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HLN Meets: Angela Carney

We sat down with Angela of Carney Consultancy to talk about how she’s building towards an equal world in construction.

Tell us about your business

Carney Consultancy is a health and safety, quality and environmental consultancy with a strong focus on training. We set up the company 19 years ago (two weeks before I had my son), to write risk assessments for the construction industry because that was my background. My husband was made redundant in 2008 due to the recession. I was turning work away, so I asked him to work with me. We needed to expand the company quickly as it was our only source of income and the recession wasn’t great. But we survived and, since then, we’ve evolved and grown from just me to five employees during the recession. We now have 14 staff members.

Our service list has grown with us and we now undertake NVQs, training courses, risk assessments, construction phase plans, Health, Safety, Quality and Environmental systems and the ISO standards. We’ve started to diversify to take on new clients and business areas. We’ve learned about new areas of work so we can deliver the same quality of competent advice in the new areas. We’re also driven by our employees – if they would like to do something, we always consider it and pursue new avenues if they’ll be good for everyone on the team. That’s how we became an NVQ centre, because one of the team was interested in building that up. My young apprentice wants to do HR. I plan to send her off to do an HR qualification and eventually we’ll be able to offer that to our clients too.

How do you decide which direction to take the business in next?

We listen to the market. We need to react to what our customers are asking for and find the best and most effective ways to fulfil those requests. For example, we do face-fit testing for face masks. Not all protective masks fit every face. Face-fit testing makes sure the mask fits properly to protect the wearer and we are one of the few companies in the North East to be able to train people to do face-fit testing. During COVID this has been a saviour as we’ve trained almost 100 dentists in this area and have done hundreds of face-fit tests many free for the NHS and associated workplaces.

Above all else, we want to be professional all the time. We always strive to be one step ahead of the market and ahead of our competitors, whilst creating a place of work that our employees enjoy working and customers like working with us.

Have you always worked in construction?

No, I wasn’t always in construction. I fell into it by accident. I left school with three Us in A-levels, which meant I certainly wasn’t going to medical school to follow in my grandmother’s footsteps. I looked into nursing as a career, but while I waited to start nursing school I took a temporary job in a construction company to fill the time.

My father was a civil engineer so construction had always interested me. I was taken under the wing of the training department and was enrolled at Reading Tech College doing a day-release course in civil engineering. But I was determined to do better than the boys so I went to Leeds University to do a full-time degree in civil engineering. It took all the lads four years to get to University through the College route but I completed it in two years.

I worked all the holidays to pay myself through. Once I’d finished I stayed in Leeds and switched to building. I wasn’t a great engineer but I knew my skills lay in site-management. I loved bringing projects and teams together. In 1997 an opportunity came up in Newcastle to take over a project in ICI Wilton to cover some annual leave. After that I got another job in Washington to develop my engineering skills. That’s the approach in engineering – no moving up until you’re a competent engineer. That was frustrating because I wanted my employer to recognise the skills I had that would suit a different role. But as a result of that job I met my husband, who was my boss on the Washington Project. That’s when I transferred up here permanently.

How did you find being a woman in the construction industry?

It wasn’t brilliant. When I moved up here in 1997 it was like taking a step back in time. I wasn’t taken seriously because I’m a woman, I was discriminated against because they thought I’d get married and have babies and then when I did start a family my manager told me I couldn’t come back to work once I’d had the baby. The reason they gave me was because I was deemed the primary caregiver and therefore, I’d be unreliable. So, two weeks before my baby was due I set up Carney Consultancy and worked 100 hour weeks to make my business a success.

Things have improved since then. And within the first year of setting up on my own I’d trebled my take home pay. We’re now bigger than most of our competitors and I believe we’re the only construction firm run and managed by a woman. My first ever client is still with us now and most of my clients have been with us for more than ten years. The workforces in the industry aren’t necessarily against women – in my experience as long as you do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it, they’ll accept you, male or female.

Unfortunately, old fashioned construction management teams seem to see women as a threat or as incompetent. It’s difficult to know which. My view is that, if you’re good at your job you can ignore them and crack on to the best of your ability – they’ll retire soon anyway! Thankfully those in that category are few and far between now and the industry is thriving with men and women who are brilliant at promoting and seeing the benefit of women in the industry. I admire, respect and thank them for this, not for me but for the women coming through now – so many more than you saw 20 years ago.

What sets you apart from your competitors?

