A Woman in a Man's World 

Parminder Mew is an extraordinary woman, whose enthusiasm and professionalism is evident from the moment she starts talking. We recently caught up with her and via the wonder of Zoom discussed her somewhat unusual career in construction for a woman and the challenges she has faced along the way. 

Parminder started her official training with what was a relatively new Construction Management degree at the time at Salford University, for which places were highly competitive. Students on the course which was developed by the top ten contractors, all blue-chip companies, were required to have sponsorship. 

The course was intended to address a perceived gap in training, as whilst tradesmen could become site agents, then site managers, then project managers, there were none of the qualified, educated, degree-based people with practical skills and experience coming through the industry. It focused on providing opportunities for students to put into practise all that they were learning, but it did provide them with a wage while working, as well as paying for books and support materials. 

Parminder describes the degree course as “fundamental to her career path, with many of the students on the course still being friends today.” She was supported by R M Douglas, a company which later became Tilbury Douglas, then Interserve, headed up by Sir Robert Douglas. Parminder describes him as “incredibly forward thinking in his approach for the 1980’s.” She remembers that he employed more female engineers than any other company and that on the first building site she walked onto, had two other women working there, which was very unusual. 

Parminder recalls that it her dream was always to become a Construction Director for a main contractor rather than a small company as there were no women on the Board which Tilbury Douglas gave her the opportunity to pursue. 

Initially she trained as a setting out engineer which taught her the importance of being able to translate drawings onto the actual ground which required total accuracy. She then moved onto planning & programming, working at the Head Office. It was here that one of the Directors noticed her ability and ambition and took her under his wing, to the point where he moved a desk into his office so that they could work together every day. Here she learnt about projects and tenders which developed into a love of programming for Parminder, working by hand rather than using computers which were still in their infancy. “Here, I was planning multi-million-pound projects, looking at how one tiny element could affect the deadline at the end, as well as the budget – all by hand-drawn plans, which was quite an art” says Parminder.

She remembers how the third year was the hardest as the students were made to travel extensively across the country working on different projects. “This was intended to give us the confidence to walk onto a building site on any project where you knew your role and your place in the structure.” 

The only woman on site 

During this time, Parminder met many people including peers who would in today’s world, now be considered as extremely sexist site managers, whereas she says that the ground workers and tradesmen tended to be more accepting, simply looking for clear instructions. “I never saw myself as a woman on site and just set out to do my job. I was never treated as a woman – I was just Pam to the ordinary site workers, as I showed them respect for their expertise at the job they were doing.” 

She felt that colleagues were slightly trickier as it was an extremely competitive environment, and they could see that she was ambitious to progress up the career ladder. “I proved myself qualified for that progression through working really hard – I had no life outside of work, although I still managed to let my hair down occasionally. It was a great life!” 

Once graduated, Parminder was sent to a project building the Waitrose warehouses at Bracknell, working as an engineer with support from her Project Manager, who recognised her skills in computer programming. She quickly became Section Engineer, with more managerial responsibility which essential meant that she had skipped several steps of the normal career path. “I was a really bad engineer, so that was probably part of his motivation too, alongside the management potential I displayed” laughs Parminder.

It was here that she met her husband to be, who was a Senior Engineer on the project. Parminder describes how at that time, she had more interest in managing projects and ensuring that sub-contractors performed to a high standard. “This meant that I became a manager at quite an early stage,” she states, although the 80’s recession meant that the company was taken over and there were a lot of redundancies. 

Having moved to London to work on a range of sites, Parminder decided that it was time to find a new role, which she quickly did, with AMEC, becoming the first female to work for them and where she was taken under the wing of the soon to retire, Construction Director. They supported her with additional training and even put her forward for a national award organised by the top ten companies, for which she wrote a paper on “Recycling in the Construction Industry.” As part of the competition, Parminder travelled overseas to research the subject, visiting locations across Germany, Denmark, Holland to see how they dealt with their materials in terms of recycling. “It is interesting that to this day, we are still way behind other European countries in this area,” she comments.

