Interview: Deloitte’s Claire Handby on her rise through the industry
With more than two decades of experience in construction behind her, Deloitte’s Claire Handby is well placed to comment on an industry very much under the microscope at the moment.
Two years to the day since she joined her second ‘big four’ firm, Move Commercial sat down with Handby to discuss her career and what she thinks needs to change in the building trade.
Words by Lawrence Saunders
The Lowry, 19 July 2018: Oldham-born property, infrastructure and construction executive Claire Handby receives her honorary degree in business administration from the University of Salford.
Now a director at Deloitte’s Manchester-based real estate practice, Handby has spent the last 20 years being heavily involved with a string of high profile construction projects during stints with EY, Mace Group, Laing O’Rourke Group, Laing Management and McCarthy & Stone.
“There have been testing times where I have questioned whether I should remain in the industry,” she reflects.
“But to get this recognition after 20 years, it’s saying ‘no, the industry is for me’. It’s such a compliment.”
One of those challenging moments could have knocked her career off the tracks before it had even begun.
Arriving home after finishing two weeks of work experience with a scaffolding firm, a 15-year-old Handby had her heart set on a career in construction but her mother wasn’t quite so sure.
“I said to my mum and dad ‘I think I’ve found what I want to do – a construction course at Stockport College’,” Handby recalls.
“My dad said ‘that’s great’, but my mum was like ‘oh my god, what am I going to tell the girls at work?’”
“There have been testing times where I have questioned whether I should remain in the industry”.
Thankfully the reaction didn’t put her off, and a BTEC Ordinary National Diploma in construction led to Newcastle’s Northumbria University and a construction management course.
Upon the completion of her studies in 1998, Handby won a place on Laing Management’s coveted graduate programme.
Her timing couldn’t have been better as she parachuted into the decade’s headline construction project, the Millennium Dome.
Arriving on-site two months after the topping out ceremony, the dome’s famous masts and PTFE-coated glass-fibre fabric roof were now in place.
“I worked in every discipline of the construction industry for two years on that project,” remembers Handby.
“It was a McAlpine/Laing joint venture so I got the experience of two construction companies coming together – it was amazing.
“Bernard Ainsworth OBE was project director and he was a brilliant role model.”
Despite her whirlwind start in the industry, Handby views that moment with her mother as a warning for the parents of children who express an interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects.
“When a young girl comes home and says they want to study STEM subjects, family and friends need to not ‘diss’ it, if you like,” she adds.
“They need to support them and not channel them with their own unconscious bias down a more ‘traditional’ female route.”
Following her spell at Laing, Handby took a senior project manager role at Mace Group, working on projects totalling £100 million at Manchester Airport and winning the firm’s rising star award.
“It’s very hierarchical. You’ve got to earn your stripes”.
Her career move at this juncture was perhaps somewhat surprising then given this growing reputation within the industry.
But for Handby, a mother of three, entering the sphere of professional services at EY was a natural switch.
“Not everybody goes off, has three children and stays working full-time within the industry through choice,” she says.
“One of the drivers for moving from the [construction] industry was around seeing it as more doable to stay engaged in my career.”
As significant as the benefits were, they were secondary to the draw of an accelerated career path which Handby envisaged away from the construction industry.
“I would have had to be 50-odd before I would get anywhere near a boardroom [in construction], or have a right to be there.
“It’s very hierarchical. You’ve got to earn your stripes.
“Experience carries more weight than understanding the process. You can tell that when you look around the room at awards dinners and see who gets to sit on the tables.”
In September 2016, after eight years at EY during which she was nominated for a Northern Power Women award, Handby sought pastures new and added yet another prestigious name to her CV with a switch to fellow ‘big four’ firm Deloitte.
“It’s been a very inspiring experience so far,” says Handby.
“Deloitte focuses on creating an impact that counts with projects big or small, and that really resonates with me.
“I still have affection for EY. It was eight years with them and it was a fabulous experience, but I’m really feeling like I can realise my full potential here.”
Handby believes the construction industry stands to learn a thing or two from the field of professional services, especially when it comes to flexible working arrangements and allowing employees to care for their ageing parents.
“There is a lot to do around agile working and allowing people to work anywhere and be output focused, instead of presentism focused,” she says.
“[Flexible working] is not just for women, it’s for men too.
“Not all dads want to work full-time, some want to work four days and have a three-day weekend.
“Deloitte has an older persons caring agenda where you can take time off to look after ageing parents.
“That’s nothing to do with having children, that’s just about helping your workforce have a life outside of work.”
Handby says she would like to help bring about change in the building trade, rather than unnecessarily bashing an industry which has been under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons in recent times.
“I want to be an advocate,” she adds.
“This is a great industry where you can be yourself and there are brilliant opportunities, but you’ve got to be a self-starter to get on.”