Women in our industry might not always be on the tools, but they are nevertheless proving instrumental in shaping the future of plumbing.

Traditionally, the majority of roles in the plumbing industry have been occupied by men, whether that was on the tools or in senior management roles. And while this might seem to be changing slowly, it is changing.

Amanda Oogilivie from Biz Better Together, talks with five women who are quiet powerhouses in the industry, holding roles ranging from office Manager to General Manager, Co-owner to National Director.

Coming from a diverse range of backgrounds, they all have previously worked in other fields, and bring and incredible depth and breadth of skills and knowledge they now apply for the benefit of the plumbing industry.

Denise Maggio
Office Manager 
City Edge Plumbing

Denise Maggio runs City Edge Plumbing in partnership with her husband Nick. She started her career as a legal secretary, then married and had three children, after which she decided she wanted to work in Hr. Denise returned to study, ultimately achieving a graduate Certificate in HR.

In 2012 Denise enlisted the services of a business coach, and she still sees a consultant once a month. She looks after the finances, HR, OH&S, the administration and assists with the estimating. She has also done OH&S courses related to the industry because she wanted a better understanding of plumbing. Denise says that sometimes the biggest challenge in her business is working with family. “It can be tough when you live with them as well,” she says. “The trick is to communicate clearly and have defined roles.” The company also employs two full-time plumbers in addition to Nick, and they’re considering putting on an apprentice, as well.

Denise says that sometimes the biggest challenge in her business is working with family. “It can be tough when you live with them as well,” she says. “The trick is to communicate clearly and have defined roles.” The company also employs two full-time plumbers in addition to Nick, and they’re considering putting on an apprentice, as well.At times, being a family owned and operated business can also be an unexpected hurdle outside of the business. “Sometimes you can be portrayed as a backyard business just because you’re husband and wife,” Denise says. To secure the future of their business, they decided to focus on re service installations, upgrades and maintenance, sometimes supporting other plumbers in this field.

At times, being a family owned and operated business can also be an unexpected hurdle outside of the business. “Sometimes you can be portrayed as a backyard business just because you’re husband and wife,” Denise says. To secure the future of their business, they decided to focus on re service installations, upgrades and maintenance, sometimes supporting other plumbers in this field.

“Nick has always liked this kind of work and he’s good at it, so we thought it was a good fit,” Denise says. “We’ve always done commercial industrial work even when we contracted to a major player, a top-tier national. We consider ourselves a specialist and are looking at adding related services.”

“There are a lot more women in the industry now, including female estimators. I did have one guy say ‘with all due respect’ and ask to speak to my husband, rather than talk to me. People don’t realise how much we can help them, without them speaking to one of the plumbers. I don’t need to know how to dig a trench or what way the valve goes in.”

Denise has the sole responsibility of managing the office. “Down the track we are looking at getting an office manager – that’s in the business plan,” Denise says. “To operate in the commercial industrial sector you have to have the systems and processes in place. Plumbing is a highly regulated industry, unlike other industries.”

“It was a bit like starting all over again, going out on our own,” Denise says. “The silver lining is that we have learned a lot. It’s forced us to be proactive rather than reactive. We look for diversity in the work and in the client base. We would never put all our eggs in one basket again, client-wise.”

“We are constantly told to develop a niche but we’ve learned about the need to diversify somewhere. It spreads the risk.”

“Juggling a family and a business is always challenging. Luckily, we thrive on being busy. Nick works longer hours because he’s still partly on the tools. We used to work from home, but there was no separation. We now have a factory/ office. Now work is done at work. I don’t take work home but I will go in to the office and do it if I need to.”

“My approach is that people work with me, not for me. You can’t always give your people everything they want, but giving them the opportunity to have a voice is crucial. My advice is to get business advice from someone you trust; since doing this, it has opened our eyes and we have learned a lot.”

“You have to not take things personally and maybe that’s something I’ve struggled with. I think maybe women have more trouble with confidence and self-belief than men do. My studying kicked a lot of this off.”

“Whatever you are, you have to keep educating yourself, in business and personal skills. This is important, especially with women, who can get caught up with having families.”

Denise's top tips

  • Have de ned roles so that everyone knows what they have to do.
  • Have systems in place so people can come and work for you and know what your standards are.
  • Time management. What I like to do is put all the family and school commitments into the diary and then I find I know what’s on and what I have to get done and I am much more productive.
  • Communicating with employees. Bring them in after three months, and then again after six months for a genuine two-way discussion. Be open, treat them like part of a team.
  • Realise it’s a competitive industry. You get knocked down. You have to get back up and keep going.

 

Carmel Coate
Former Executive Director 
National Fire Industry Association

Carmel Coate’s career in the fire industry spans 32 years. Prior to this, she held roles with theMelbourne Chamber of Commerce, and a motorcycle imports company.