She recalls how in Berlin, at the time of the Berlin Wall being demolished, they took all the rubble along specially constructed train tracks to be ground down and then returned to be used in the city in concrete. 

Having presented her paper to the top companies, she won the award, a first for her company and for a woman, which made her parents extremely proud. She states that this experience not only opened her eyes to the potential for recycling in this country but also accustomed her to presenting to high level audiences and she was rewarded with the new job title of Assistant Manager, and nine months later Manager. 

How IT helped 

Her next project was in Dorset working with a Construction Director and other senior managers on a £30 million scheme, where her skills with computer programming made her stand out. “Many of the senior team had not received any training with computers nor had a degree level education which was startling to me,” comments Parminder, “I stuck out because I could work a computer, had a degree and was a woman!” 

Here she had her own project to run, but she was also helping the other managers by programming all of their work for all the other sites which she felt was a great opportunity to show off her capabilities. Her Director, who became a lifelong friend, then retired and encouraged her to look for a company with whom she could settle and develop a stronger career path than the one that was available to her at AMEC. Parminder joined VINCI, again being the first female to join the company, “There just were not many women in the industry at all,” she states. 

At this point she moved to work with a Project Director at a site in Hampshire, running her own projects, including one for the Ministry of Defence (MOD), building a new rugby stadium at Aldershot, which was extremely successful.  

Parminder explains that Quantity Surveyors (QS) who are the accountants of the industry and Site Managers (SM) who run the projects, work hand in hand, although there has always been tension between the two. When you get a great team operating well together, this can have a huge positive impact on profits. “I have always had a reputation for being very fair but also someone that has high expectations of others,” said Parminder.

 “I am someone who is good at procedures and anticipating how changes can require a project to adapt. “I see that the job of a manager is to make sure that life is made easier for company owners and in return, they then will be supportive. It is also crucial that you provide clear direction for the sub-contractors and that any issues are highlighted and dealt with to prevent projects failing.”

It was here that she met her business partner to be, Peter Oliver, who helped her to develop a better understanding of the commercial side of the business including how to make contracts work better by taking ownership of the contract at an early stage which was unusual within the industry. 

Her career continued to progress as she became Project Manager for a range of blue-chip projects including IBM as well as H & S Aviation, the former being a 24-hour shift working project, with a quick turnaround, which was also a live site, building around people who needed to continue to work at all times. “It was complicated, but I loved it and I was able to help generate significant profits for the company, which really gave a me a kick” explains Parminder.  

A change in Director at the company led to a situation where her meteoric rise through the ranks was questioned and when faced with demotion, Parminder began to ask herself if being a woman, or being young was threatening to others. “I was also recently married, and I did wonder if there was the expectation that I would want to start a family.” 

She continued, “My parents always advised me to give the impression that the job was everything and to act professional in all that I did, which meant that often I wouldn’t wear my wedding ring to prevent any misinterpretation of my commitment to my career.” Parminder was disappointed by this negative situation and she jumped at an approach from Overbury in London, again to be the first female working for this company.

Overbury had chosen Parminder as they were looking to expand their services from office fit outs to include construction and at the time, they were lacking in the expertise required to handle this new work. Her first project was to put right one that had started to go wrong without the different parties involved falling out, due to her experience in dealing with contracts. Meanwhile she had also set up her own business, Darcy Construction, with her husband Robert and business partner Peter, with the long-term view to grow the business, initially with Parminder carrying on with her career. 

Building a Temple

Six months later, she received a phone call from a Sikh gentleman, who was involved in a project to build the Sri Guru Singh Gurdwara, a Sikh temple in Southall which would be the biggest in Europe. She agreed to help with some pro-bono work for the project, despite working long hours for her own employer. 

Parminder explains that Sikhs are very equal in their dealings with women and in fact names are bilingual so that they can be applied to either sex, with the only differentiation being the middle name, Kaur which means lioness and Singh which means lion. “Sikh women are very strong, and they are not ones to stay at home, preferring to work alongside the men,” said Parminder. 

