David Cummins: G'day and welcome to the AHDC podcast series Health Design on the Go. I'm your host David Cummins, and today we are speaking to Josephine Sukkar AM.
Josephine and her husband Tony established Buildcorp in 1990. Josephine is on several private, public, and non-for-profit boards including Growthpoint Properties, the Australian Museum, Green Building Council of Australia, the Buildcorp Foundation, Australian Sports Commission, and the PCA.
Josephine received an Order of Australia in 2017. In 2019, received an Honorary Fellow of the University of Sydney. We welcome Josephine here today to discuss women in construction and the importance of diversity in the industry.
Welcome Josephine, thank you for your time.
Josephine Sukkar: Thank you Dave.
David Cummins: I almost spent our 20 minutes just introducing you because of all the boards you're on and everything else you do.
That is an extremely big list, and I know I didn't get everywhere. How do you do so much and manage one of Australia's biggest construction companies.
Josephine Sukkar: I didn't try to do them all at once, I know it looks like it. To do some of those larger roles, I've had to step back from a number of the operating roles that I was occupying at Buildcorp.
And that was able to happen over time because the business is now 33 years old and we've got some great general managers and I don't need to do as much of the front facing running of the business, not as my husband as much, but in particularly, the Chair of the Australian Sports Commission, that takes quite a bit of time now on the two listed boards that I'm on.
And that's where a large amount of my focus has to go. And these days often Buildcorp wheel me out where they need me .
David Cummins: Yeah, it's very impressive. So Buildcorp's someone who most people in Australia would be aware of, certainly big in the health industry itself. Looking at your education history, you don't actually have a building degree, do you?
It's something completely separate, isn't it?
Josephine Sukkar: Yes.
I have an honors degree in physiology and pharmacology, and I did my last year at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and a diabetes research unit working with laboratory rats. We were looking at radiolabeled glucose uptake into their little muscles while they're exercising on treadmills and seeing where they ended up with.
It was a long time ago and we didn't know much about these things, you know, in the eighties, what happened with intermediate training and we did work with fish oil and rats. It was quite interesting. Yeah. But that's old news these days.
David Cummins: I'm obviously missing something.
So there's a big leap between exercise physiology and construction. So was that just the love of meeting Tony, or where did that come from?
Josephine Sukkar: Yes, we were engaged, he has a Bachelor of Building, he was working for Lendlease and there was a small job that was needing to be done at Lendlease in 1985, and it was just a processing job on a construction site, a paper processing job.
And I did that, agreed to a couple more small jobs on site and did say to Tony one day we should set up our own construction company because I could really easily do this. I didn't realise I'd love the industry. Clearly I had some transferrable skills. I've never built anything, but certainly that back office admin, running a business together, is something that appealed to both of us.
And that happened a few years later, in 1990, we started Buildcorp.
David Cummins: Yeah, so that's a long time ago. I mean, construction wise. So as a female in the 1990's to a female in 2023, you must have seen a dramatic shift in attitudes and societal changes towards women in the industry. Would that be fair to say?
Josephine Sukkar: Yeah. In 1985 was actually when I began on sites. And that was where the big change was because in those days we had a Builders Laborer's Federation (the BLF), they were pretty rough! Their leader, Norm Gallagher, got locked up for a period of time and they were deregistered. There were wild days in Sydney, it's probably fair to say, on sites.
By the time we'd begun Buildcorp in 1990, we had an opportunity to set your own culture and the way you want people to be and behave on sites. And so that became very different. But I have to say, I was 21 when I walked onto my first construction site, and I never saw, or never felt or was ever treated badly.
I was a very driven young woman. I just put my head down. I wanted to work hard, and I was probably a little bit nerdy and wanted to do my job well, and I just focused on that and people saw me working hard.
I used to say I was really lucky, and there's no question. I think that all luck when preparation meets opportunity, I do think that's a key. I just worked really hard and over the years people began to tap me on the shoulder for roles, but I wasn't looking for or alert to, did someone say something that might make me feel bad? I just was driven to get my job done and do it well.
