Development Finance Today interviewed our own Orla Costello for International Women’s Day.
As a Senior Director in the Bank’s Property Development Team, she shares how she came to work in the construction sector and gives her perspective on what it’s like to be a woman working in what is still a largely male dominated industry.
I have always been interested in property and development. Growing up my uncle was a developer in the west of Ireland and my other uncle was the MD of John Sisk which was the biggest contractor in Ireland. It also helps that both my husband and brother are also in the industry here in London and work for TSL – https://tslprojects.com
I’m not sure if it is an Irish thing, but in my family at least, property is in our blood. I love seeing the process from a bare site to a development of family homes or the transformation of a city centre office block to stylish apartments.
Having spent 9 years at Allied Irish Bank (AIB) I had a good understanding of banking and credit but knew I needed to specialise in one sector in order to really climb the ladder and become an expert in my field, so property development was an obvious option for me. I knew I would need to go in at a supporting role level in order to gain the experience and confidence I needed and thankfully the job at UTB provided me with this. I have been extremely fortunate to work with some of the best development BDMs in the industry such as Jonathan Nail. I watched and learned, mirrored elements from their approaches and then made my own style which seems to work!
UTB has given me the opportunity to grow in the role and encouraged me to progress to a Senior Director role in the Bank which involves managing a team of BDMs whilst also running my own portfolio.
From your experience, do you think the development finance sector has become more inclusive and welcoming for women, and if so, how exactly has it improved?
Over the 9 years I have worked at UTB I have seen huge change both within the Bank and in the property development sector as a whole. Women are more visible on sites working in the traditional trades, women run successful development companies and are prevalent throughout the various professions which support the construction process such as quantity surveying, valuing, planning consulting, architecture and of course, finance.
UTB as a Bank, and particularly within the Property Development team, has employed more women in senior roles, promoted women from within and taken measures to ensure women have the same opportunities and career support as men.
What have been the biggest obstacles you have had to overcome as a woman working in development finance? How did you overcome them?
The biggest obstacle is overcoming the bias which still exists in many parts of the construction industry. When I arrive on site for the first time, many developers/contractors initially think ‘what does this blonde know about development?’. Once we start talking, however, and we start discussing the type of foundations they are proposing or if there are any potential Right of Light issues or party wall agreements needed, any preconceived notions disappear.
It doesn’t take long for them to learn that this blonde knows what she’s doing. I have a great working relationship with all of my clients and have a very high retention and repeat business count.
Do you think there’s still a barrier for women to enter and progress in the development and development finance sectors?
Yes, but I think there are still barriers in all industries which have been traditionally male dominated. This is probably more so in construction and development and I think women can sometimes be intimidated by this. It’s up to all employers in the industry, from lenders to surveyors and electrical and plumbing contractors, to ensure that their recruitment policy encourages diversity across the board, and that everyone has equal opportunity and is paid in line with their skills and knowledge rather than their gender. It has got better since I started working in the industry, but there’s still a long way to go.
Don’t get me wrong I am still a great believer in the right person for the right job and a person should not be given a job just to bolster a company’s diversity numbers. However, sometimes it is just about taking a different approach. A number of my contracting clients have said the impact of having women on site is huge, the culture changes and it’s like a breath of fresh air.
What advice would you have for women who are thinking of pursuing a career in development finance?
Do it… It is so much fun. One day you can be on site in your muddy boots and the next day you can be at a black-tie event in a swanky city hotel. It’s really exciting and rewarding and the relationships you make with your customers and brokers are amazing. You become part of the development team, trusted and valued by the borrowers. I don’t know if all my colleagues feel the same way, but I enjoy the feeling of inclusion you get in the midst of a project and I feel a kind of ownership of the development and great satisfaction seeing another successful project taken from its inception on paper to the buyers moving in. It’s a great industry to work in.
What should companies do in order to encourage more women to join the development finance sector?
There’s no quick fix. Really the only way to make it less intimidating is to have more diverse workplaces. Employ more women and support those with skills and determination who want to progress to senior roles. It has started at UTB and I hope it’s a trend we’ll see spread across the industry.