“My father always encouraged me to go into construction and this formed the basis of my approach to being on building sites, where you all look the same wearing protective clothing and hard hats, so my femininity was never an issue for me,” she explains. 

It soon became apparent that the project required more than a little help. Along with Robert and Peter she did a huge amount of number crunching and ultimately ended up pulling together a team of people to make the project successful. 

This project did put her in a personal dilemma as she had only been with Overbury for six months and I didn’t want to let them down. “They were really supportive, and we agreed terms for me to work for them for a period whilst sorting the initial issues out for the temple project before I left to work on it fully through my company Darcy Construction.” 

We knew that we had a massive task ahead of us to sort out the current problems and get the project to completion including helping the committee with raising funds which was something we had never done before. “I loved the challenge of this project,” said Parminder, “we made the seemingly impossible happen!” Donations came from the community and reduced the risk to the project by breaking it into different packages where we could at least complete the work on the basement level and we organised a ground-breaking ceremony, which brought in over £200,000 on the day. 

Parminder met some really inspiring Sikhs through this project who were extremely generous with their time and money, and who all had amazing stories of how they came to the UK with nothing but have subsequently built successful businesses. “It was the biggest project that I had ever done and meant a lot to me personally, as I wanted to make the community proud, at the same time proving that a Sikh woman could achieve great things, especially one who had married an Englishman, which at the time was not common.”

Despite other issues along the way, the project was extremely successful, and the temple was opened by Prince Charles, who spoke highly of his appreciation of such a monument being constructed. To this day, the temple stands as a symbol to Sikhs and is used daily by the community. 

When this project came to an end four years later and having had two sons, Parminder decided to return to London for a period. A little while later, after being the main carer for the children, Robert decided to focus on his career, working for other companies. As her children were still quite young, Parminder decided to focus on working locally, which in turn allowed her to split her time between looking after the children, often taking them to sites and still maintaining a Full-time level of work that kept her interested as well as allowing her time for active family holidays. On behalf of Darcy, Parminder and Peter purchased some land, which they developed, and this enabled them to grow their network of contacts and clients more locally over the next eight years. 

Despite this being successful and extremely profitable, Parminder felt the need for more of a challenge. “I realised that I had gone from working in London with around 60 consultants and over 100 people working on site at Interserve, to a local site, where I was back working as a Site Manager - which was a role I had last undertaken in my twenties,” she explained. 

The Crash 

In 2008, the recession hit, and it nearly led her to lose the business, with tough financial times across the industry which Parminder says, “I realised that I was taking too many risks and the threat of losing a business which I had built up over the past twelve years was scary!” She describes this experience as an eye-opener as she was responsible for her own family as well as the people she employed. “It made me think about the importance of cash flow and the need for balance in the type of work I did which needed to be a mix, allowing cash to come in from some projects steadily.”

The situation meant that she had to go out to find new clients - YMCA became a top client based on the fact that Parminder had experience of not only the Sikh temple in Southall but also other charity projects in London. She gradually built up a client base which included the Society of St James, SOZO Ministries and Darcy Construction gained a reputation for working with charities which Parminder really enjoyed doing. “I felt that it fitted well with my ethos of giving clients the best you can and make them feel good about what you create as a team.” 

Parminder admits that she has not actively market her business and that it is something that is now learning to do, having previously relied on word of mouth for new clients. 

A Global Pandemic 

The current COVID-19 pandemic did have an impact on the construction but Parminder proudly states that they continued working throughout, putting in place the required safety standards, so that she could continue employing and paying workers during this challenging time. “My upbringing taught me to respect authority and this respect extended to my client, who was relying on me to complete the project. It did mean that the project took a little longer and there were additional costs due to the circumstances, but they worked every day to get the job done.”

When faced with a shortage of plaster, which threatened to hold up the project, everyone worked around the clock and no job was too much. They covered each other’s roles and Robert, who by then re-joined the company as a Project Manager, phoned around to buy stock. They then hired a van they went around to various suppliers up and down the county to collect plaster and other stock to enable the work team to carry on with the project. “This is just one example of us doing the best we can as a business,” said Parminder. 

