Belfast Telegraph

'We need more women to take on leadership roles'

Orla Corr, who has been instrumental in the growth and success of her family business, believes now is the time for female entrepreneurs to step forward. Clare Weir reports

A hardworking mother-of-four at the helm of one of Northern Ireland's most successful construction firms has said the full potential of women in business here has yet to be tapped.

Orla Corr, OBE, has overcome personal tragedy and stereotyping to build a family business which is still winning major contracts in Britain despite the recession.

She recently addressed the annual Women in Business Northern Ireland conference and told an audience of female entrepreneurs her story and how they too can break through the glass ceiling.

The theme of this year's event was 'Inspiring Business Growth' and also featured speeches from Nicola Byrne, chief executive and founder of Irish telephone directory firm 11890 and Jo Haigh, a partner at FDS Corporate Finance Services, who has bought and sold over 300 companies in the last 20 years, specialising in owner managed companies.

There was also a series of seminars including 'Seeing is Believing' with Charles Fulton, managing partner at Fulton Advertising and Marketing Communications, and 'Perceptions, Impressions and Making Connections' with Claire Bain, managing director at Next Steps Consulting.

The McAvoy Group works mainly in the education, health and sports sectors, constructing 'modular' and portable buildings and 'pods' which are environmentally friendly and quick to build, with concept to delivery time taking just weeks in some cases.

As well as her role in the firm, Ms Corr is also a director at the Odyssey Trust and sits on the board of the Londonderry 2013 City of Culture team.

McAvoy will celebrate its 40th anniversary next month and Ms Corr said that the going has not been easy in the last few years both as the result of the recession and overcoming stereotypes as a woman in a predominantly male business world. "The company was founded by my father 40 years ago on June 12," she said.

"Sadly when I was 18 he was killed as a result of the Troubles. I went to Queen's to study accountancy and worked at KPMG in Belfast before moving to Dublin.

"A few years ago I returned home and it was my job to drive change, and I am still driving change in a business, like many, facing the challenge of being in the middle of the worst recession we have seen since the 1930s, and now facing a double-dip recession.

"The construction industry has probably suffered worse than any other sector in Northern Ireland, and many associated businesses in the supply chain have also suffered".

She explained: "Around 30,000 jobs have been lost in a three-year period and those businesses which have survived are operating well below capacity - but I have found that adversity is a great motivator.

"We were severely affected by the drop-off in business in public sector contracts in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland - those markets made up about 70% of our business.

"The majority of our work would be in schools, hospitals and prisons and it was important for us to develop a strategy to cope with the lean times, we had to review our product portfolio and develop new products.

"We had to be aggressive and we had to be innovative.

"Sadly job losses were inevitable and we had to reduce the workforce by around 40%. Alongside that we had to capitalise on opportunities presented to us and in 2009 and 2010 we acquired some businesses in Dublin and Cork.

"Innovation was key to survival and growth and has helped us achieve growth in go-slow markets in Great Britain and the Republic, especially in area such as developing products which are environmentally friendly and energy efficient as that is where clients are spending their money.

"We also had to get a tighter grip of our costs. Simply battening down the hatches did not make sense, we had to move and we had to be proactive, we developed a new brand identity and we sold very hard. As a result of all this we have enjoyed many recent successes, including winning contracts with Suffolk, Surrey and Hampshire councils, constructing buildings for Sports England and being selected to provide event buildings for the basketball tournament as part of the London 2012 Olympic Games."

Ms Corr said that she had a number of business mantras which have helped her over the years.

"I have a number of fundamental approaches and ground rules to guide me through the tough times," she said.

"One of these is sell, sell and sell some more. Persistence pays and if you exude energy, you can open doors and break through barriers. I also say cut once and cut deep. We have to realise that change is normal and we have to embrace change in the business environment to maximise potential.

"No one likes to have to make the tough decisions where employees are concerned but it is better to cut once and cut deep than to die slowly through lots of small cuts.

"When times are bad, people who have been treated with respect will be the strongest asset. I also like to prepare for growth - you should never stop learning new skills. There is no time for complacency and especially in times like this when we have to work harder than we have ever worked before.

"The person who acts quickest is the person who will get there first.

"Having said all that, it is also important to cut yourself some slack, to take holidays, to treat yourself."

The businesswoman added that the time has never been better for women to go out on their own and blaze a trail, particularly in traditionally male-dominated industries.

"We need more women to take leadership roles, Northern Ireland is seeing an ever-increasing number of talented female leaders in export-focussed businesses and the type of firms who will drive the recovery through private sector growth," she said.

"It is often said that our people in Northern Ireland are our greatest asset and we cannot afford to lose them through unemployment or emigration.

"Research has shown that companies helmed by women outperform those which are not. Womens' gains in education continue to eclipse those of men. In the USA, women now outnumber men in the workforce.

"Globally, more men are being laid off than women.

"Indeed there is also evidence to suggest that it was testosterone-driven risk taking that help lead to the financial meltdown of 2008.

"There are increasing levels of women in middle management and they need support and encouragement to break through into the top levels.

"The full potential of women in the workforce has yet to be tapped, in my opinion."

Roseann Kelly , the chief executive of Women in Business NI, said that the last four years of the conference had been so successful, the event will move from its home at Stranmillis College next year and there are bigger and better plans in the pipeline.

"Our first conference was in 2009 and it has just grown and grown," she said.

"We have featured speakers like Grainne Kelly from BubbleBum and Alison Hogg from Vita Liberata and the events are becoming so popular that we have sadly outgrown Stranmillis and are looking at a new venue for 2013.

"For 2014, we are thinking really big and are looking at an international event with the likes of Hillary Clinton and Christine Lagarde being pencilled in on the invite list.

"We held our inaugural awards ceremony last year and have just announced details of the 2012 event, which will be held in November at the Ramada Plaza hotel.

"Business challenges are the same for everyone no matter what their gender but we want to be the most effective business network that we can be, for women in Northern Ireland, whether they be top level, middle management, entrepreneurs or self-employed sole traders.

"We are self-supporting and the increase in interest and footfall at our events in just a relatively short space of time is encouraging indeed for women in business and for the Northern Ireland economy as a whole."

Network helps female entrepreneurs thrive in the local and global economy

Women In Business aims to increase the number of business women in Northern Ireland who contribute positively to the economy and society and to be the most innovative and effective regional business network with global connections.

The network has a membership of over 650 business women throughout Northern Ireland and provides members with business networking events featuring inspirational speakers, business lunches and masterclasses.

The organisation is the largest and fastest-growing business network for female entrepreneurs and senior women in management in Northern Ireland, run by a voluntary board of directors established in 2002.

Chief executive Roseann Kelly has been on the board since March 2003.

Roseann is managing director of her own company, Common Sense Marketing.

An exceptional businesswoman who has reached top of her profession

Orla Corr is business development director at the McAvoy Group.

In 2011 she won two business awards at the inaugural Women in Business NI Awards - one for entrepreneurship and innovation and the accolade of WIBNI Outstanding Business Woman of the Year.

She was also named the the first Entrepreneur in Residence at the new Leadership Institute at QUB's Management School in south Belfast. Last year she was also awarded an OBE for services to business.

Ms Corr has been credited with turning the family-run business, formed in 1973, into an international company with an annual turnover in excess of £40m in just 10 years.

The firm, which is based in Moy, has secured major contracts at hospitals, schools, government buildings, offices, airports and harbours across the UK and Ireland.

The McAvoy Group which is located in Dungannon, Lisburn, Dublin and London, employs 150 staff and has a turnover of £24m.