It was while she was with the Melbourne Chamber, where she was the training manager and small business manager, that she heard of the opportunity in the Fire Industry that set her on the path to where she is today. She began as the Victorian Executive Director, holding that role for about four years before moving to the National Executive role.

Carmel says her most satisfying achievement to date is the development of the training college in Melbourne. “It’s the first time this industry has had ownership of skills development and delivery,” she says. “We did participate with TAFE in development prior to this, but were always constrained by TAFE budgets. We are a small, highly regulated industry with expensive equipment. Now NFIA has a Registered Training Organisation where we directly deliver the skills needed by the industry.”

“Currently we offer apprenticeship training courses as well as post trade through to Diploma. We now have two colleges, in Queensland and Victoria. The Queensland government matched the Industry investment dollar for dollar, so we established the Queensland premises first.”

Carmel acknowledges that there are not many women executives in the industry. “But I honestly don’t feel I’ve ever been discriminated against. I’ve just done my job and they’ve let me get on with it. I’ve never felt there was any special treatment.”

“There is a lack of female peers, yes, so there has not been much mentoring for me from the female perspective but I’ve been fortunate to get the advice and support when I’ve needed it.”

“The willingness of the men in senior roles to enable me in my role indicates perhaps that there is not as much sexism in the industry as is believed. I’ve found people are happy to accept someone who can do the job.”

“At the moment we are in a transition period as I am now on the career path to retirement. I’ve stepped back a little and the Board has appointed a Chief Executive Officer and another Executive Officer. I am now acting as the Director of Training and Education. This lets me work at my pet passion for a few years longer and it means I am here as a resource for the new Executive. I can o er support and advice, and I’m the keeper of a lot of knowledge after being here for more than three decades.”

“Licencing was a huge challenge for the Industry. It required me to get regulators and governments to pay attention to us. It’s hard to get the government to give money to an industry like ours because while from our point of view the money can be invested wisely, from the government point of view it’s a lot of money to an industry with small numbers, high expenses and a lot of regulations. It just doesn’t look like the same kind of return on investment as, say, in the construction sector.”

“I overcame this resistance by just not giving up. My mother probably put it best when she says that when I’ve got an issue and a focus I’m like a terrier and I just don’t go away. And I am much better at fighting for other people than I am for myself. I am aware of and understand the limitations of the industry, but I won’t let it be used against us.

“If you are going to get involved in an argument you have to be aware of every angle including the arguments that might be used against you. And then you can work on a counter-argument.”

Carmel is in the enviable position of having no regrets in her career. Looking back, there isn’t anything she wishes she’d done differently. “Like all young people I thought I knew it all when I started out,” Carmel says. “I started working as a PA and I’d come home and complain to my husband that I could do a better job of it than the people I worked for. One day he told me to stop complaining and do something about it. It spurred me to take more responsibility. So I did do something about it. And here I am.”

“I don’t have a university degree, but I don’t regret that. I did formal training over the years, diplomas etc., but I’ve mostly had a hands-on education. I had some fantastic mentors in the fire industry who’ve given me great support.”

“I think there are three things you need to be successful in business; in any role, in any industry: Communication. Common sense. Respect. If you have those, everything else will follow.”

Carmel's top tips

  • Always be yourself, don’t try to be someone else because not only will you be unhappy, you won’t be able to deliver for the people you work for.
  • Be prepared. You have to remain current. There will be new developments in your industry, for instance new technology and you have to invest time in knowing enough to understand the implications.
  • Be honest with yourself. It’s easy to have your own perception of who you are, but you need to know your weaknesses as well as your strengths. Be prepared to take advice where needed.
  • Learning how to delegate is very important. It’s so hard to let go and so easy to micro-manage. It’s a big thing to learn to delegate when you are responsible for outcomes. When someone is reporting to you and you catch yourself thinking you wouldn’t have done it that way, don’t fall into the trap of acting on that. You have to encourage people and give them the space to grow.
  • Respect yourself. Respect the people you work for. Respect the people who work for you.

 

Paula Withington
Administration Manager
Roofrite Guttering and Roofing Systems

Paula left school young and started working at 16, starting
a career in office administration. she worked at a chartered accountancy firm and was exposed to new technologies
as they came into use. Roles in the recruitment and financial sectors followed.

Later she completed a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing and worked as a freelancer, writing for The Age. By this time, she’d had a baby and her partner had started his roo ng business. “The business grew, and the writing wasn’t earning enough money so I wound it back and started working in my partner’s business,” Paula says. “But nothing is a waste; skills are never lost.”


“We were fortunate that my partner and I could both bring a variety of skills to the business. My partner had sales experience from his previous roles and that helps enormously with winning quotes.