David Cummins: Yeah. I think the interesting part about that is that you were there at the start of Buildcorp in the nineties where you were part of that cultural setting for the industry and certainly for your company because Buildcorp is synonymous with... I know you've got suicide prevention, you've got a lot of gender diversity, you've got a lot of equality, you've got a lot of respect, and certainly there's a few other ones in Australia.
There's a few other ones in Sydney, but certainly other construction companies probably didn't have that foundation with women there. There is a few out there, but certainly I think that was probably a key to establishing that culture.
Josephine Sukkar: Yeah, there weren't many women for sure, and in fact, at Lendlease, part of the business I was in in those days was called Civil and Civic. And when you'd wrap up a project, you'd go back into head office, which is in Australia Square, and it was a lovely place and everyone in there was just lovely. But the only other women who were there were the women in the typing pool, the women on reception and the Pay Mistress, whose name I still remember, even though she's long gone Sue Eden because there weren't many women.
But I never felt it was an unfriendly place to women or any different to what was happening in the eighties and how women were being... women's place in society... not that I ever focused on that.
A lot more women are focused on in the eighties, this didn't happen for me and that didn't happen for me. I guess, with Tony, we sat down and as a young married couple said, here's where we'd like to be and how do we get there together?
And never really focused on who should do what, who should work where, who should hang the washing out, who should go to work this day.
We never did that. We focused on the end goal and together, as a couple said to get there, how do we get there and who needs to do what? So at the beginning of Buildcorp yes, we'd always wanted to set up our own construction company, but the way it happened and the timing was not what we'd hoped for.
It was in 1990, Tony was working for a company called Girvan Corporation and they went into receivership and he was project managing some twin towers at Chatswood. And the client were two Japanese clients and the AGC for those who remember back in the day, the finance company.
And they were going to appoint a large tier one builder to take the project over and appoint and the contractor was going to take Tony on as their senior project manager on it and all the team there. And we decided at that point in time, well maybe this is when we should do this. Now, it was a bit scary cause it was 1990, we were in the middle of a property crash.
Wasn't quite how we'd hoped to do it, but compounding the issues around that, our vision was for us to sit down and do this together, begin small and grow it. There was 47 million worth of work left to do on that job. That's 47 million in 1990, I don't know what the equivalent of that would be today.
And I was seven and a half months pregnant with our first child. So I wasn't even able to be there for the beginning of our journey. But do you know that agility of mindset right? And I think that's where we've got to continue to check ourselves every now and then. We can't be that someone moved my cheese, I plan to do this, and then someone moved it.
We need to be able to go, right, so it might look a bit different and we might need to go off-piste slightly, but it's still going to get us in the long run to where we need to be and where we hope to one day be. So that meant we brought in a couple of small partners into the business, sort of minor shareholders that we subsequently brought out over the years.
But they were amazing because they were there alongside Tony working on that project with him. And until I came out the other end, having had kids. But at that point in time, when I talk about having a vision that you build together it made no sense for me to do anything other than be at home.
Have children, stay at home and look after them. There was nothing I could do practically to help Tony. And it made no sense for Tony to be at home doing his share of fathering when we needed him to focus on building a business. So I'm often asked, you know, you must have sacrificed so much while Tony was able to set up the business.
I've never in my mind ever saw that, nor did he. And in fact, I get a little bit frustrated sometimes when I hear that because I feel like that's other people trying to take our lived reality of getting to where we needed to be, and bending it to shape their own storyline, which has nothing to do with what we did.
And of course we ended up getting there together, but it looked a bit different to what we planned.
David Cummins: It does sound like more, is it a sacrifice? It just sounds like strong, open, honest communication with a loving couple that had a common goal that worked together to achieve those goals, whatever that meant.
Josephine Sukkar: Whatever that meant. So I often tell, and we're talking, you know, pre-mobile or mobile phones that were attached to your phone in those days. I do remember when I was at home with the children, Tony would come, he'd leave home every morning about 5:30am, wouldn't get home till about 8:30pm at night.
He was working so hard and I would always have dinner ready on the table for him. And the thing that never made me think twice about that was because every time he left the office, before he left he’d ring and go, what can I pick up on the way home for dinner? He never expected me to do anything. He never, and I don't you dare spend a cent on anything for dinner.