We’re very flexible in our approach and strive to help our clients as much as we possibly can. Our competitors will say ‘go and have a look online for what you want’ while we’ll find out what our clients need and set out to find it for them. We take pride in delivering exactly what they need and would never say we couldn’t do something.

We’ll always find a way to solve a problem for our clients. That sets us apart. My nature is that I’ll always try and help people. I don’t think that’s because I’m a woman. I know some men who have that nature too. For me it’s about human psychology. I love to learn about people and pass that down to my colleagues too. For me, business isn’t about profit and turnover, it’s about the experience my customers have when they work with my business. If we can sell the experience and make that experience positive, they’ll keep coming back to us.

You also run some projects with local schools – tell us more about those.  

I’m involved with several development projects. I’ve been involved with the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) and that’s my main passion. I love getting women into construction and supporting them when they’re in. Along with a colleague in the Association, we’ve set up a mentor scheme to get 13 or 14 experienced women in construction into Northumbria University to mentor year two students on construction-related degrees. Demi Hindhaugh at Turner Townsend has to take most of the credit for this mentoring scheme, as she’s done most of the hard work. Even during COVID we are running it virtually this year until we can do face to face again.

We also go into schools and colleges. For the past few years, 12 women from different industries have gone into Hartlepool college, who bring in around 60—70 year 9 girls and run a design and build challenge involving Lego. There are 10 teams who have a brief to build a school-related building. They have a budget and each piece of Lego is costed – they need a project manager, quantity surveyor to work out the costs, a designer who draws the plans and a builder too.

We’re hoping to roll that out around the region to encourage people into the construction professions. Currently, I am working with another creative NAWIC member, Danielle Blakey of Bowmer & Kirkland, designing posters to go into schools across the North East.

There’s a huge skills shortage in the trades, but the industry is ignoring 50% of the population. It’s pointless pretending it isn’t a tough industry to work in, but we’re tackling the shortage from two directions. First, we’re encouraging girls to do an apprenticeship straight from school to get into the trades, and secondly, we’re looking at women in the early to mid-20s who haven’t yet decided what they want to do. We’re offering them tasters and apprenticeships in the trades.

Then there’s the Phoenix detached youth project (PDYP) in the Meadowell which is for 16-25-year-olds. They run some team building and choose the six best kids. They’re all from difficult backgrounds and we put them through some training for free then try to find them placements with companies. Hopefully, they then get apprenticeships out of the project too, so it’s a brilliant scheme. Last Year PDYP Manager Mike Burgess managed to get five out of the six into permanent jobs in the industry which is a real success story. 

My plan is to pass the company over to the younger generation. Ideally, I want to train the next generation to follow the ethos through so it’s sustainable for generations to come. Then I’d like to volunteer at charities to help out people aren’t as fortunate as so many in the population.

How has COVID changed your company’s approach?

During COVID, we have worked much more closely with VODA – we have offered free Mental Health First Aid training, free spaces on other training courses, run a webinar on how to prepare for people coming back after lockdown, donated money for numerous schemes, donated soft toys for Christmas, collected coats for a charity, delivered care packages and our staff have got involved too, which is fab. We want to do things that make a difference to the people who haven’t had the opportunities that most of us have had.

What do you think is the secret to your success?

It used to be really tough being a woman in the construction industry. But I’ve always been determined to succeed. I’ve been busy from day one and I genuinely think that, if you do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it, customers respond positively and will come back again and again.

If you’re prepared to work hard with a clear vision, you won’t struggle. There are always highs and lows, but we adapt and change to suit the market conditions. This year has probably been my biggest learning curve. I’m surrounded by a brilliant team who are flexible and committed to the company so I always feel supported.

I keep an eye on my team to make sure they’re all happy. When they’re not happy I help them do something about it. I’d never want to push them to breaking point and they know that. As a business owner, you can never sit back on your laurels. You always have to have one eye on the horizon to make sure you’re doing the worrying, so your staff don’t have to. We’re a family business and we’re here to work together as a team and look after each other.

Finally, where are some of your favourite North East hotspots?

Plessey Woods is one of our family favourites. I love going there with the kids and the dog and we’d spend all our time there if we could. I live by the coast and love nothing better than spending time by the sea, walking on the beach at 7 am to start the day is definitely the best.

To eat, I’d always chose Omni in Monkseaton for a lunch with my husband.

The Spanish City Dome is fabulous and I love an afternoon tea at Valerie’s, looking out over Whitley Bay beach – just beautiful.

Then, I adore the Tyne Bridge because that’s where I proposed to my husband in August 2000

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