Structural engineer Michelle McDowell reflects on her £90m-turnover design practice
The late Sir George Grenfell-Baines was expert at ruffling feathers at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).
How? In 1961 he founded the Building Design Partnership (BDP), a design practice that brought architects and engineers together to collaborate from the very start of a project.
His maverick concept paid off. BDP now turns over £90m per year and is the professional home of the 2011 Veuve Clicquot businesswoman of the year, Michelle McDowell.
When I meet McDowell she is relaxed and full of smiles – despite the incessant run of interviews she has sat through since winning her award.
If you’ve not heard of McDowell, you’ll almost certainly be familiar with her legacies. These include the £70m refit of the Royal Albert Hall completed in 2003; the 1997 makeover of the Wimbledon’s All England Lawn Tennis Club; and her personal favourite, the Bridge Academy in Hackney (pictured).
McDowell’s crowning as businesswoman of the year is no mean feat; also in the running were Joanna Shields, vice-president of Facebook in Europe, Africa and the Middle East; Susie Hewson, director of hygiene product company Natracare; and Jillian Maclean, founder of London-based bar group Drake & Morgan.
Indeed McDowell, by her own admission, isn’t a businesswoman (“I’m a structural engineer”). But she’s no stranger to awards, and boasts an MBE for her services to engineering
Indeed McDowell, by her own admission, isn’t a businesswoman (“I’m a structural engineer”). But she’s no stranger to awards, and boasts an MBE for her services to engineering.
McDowell, 47, joined BDP in 1997 and was made head of the London and Winchester offices just six weeks before our meeting.
Raised in Northern Ireland, at 18 she came to England to study engineering at Bristol University. Three years later she moved to London – “the place where opportunities exist”.
She’s incredibly positive about the UK capital, When asked to consider any barriers that engineers might face working in the city, she points only to the competition – “the quality of the engineers around; there’s increased competition locally; all the top people are here. But otherwise this is the place to be”.
But surely the capital poses other problems to architects and construction engineers? “The only challenge, perhaps, is that buildings that tend to be built in London are on brownfield sites [which have]tight constraints, so that can be technically challenging – but in a way that drives innovation.”
So why was McDowell voted businesswoman of the year?
“I think it’s because I’m a woman in a male-dominated industry, and I’ve had such great people supporting me,” she says, modestly.
“I suppose Peter Drummond [BDP chief executive] would say it’s my steely determination,” she adds. “It’s possibly to do with what I contributed to BDP, in growing its business, in developing its market.”
McDowell was once told in a job interview: “I don’t think a woman can handle international work, and that’s part of this role, so I think you should forget it.”
How did she respond? “Well I didn’t want to work for a man like that”
McDowell is referring to the company’s international strategy, which she leads alongside Drummond. As a response to the cuts in public spending on London-based projects, BDP has opened offices in Abu Dhabi, Delhi and Shangai over the last 18 months.
As a result, the firm has gone global and now conducts 30 per cent of its business overseas, compared with five per cent 18 months ago.
But McDowell’s success hasn’t gone unchallenged. She was once told in a job interview: “I don’t think a woman can really handle international work, and that’s part of this role, so I think you should forget it.”
How did she respond? “Well I didn’t want to work for a man like that,” she says.
As well as expanding the company, as a pioneer of building information modelling (BIM) (a process for generating and managing building data using three-dimensional, real-time, modelling software), she has made it more efficient, too.
By helping to tailor BIM software to the company’s needs she has driven forward its use at BDP, making the practice one of the earliest adopters of the technology.
But what about the “Clicquot curse” – an expression coined by one newspaper that refers to the previous winners who left their companies soon after collecting their award?
“I think it’s a bit contrived,” she laughs.
As we draw the interview to a close I ask McDowell if there’s anything we’ve missed, any particular message she wants to get across.
At first she says no, but then on reflection, says: “Women don’t shout about their achievements enough…” she pauses…. “but we ought to be able to be ourselves, there’s room for a different approach, too.”