We're budgeting really hard. We've got, so between the two of us, he was perpetually grateful for what I did. I was perpetually grateful for him leading this without me. And a couple of partners and... huge respect for him and so grateful for the respect he afforded me. That allowed me to stay at home, which I never thought I would do for six years, having two children.
David Cummins: So what about moving forward 30 plus years? What do you think young women and also probably young men face today? What you've painted is a picture which may or may not be relevant to some couples today where the primary parent might be male, or they could be gay, or they could be female.
Like there is so many more different pathways for young people these days. So there seems to been a change in shift with females and males on construction sites in the last 30 years. What do you think about what's happening today? Is there any advice you'll give those people starting out in their career?
Josephine Sukkar: Oh, I can tell you from our lived experience from Buildcorp, what young women needed when they came to Buildcorp, when they started families, now our men need. They want to partake in childcare responsibilities and pull their weight. And the reality is that I was able to stay at home. That is going to be very difficult for young couples today with cost of housing.
Especially if you live in a city like Sydney or Melbourne. Our children are 33 and 31 and I imagine that both of them are going to have to both, as couples, they will need to work together to be able to pay down and do what they did. But I think if you are in a relationship or you're not, imagining where you want to be, go to the end.
This year I turned 60. Imagine you're going to turn 60 and you're making a speech at your own birthday party or someone else is making it about you, what would you like them to say about you? And it's often where you ended up, not how you got there, but so long as you are surrounding yourself in a place where you are physically and psychologically safe to bring your best self to work.
So long as you are realistic, if you're working in it for an employer, particularly in times like now post Covid times as businesses are trying to rebuild and those that have been impacted by Covid, when you do need to or decide to, or not decide to step back temporarily from the workplace to, you know, in the long run, by the time you're 60 you can look back and go, I've had it all if that's what you want..
Make sure that your requests are actually realistic, because I've got to say, those employees of ours who have been able to flex with us we have flexed with them... that's great, I'm so excited that you're having a baby.. My EA is about to have a baby, my assistant, it's so exciting and her family are in the UK and the mum will come out and I'm really looking forward to that.
But, My lesson with women who have left Buildcorp and come back is to not let them plan too hard, too far ahead because these are times where you never know how it's going to be.
I usually say just come back in with a baby. Let us see the baby start up and let's just figure it out as we go along. Because often what we think we'll do can change, and often how we feel about the roles we play can change. So I think being mentally agile, and then look for being a bit realistic and thinking about the long game and having it all but not at the same time.
My great fear is we're going to break young people who may want to step back into caring roles. In these days we're seeing having to step outta the workforce for a bit to look after elderly parents or kids or partners.
These are all difficult times, and if we don't look at the whole self and say, well, what's happening here at work, I might need to pull back a little bit here.. But have reasonable expectations to say, maybe that might mean my job, might need to temporarily shift for a bit.. Roll with that.
I'll give you a live example. When I came back from work, having been at home for six years with my children I said to Tony "right, I'm ready, I want to be able to drop the kids to preschool and I want to be able to pick them up. That means my practical working days are going to be four, five hours max, whatever days the kids are at preschool. Do you reckon anyone at Buildcorp needs a hand"?
Now let's think about this. Owning half the company, I reported to a business development manager right? As the owner of the business I could have sat back and said, I own the business. Here's what I need. I'd like to sit on high and be a leader and be a manager. But in real world, what am I actually bringing to this? Because I did want to have the holidays with the children.
So I said what I practically could do and deliver in a real way in the office where people needed me. So ensuring I was productive and genuinely honest and this has happened for us at Buildcorp too, that type of transparency when people come to us and say, these are my circumstances that have changed.
The last woman that did that to me and resigned and I'm having a baby and moving to the Central Coast, I said, well.. "You can't resign, it's not a good enough reason. You're too productive. I need you here. Go away, have your baby, come back and talk to me with the baby a bit later and let's figure out what we do". And she comes in and out and works part-time and she's pregnant with her third now so I might lose her for another three years I reckon.
