Sons following fathers into the construction industry is a fairly common practice, so it’s refreshing to see a daughter doing the same. But then again, Erin Bowling is just following in her mother Bev’s footsteps – keeping the family business humming from the office. BY MARY SEARLE BELL
You’d have to be blind and deaf to not realise that women in the civil construction industry are few and far between. However, if you are looking for one, the odds of tracking one down increase considerably if you head for the office.
Time and time again men who love building things start businesses, and the women they love keep those businesses running by taking care of the paperwork. The Bowling Infrastructure Group is no exception.
Steve Bowling had been working at GHK Piling for seven years and was getting frustrated – he could see opportunities that the company was missing. The solution was to go into business for himself, and who better to partner with than his wife Bev.
From day one Bev was involved with the wages and accounting, and the company was managed from the family lounge.
With business being conducted by their parents at one end of the dining table while they ate at the other, it was inevitable too that the children would also grow up to work for the company in one way or another.
The eldest, Darren, is an electrician and works for the company as an independent contractor. Ben and Guy are both carpenters within the group – Ben does pricing and runs jobs while Guy works as a carpenter and runs gangs. The youngest, and only daughter, Erin, has followed her mother into the office.
It must have been a very busy time for Bev, adding bookwork to her household chores and raising four children who ranged in age from a teen to a toddler. But she says she was fairly resilient.
“When Steve was employed at GHK he worked away during the week – there are only so many bridges in the Whangarei District,” she says.
“In a way it made things easier having him at home more often.”
Working in your own business has many advantages: “I was able to go on school trips and the like – things you’d can’t easily do as an employee. So there were opportunities as well as challenges.”
Bev now has “three and a bit grandchildren” and wants to have more time to spend with them, as well as indulging in more travel and tramping. As a result she is spending less time in the office. And much of her work is being taken up by daughter Erin.
Erin, as the baby of the family, was only two when her parents started the business. And having grown up with staff meetings in the lounge it came as no surprise that she too chose to join the industry along with her three older brothers.
She’s 23 now, and although still young, is making her mark in the industry.
Not only is she responsible for the finance and HR within the group, she also was, until very recently, secretary of the Northland branch of Civil Contractors NZ, having taken over that role from her mother too.
Bev held the post for seven years after her husband ‘volunteered’ her services during a meeting. Back then the branch meeting comprised “half a dozen men sitting round – like a gentlemen’s tea party”. It needed new members, younger people and more enthusiasm. That was achieved during Bev’s tenure and branch meetings now can have up to 40 attendees.
After taking over from her mother, Erin held the role for the past four years. She’s just resigned as she’s getting rather busy now that Bev’s cut down her hours at work. However, she will continue to run the highly successful branch awards night.
The awards were an initiative she organised for the first time last year – that inaugural event drew nine entries and sold 120 tickets to the dinner. This year the branch received 22 awards entries and the awards dinner (held on June 19) was a sell out at 180 seats with people begging for more.
Erin says she organised the awards night to promote the industry: “We’re really proud of what we do and we should celebrate our successes.”
“There was a bit of apathy in the Northland branch for a while,” says Bev.
“The recession meant everyone was just focusing on business and keeping their staff. Not so anymore. There’s a lot happening up here now and quite a few exciting things on the go.
“There a positive vibe around Northland at the moment.”
One of the key benefits of being secretary of the branch is that is has allowed Erin to really get to know the industry and the people who work in it.
“It’s a great start,” she says.
With her father saying he’s only got “five more years” in the business, Erin is wanting to get the skills and experience to help lead the company in the future. “I’ve still got more to learn and I’m looking at doing more training.”
She readily admits she doesn’t have the necessary construction expertise to take over the management of the whole company but she’s passionate about finance and keen to share a management role in the future.
“It’s not a standard office job – the industry-specific knowledge is vital.”
To make matters more complicated the four companies within the Steve Bowling Group are in four different fields: engineering, construction, civil and piling. Erin needs to have current knowledge on the compliance and health and safety regulations for all of them.
“There’s a lot going on,” she says, “a lot to know, a lot to manage.
“Compliance rules change all the time which makes it hard. You have to stay on top of that. Then there’s the things like drug testing, which are never-ending.”
Unfortunately, there are no training courses for administration in the construction industry, so it really is no surprise that those who do it well married into the industry, grew up in it, or both.
Erin also has a business coach, who, helpfully, has a construction background, and the women in the industry in Northland, although competitors, are close, she says, so she has plenty of support.
Also in her favour is her confidence.
“Erin’s always been the one asking questions,” says her mother. “She’s very confident.’
“You do what you have to do,” says Erin.
“Women shouldn’t be afraid to speak up or ask questions.”