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Heather engineers Yolles' purple patch


Heather Stanley has risen from the rank of site engineer to managing director of structural engineering firm Yolles, which made its name working on Canary Wharf. Here, she talks to Steve Menary about sexism, casinos and PFI

'I WAS DOING a civil engineering degree at Loughborough University when I did a year out with Sir Robert McAlpine, ' recalls Heather Stanley, managing director of Yolles.

'On my first day, I was so nervous I walked round the site three times before I went in.

'There was a ladies toilet which I had the key to in case it got lost and all the men just got changed in front of me. But they were fine. They teased me for a month then accepted me.

'The site manager was the problem. It was made very clear to me early on that I was going to be a site engineer and nothing but a site engineer.'

A familiar story but Ms Stanley was not going to be one of the thousands of people lost to construction by the twin demons of poor safety and sexism.

She explains without rancour: 'At the time, I had to think: 'Is that why I'm spending three years at university - to be a site engineer for ever?' The answer was no.'

But Ms Stanley had the last laugh: after leaving university, McAlpine came back with a job offer that she could afford to reject having already taken up a job with Ove Arup.

'I spent a year and a half working on site with Arup and enjoyed it, but I've never had the urge to go back. I enjoy working in design, ' she says of her decision to turn her back on contracting.

Design now goes much further than the drawing board for Ms Stanley, as she is managing director of the UK operation of Canadian structural engineer, Yolles.

After a five-year spell at Arup she spent a similar period at rival consultants Waterman and Robert West before joining Yolles, formed by Mordern Yolles and two fellow Canadian engineers in 1952.

A permanent London office was opened in 1989 and its name was established with work on 1 Canada Square at Canary Wharf in London's Docklands.

But when Ms Stanley joined as a director in 1997 there was precious little to direct.

There were just five staff working at the UK arm.

'I was at Robert West, which was essentially a civils company and running the building division. But they never really bought into the whole buildings business, ' she says candidly.

'Yolles had built up some good work but lost of lot of that in the recession and I was looking for a challenge.

'Also, a lot of the companies that interviewed me wanted someone to come in and replace someone else. That can be hugely difficult as you don't know who is on your side.

'Yolles had a small team and wanted me to take them forward and build.

It's always good to go somewhere where there is not going to be any resentment.'

Ms Stanley was promoted to managing director in 1999 and since her arrival the group's performance has improved tremendously.

The business has 25 staff but the workforce has been as high as 40 in her time, while the financials also look strong.

In the year to August 2001, turnover rose £1.2 million to £3.5 million and pre-tax profits rose to £528,904 from £468,497 in the previous year - giving the business a 15 per cent margin that would be the envy of any contractor.

But once again, she finds herself with another challenge: a downturn in the commercial sector, which generated 90 per cent of group turnover in 2000, has left Yolles in need of new sources of work.

She explains: 'Commercial work is definitely slowing down in the City. A lot of people are looking at putting in planning applications but not much gets built without the buildings being pre-let.'

To counter this slowdown, the firm branched out and is working on a new racecourse at Great Leighs in Essex and doing some work on affordable housing schemes.

Yolles has also worked in Europe, including Germany and Turkey, and had a base in Singapore that was recently shifted to Hong Kong after work dried up.

The group also considered moving into multidisciplinary work - but the biggest push has been into the Private Finance Initiative.

Yolles has teamed up with Skanska to bid for a muchdelayed redevelopment of St Bart's hospital in London, and is also looking for contractors to team up with for the next wave of PFI healthcare schemes.

This has reduced the reliance on commercial work, which now comprises about half of the turnover. But Ms Stanley admits: 'Our figures in the current year will be nothing like they have been in previous years.

'We're doing the PFI stuff below cost because it's shared risk and shared reward. I would see this year as an investment year. As long as we do more than break even, I'll be happy.'

In summer 2001, Yolles trumpeted its experience in fast-track construction that could be used on a wave of casinos that were being mooted as a quick response to the Government's plans to relax the gaming laws.

But, instead of becoming the UK's own version of Las Vegas, Blackpool remains a distinctly British seaside resort as the legislation has since become bogged down in Parliament.

This is probably for the best as Yolles' experience then was all based in North America, where Canadian gambling laws led to casinos springing up along the border to attract Americans restricted by stricter gaming legislation in the US. Ms Stanley has now set up an exchange programme with two of the UK staff working in the Toronto headquarters to gain experience.

She visits Canada herself around six times a year and has become a shareholder in the Yolles Inc parent group.

Apart from the financial considerations, making Ms Stanley a shareholder was a good move as she has stayed five years at each of her previous companies and passed this mark with Yolles in 2002.

She smiles at suggestions it might be time to move on again and dodges the question - but whatever Heather Stanley does next, it is extremely unlikely that she will make a return to contracting.