“With COVID-19, it feels like a stop button has been pressed. The tenders have dried up and it is going to be a tough year, but we have been there before,” said Parminder. She has a couple of plots of land that she will be applying for planning permission to build on to keep her staff working and is working some of the time back in London, as well as some old clients who have been in touch about projects. “It does mean that we have to be flexible on costs and I have offered to do some pro bono work, mainly to keep myself sane!”

Parminder has also recently joined Enterprising Women so that she can “keep her brain going” as she wants to use the time to re-educate herself. She admits that she has always wanted to be a Fellow in the Chartered Institute of Builders, but previously never had the time, so this is also on the to-do list for this year, as there are not many women at that level. “I want to show other women that they can also achieve that level in their career,” she comments. 

Looking Forward

She has also taken on a young female architect for six months though the Government’s Kick Start Scheme and her training will include seeing how the contracting side works to give her a rounded understanding of the construction process. Peter is training one of Parminder and Robert’s sons who was going to go to university, but who has joined the family business focusing on the quantity surveying side, although he ultimately wants to be an architect. “I’ve convinced him to do a Foundation year as a Construction Manager first so that he can take that knowledge onto whatever career path in the industry that he follows.”

Parminder is also using the time to get a better understanding of marketing and has started work with a mentor, who has encouraged her to take one day a week at home to focus on her own personal development. “I like it as I’ve never had time to myself and it is so great to have the opportunity to stop and think,” says Parminder, “Rather than being reactive, I now stand back and look at the business from a different perspective. I love these days – they have become my favourite day of the week.” Her mentor has also suggested getting out of her comfort zone and starting to build her network of contacts, which she admits that she hasn’t really done since the temple project. “I hadn’t realised how insular I had become running my business, concentrating on the projects and all of the day-to-day responsibilities. I’ve built a fantastic team so it seems like the perfect time to embrace this new focus to ensure that the company can grow long term.” 

“I am particularly interested in offering the female perspective on things – I’ve never worked for a female team, so that might be exciting to try,” Parminder stated. “In October I attended the International Women in Construction Conference which was amazing as I met some phenomenal ladies which really motivated me. There are now more women working in construction to share stories and experiences with.” she states. Whilst there are still relatively few women in the industry, they all face the same challenges, and she is looking forward to developing those relationships further to support each other. “It feels great to talk to other women who understand construction, which includes my mentor who has a background in the industry.” 

Parminder has started to use LinkedIn, partly to help her new architect recruit a job at the end of her training, and the post she put out provoked a large number of responses. “It made me realise that social media does work so I am looking forward to developing my network further.”

When asked where her love of construction came from, Parminder looks back to time spent with her father, as from an early age, she accompanied her father when visiting the building projects which were converted into flats and rented out. “I love the buzz of construction and it is a very tangible thing. I can go up and down the country and see buildings that I have helped to create such as the football stadium in Middlesborough and the Dulux factories in Middlesborough and the Halifax offices in Leeds – it is such a lovely feeling!”

This passion for construction has continued as both her sons are looking to work in the industry and despite the challenging times, Parminder is optimistic about the future of construction and in particular her company. 

Parminder’s advice to any woman considering starting a business themselves is to. “If you are a female working in the construction industry, you have to be better than anyone else, work harder than they do because knowledge is power and this in turn allows you to command a level of respect on site.”

“Women tend to be able to multi-skilled and able to multi-task naturally,” states Parminder.  Particularly in construction, you can be working on many different projects, each at different stages which requires you to switch your attention quickly but to be focused on the requirements of each one. I have found that Men on site tend to focus on one task or activity at a time which is just a different style of working, but it is important to recognise this. 

Parminder’s top tips for female entrepreneurs 

  • make your mistakes somewhere else; to learn your craft before you go out there on your own
  • build respect by developing your knowledge and experience on the job
  • don’t be afraid to ask for advice 
  • research your subject thoroughly 
  • be flexible and adaptable – as a business owner you have to wear many hats!
  • build teams with a balance of skills and personalities 

For more information about Darcy Construction visit www.darcyconstruction.co.uk



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