“It’s a massive challenge to continually generate more business. When you’re competing for jobs, it’s often not on a level playing field. And then meeting staffing needs within budgetary constraints is an added challenge.

“But Roofrite is still here, more than 20 years on. That’s something I’m proud of. It can be di cult to continue to grow without compromising somewhere. I think it’s important to maintain your integrity and it’s a great achievement
to have done that.”

The couple now employ a couple of admin staff and a small roof plumbing team: four on the tools and one driver/ all-rounder. As the Administration Manager at Roofrite, Paula no longer has to do everything herself and is more of an overseer. She prefers to continue to manage the invoicing component herself because, “You do occasionally have to chase people up who are a bit lax about paying their bill,” and maintaining cash ow is critical to running a small business.

Paula is also heavily involved in maintaining the company’s website. “In a small business you have to be able to do everything: bookkeeping, marketing, PR, recruitment, HR. I spent four hours today inducting an apprentice into the business.”

“The HR part is always difficult as it is always demanding. As a small business operator, you wear a lot of hats. It can be di cult to acquire all the necessary skills and juggle all those roles. Your education never stops.”

“The biggest challenge is a lack of peers. To have a business breakfast with other people that work in a similar role in a trade-based business, to have someone to bounce administrative ideas off, would be great. It’s that particular aspect of working in a small business that can be isolating and frustrating – I’m always wondering what other people are doing about different issues and nd it limiting not being able to pick someone else’s brain.”

“I undertook a Graduate Certi cate in Small Business Management partly to overcome this limitation. I was disappointed that there was a lack of examples in the course relevant to a trade business, but it was helpful in many other ways.”

Paula and her partner have two teenagers and the work-life balance can be a challenge. “I try to work from 8.00 to 4.00 or 4.30 and let the other staff cover until 5.00,” Paula says. They did run the business from home for many years, and at the time, didn’t realise they weren’t getting any separation between life and work.

“The growth of the business prompted us to move to an office. We started o above a shop and then moved to bigger premises with a warehouse and office combined. We’d never go back to working from home now.”
“I think that maintaining your business integrity is critical to staying in business and remaining successful,” Paula says.

“We always keep in mind that money is hard to come by for everyone so when clients are investing in a new roof, it’s a big outlay and they expect it to last them for the next 25 years, problem free. You can’t compromise on delivering on that expectation.”

Paula's top tips 

  • Education should never stop. It doesn’t have to be formal. Look at what’s new in apps, your competitors’ websites, read about new technologies, tap into any new trends and keep abreast of what’s happening with the recruitment market. It’s all part of your professional development.
  • Maintain integrity. It would be so easy at times to take the low road but you have to have a moral compass to be in business. Treat others the way you want to be treated. And have plenty of perseverance. Small businesses will always have their ups and downs.
  • Stay informed about regulations and legislation. You need to know about things that affect your business, like payroll tax.
  • Have a really good accountant. You need someone with good tax planning, someone who understands a trade-based business and who can work with you throughout the year.

Alexandra Mannell
Former General Manager Training and
Industry development Master Plumbers

“I took a fairly circuitous route to where I am today. my background is in hospitality, in Sydney originally, then Melbourne as I progressed to senior roles, then on to Tasmania. while I was in Tasmania I completed my bachelor of education and started teaching hospitality.”
Alexandra then made a conscious decision to leave hospitality and go to a completely different industry. She started working with public and private providers who delivered building and construction training.

“During that time I worked with plumbers a lot and found I enjoyed talking to and working with this group of trainers who were passionate about training in their trade. When the position of General Manager Industry Development came up with the Master Plumbers, it seemed like a great opportunity for me.”

In the six years Alexandra has been with Master Plumbers, the training arm of the Association has expanded rapidly, commencing the delivery of apprenticeship training in 2015.

“I’m really proud of what we’re developing here. We deliver preapprenticeship, apprenticeship and post trade training courses. We worked solidly for 12 months just on developing the apprenticeship materials before we took our first learners last year.”

Alexandra manages a staff of ten full-time and part-time trainers and administration staff who deliver weekday and evening classes. Within that environment leadership is important.

“What we’re doing is hard slog. It’s innovative. I see my job as keeping everyone motivated and focused. We o er a best practice training delivery model and that requires a lot of attention. But part of my role also involves working strategically to assist the Association address the important issues facing the industry. There are issues affecting training such as quality compliance and funding and broader issues such as the aging plumbing workforce and meeting the skill needs of the future.”

Unlike some other industries, plumbing is not experiencing a significant drop in apprentice numbers. Alexandra attributes this to a number of factors. “We are a licensed trade that’s in good demand. You have to finish your apprenticeship to be able to work in the industry. Contrast this to other industries, where an apprentice can leave without completing their qualification and still nd work.”

