with health or relationships, it will be me they call first,” she says. “One of my workers was diagnosed with a serious health issue last Christmas and I organised for his family to come over from Poland and stay in a rented flat. His colleagues chipped in to provide all the comforts they needed for their stay. It was wonderful.”
I ask how many of her employees are Polish and she replies: “Quite a few, but there are also Romanians, Slovacs, Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English. They seem to get on well together.”
This inevitably leads me to utter the dreaded “B” word, Brexit. Monika warms to the theme. “Everyone is looking to me for answers and I tell them what I know, but that isn’t much. I am shocked and disappointed at the government’s weak policies and lack of guidance. Before the referendum there was a 17% shortage of workers in the construction industry in London. It’s now at least 20% and it’s going to get worse. The increased costs will be put on to projects and it is the client who will end up paying more.”
Whatever happens, Monika is here to stay. She has taken British citizenship and says simply: “London is home.”
Life according to Monika
- The gender imbalance within the construction industry has to change, but it’s going to be a long haul. “A building site is not a pleasant place for women because of the old-fashioned traditions which remain. I had to put up with it all when I started – the whistling, the clapping, the touching. Awful. No one wants to have to face a battleground every day and women have to grow a thick skin to cope with it. Some are not prepared to do so.”
- The construction industry needs to start teaching the “soft skills” such as empathy, communication and simple kindness. It will not move on unless it does.
- Monika firmly believes buildings have a “soul” and says some physical features of construction, including electromagnetic waves, can have a negative impact on the health of the occupant.
- Young people need to be shown that a job within the construction industry is worthwhile, not a last resort.