If you're talent, we fight to keep talent. When you're honest and straight up and practical about, now I've got another child, or Oh mom my way, here's what I'm doing... These open, trusted relationships, they go both ways, end up in employers like us saying " We'll fight to keep you".
David Cummins: I think for those listening to this podcast, you've just done the best recruitment drive for Buildcorp I've ever heard for women, especially because not everyone has that mindset that you're a good worker and we'll do whatever we can to work with you in whatever capacity.
So, as you said, some kids have school or whatever it is, they might only have five hours a day, but you'll fight to keep good work.
And that's so refreshing.
Josephine Sukkar: Make no mistake, David, 33 years.. Of course, we haven't got everything right, but our lived experience as parents, ourselves. We know how to do this and we know what we need for our business, which isn't going to be right for everybody, but if anyone is looking to work in an organisation, jump on their website, have a look at their values, make sure then their stated values or their stated code of conduct that you can see evidence of them actually living that day-to-day in other things you might read on their social media feeds.
Josephine seems to, you know, bang on about doing a lot for women. Really? Does she just jump online and go, you know.. "Those men are terrible" and you know, "this woman is fabulous". Is there any evidence of Buildcorp actually living those values? And when we talk living values, we're saying living values all the time.
So you know, integrity, honesty. Most of the time honest, that's not going to cut it. You know, I don't care if you're honest 99% of the time, if you can't bring yourself, to be honest and straight up, we'll always stand alongside somebody who's honest and not necessarily 100% where they need to be technically.
Because we can train technical skills. This works both ways and we haven't always got it right but gosh we work hard to continually improve on our processes and what we do.
David Cummins: Yeah. It's very obvious that you are an exceptional leader, and full transparency, we have worked together on a project in Sydney a few years ago, and it was very, very obvious that people follow you and will listen to your understanding of empathy, your understanding of sympathy, your understanding of values, and a balanced mindset to get the job done.
I'm sure we can all push people as hard as we need to, but unless you have a good understanding of your team, your team generally will fall.
So how important is female leadership in the construction industry, which is predominantly a male industry?
Desperately working to build a pipeline of women in construction, we have in our business a 50/50 male-female intake of women and men into our undergraduate program.
The challenge is to try and retain them in a sector that's really difficult to. You know, With hours our sites open at seven in the morning, trying to find women who want to be in front facing roles, site supervision roles, for example, finding tradeswomen who we don't directly employ.
But you'd be looking at less than 1% of tradies as women, right? And then overlay that with we wanting to improve indigenous participation as a sector. Inclusion in its entirety, aged, you know disability, whatever it might be, we're quite challenged, but certainly we've got a pipeline issue of women into construction and we want more visibility of women builders to school age.
So just before we go. Obviously you've been in the industry for a long time. Where do you predict the next 30 plus years will be. What would you like to see with women in the construction industry?
Josephine Sukkar: I'd like to see women feel comfortable being able to step back for a period of time if they need to, or lighten up a period of time to genuinely enjoy some of the life decisions they might make.
Tony and I lost our dads through our period of Buildcorp, and there were a number of months there where we just said, I really need a hand, I want to spend these last few months with my dad.... or my new child, and not spent that whole time trying to think that my career will fall away if I take three years off, six years off for hard workers, driven workers, that will never happen, right?
That will never happen. And to come to the end of a life and go, I feel like I've had it all. That only happens when you feel like you are fully present as a parent, you are fully present as a partner, you're fully present as a worker. Wherever you are, be fully present, and you'll enjoy all of those moments.
David Cummins: Yeah,
It's been an absolute pleasure to talk to you, Josephine. It's been good to connect. I think people like you are absolutely paramount in the construction industry. You've been around for so many years, and your leadership and your understanding and your ability to communicate with your team, not only on a smaller scale, but at a much larger scale with all your charity work.
Josephine Sukkar: Thank you, David. A real pleasure.
David Cummins: Absolutely paramount.
I would like to personally thank you for all you've done to the construction industry and I've certainly seen a change in the industry over the last 15 years and I have no doubt that that's been because of you as well so thank you so much.
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