“We run a Certificate II pre-apprenticeship course. It’s a 13 week course that gives learners a chance to nd out if they are going to like plumbing before they take on an apprenticeship. Learners who complete that course tend to come back and be our next group of apprentices. We also o er post-trade training as the next step in a plumber’s career pathway.”

“My job is to encourage our trainers to share their skills and knowledge with apprentices the right way, to enable them to become the best plumbers they can be. My role requires project management skills, leadership and the flexibility to work with a wide range of stakeholders.”

There are not many women managing plumbing training schools, making Alexandra somewhat of a rarity in the industry. “I think I probably go about managing my department in a different way to other organisations. But that’s the whole point of diversity, isn’t it? I am always challenging my trainers – is this the best way to do this task? If you can’t explain it to me, how can you possibly explain it to an apprentice? Occasionally there is some pushback but I’m careful about the staff I select. I look for people who are prepared to work hard on the job at hand and don’t care whether their manager is male or female.”

“At this point I have never felt I have been discriminated against because I am a woman, but then I have never let being a woman stop me from going for the things that I want to do. And I am not finished yet, I have plans to continue to progress my career.”

“I made the choice many years ago to get into education and for me, it is a passion. I believe education is important and I’m an advocate of lifelong learning. Developing the best system of training for the next generation is definitely something I believe in one hundred percent.”

Alexandra's top tips

  • Don’t talk yourself out of applying for opportunities because you are a woman. Never be afraid of a challenge or of trying something new.
  • You will learn from everything that you do. And you will be able to transfer these skills to other roles. Who would have thought to move from hospitality to construction!
  • You will be managed at some point by people who aren’t good at it – learn from their mistakes so you don’t make them.
  • Have the confidence to ask for what you want. You need to be active about how you approach your career and not wait for someone else to speak for you.
  • Educate yourself and be open to being mentored. Seeing yourself from different perspectives is invaluable.

Michelle Oakman
Director
Ones and Twos Plumbing 

Michelle Oakman operates Ones & Twos Plumbing with her husband Noel. Her background is in advertising and marketing. “I've gone from a corporate environment to a trade environment,” Michelle says. “the major difference is in the clients and the products ideal with, but the skills I use are transferable. it’s about how you are with people, and that is the same. it’s just in a different industry.”

Michelle says her main challenge came with learning the products: “I went from designing websites and ad campaigns to learning about renovations and fixtures,” she says.

The decision to start the company came about after Michelle found herself in a bit of a quandary. “I was burned out and I needed something different. I took some time o and had a think about whether I really wanted to go back into the same industry and I realised I didn’t. Noel is a plumber and gas fitter so

I decided to combine his skills with mine and start our own business.”

“I started two businesses, actually; the plumbing business and a marketing business. I thought I’d get the plumbing business up to speed and then hand it over to Noel, but I discovered I loved it. I’ve closed down my marketing business.”

The business has grown and Michelle makes use of the apprentices available through the Master Plumbers group training scheme when they need the extra help, with the work counting towards the apprentices’ training.

“We’re recruiting at the moment, because we really need a fully qualified plumber and then we’d be looking at putting on a full-time apprentice down the track, but it’s very di cult. I’ve had ads on Seek, but so far we haven’t found the right t.”

The company focuses on residential services, dealing with customers direct or through real estate agents who manage rental properties. Michelle does all the preparatory work for the business, including bookings, quotes etc. She says she hasn’t experienced the issue of people calling and asking to speak to the plumber very often. “A lot of the time the person who calls is a woman. She may be a mum at home with the kids or working from home. She might have the task of making the call if there’s a broken toilet or a problem with the hot water system or she may be the driving force behind a potential kitchen or bathroom renovation. I think sometimes being a woman is an advantage in these situations, not so intimidating. A softer touch.”

Michelle says she always explains she’s not a plumber and that she can arrange for the plumber to call or visit. “But nine times out of ten, people are happy to talk to me. It was a bit more of a challenge when I was first dealing with suppliers, until I got to know products really well and we all got to know each other.

That was just down to different communication styles.”

“It’s not rocket science. You provide something the customer wants, which is what we all want, and that’s really, really good customer service. We get a lot of business through referrals from happy customers.”

“Running your own small business is 24/7, you never stop. It’s fantastic to be doing something for ourselves rather than working for someone else.”

“I think perhaps the most important thing is to choose your market and stay with it. I know there’s advice out there to the contrary, but you can’t be everything to everybody. Know what you do well, and do it.”

Michelle's top tips

  • Learn your products.
  • You have to know the range, the prices, what’s new.
  • Your customer is your number one priority.
  • Supplier relationships are really important.
  • You need to be organised.
  • Pay attention to your accounting.
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