Woman of steel in ‘blokey, male-dominated world’
KATHY Bartley is the woman of steel.
And her superpower is transforming the Gold Coast from a tourism-reliant town to a city that's putting manufacturing on the map.
Even better, she's helping change the industry itself into a more female-friendly workplace … a process that surely should now be dubbed wo-manufacturing.
But as the general manager of Neumann Steel, the oldest family-run reinforcing steel business in the country and based in Currumbin, Kathy is engaged in some serious business. And never more so than in that historic year of 2020.
As exports from China ground to a halt at the height of the pandemic, Neumann Steel stepped in to provide a locally based solution for other Australian companies struggling to source manufacturing parts.
Kathy says recent collaboration with other local businesses through Federal Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews, the member for McPherson, has shone a light on how local partnerships and a greater awareness of industry partners may solve the issues for trade wrought by COVID-19.
And the Gold Coast is perfectly positioned for this new age.
"If COVID has taught us anything it is that diversity is key. The Gold Coast and wider Queensland is heavily reliant on tourism trade but what we have noticed is that in this vacuum created by travel and distancing restrictions in 2020, there is still a strong culture of business and a high level of commercial operation happening in our own backyard," she says.
"Neumann Steel is already assisting a company in manufacturing parts normally procured from China, while our sister company, Neumann Contractors, is also collaborating with companies on special welding projects.
"The world being what it is, creating local industrial and manufacturing pathways is all in our common interests and the by-product is an elevation of our region as an innovator or supply chain solution provider into the future.
"The economic benefits are untold and the potential to create jobs, to retain business locally, is something we should be actively pursuing through greater collaboration."
Kathy says while 2020 had its challenges, working within the tumultuous "boom and bust" of the building industry has long established Neumann Steel and the wider Neumann Group as stayers in a volatile sector, with their projects including the Q1 tower, Jewel Resort, the Gold Coast Light Rail and the Toowoomba Range Crossing.
But growth is always on her mind, especially when it comes to diversity within the workforce.
While Neumann Steel has not quite adopted the policy of Clovendoe Distillery Co, whose owner, Catie Fry, has vowed to employ only women, there is no denying that manufacturing, and especially steelworks, is traditionally male-dominated.
But the times are certainly changing, starting with Kathy's own appointment.
After joining Neumann Steel as an accountant, she progressed through the ranks by challenging both herself and industry norms.
"When I first came to Australia from South Africa in 2005, I noticed it was a very male-dominated business world in general. I had previously worked for a female CFO and I was, at the time, surprised that Australia was not further along in the gender divide," she says.
"I progressed to a point that I knew I wanted to be a general manager but never envisioned myself as the GM of Neumann Steel. I applied for the role simply to show the company directors what I could do and that I was interested in advancement, expecting feedback on what I might need to do to improve my skillset to take on a role like this one in a few more years."
This took a turn for Kathy when the recruiter saw her financial background and lack of specific engineering qualifications as an asset … and the Neumann family did too.
"I knew from day one what I was walking in to - a very blokey, male-dominated world, and I understood the constraints. My challenge was to apply my brand of management to an established industry, where 'bigger was better' and bravado was rewarded. I saw opportunity and growth through change and restructure; to 'grow the tree' long-term, and it was a massive shift," she says.
"One of the hardest but most necessary parts of the role was the immediate implementation of workforce cuts. Never an easy thing to do but ultimately a must-do to ensure the health of the business. Something that if it hadn't been undertaken at the time could have threatened the healthy state the business enjoys today.
"Through all of this I have steadfastly stuck to the mantra that 'I'm not scared to do the right thing' and, while redundancies and cuts are both hard and heartbreaking decisions to make, it was all about the survival of the business and that was what I was appointed to ensure."
Kathy says she has never had an issue dealing with anyone on the basis of gender, but says her approach to management certainly differs from her male colleagues.
She says she is a big believer in balance, that men and women create a good mix of temperament, workstyle, ideas and drive.
"I have had my fair share of double takes when sitting down at the boardroom table, that's for sure. But ultimately in this industry, a deal is a deal, money talks and Neumann Steel has a 50-year reputation in the marketplace," she says.
"Increasingly, I found through attending industry events that my lack of ego combined with an interest in listening allowed for easier interactions; ultimately cutting through the 'noise' to increase my ability to learn and make connections.
"I prefer to interact with my team and lean on their expertise, to listen and watch and learn, then make a decision as to the way forward. I also don't talk a great deal, and this can differ greatly from the gung-ho style of leadership around. But it has served me as I went about the business of building up the company from when I was appointed to now.
"Reinforcing steel is a tough industry. The Queensland market is particularly tough, riding the construction and building cycles of bust and boom. We lost our way with innovation for a while and it became something I championed, though my financial background always prompted some interesting reactions from those who thought my expertise lay more in the financial side of the business. But this was part of my underlying drive to position the company as a market leader. I was once given the advice 'if you don't have any cracks, you won't be able to let the light in', and I've always taken this to mean you need to foster the ability to let opportunities in."
And for Kathy, she wants to ensure her legacy is extending those opportunities to as many women as she can.
"Women in the workforce need to let in as many opportunities as possible and I have made it a priority to ensure that all roles are made available to the most qualified candidate. But we also go that bit further, making it clear in our job ads that 'women are welcome to apply' to ensure they know they will be considered and are, in fact, welcome," she says.
"We're about to employ a female diesel apprentice mechanic and (are) actively seeking an apprentice in our engineering department, and they will work in a team of predominantly men. It is about picking the right people, not because of any quota or entitlement but importantly because of their passion for the job and interest in being part of the team.
"Do we hold the door open wide for female recruits? Yes. But this is about showing them they are wanted as candidates for roles, in bolstering self-belief.
"I know first-hand that it can take one person to see something in you but that you also need to be in a position to promote yourself, have the confidence to take the chance and ultimately be best person for the job, it's really that simple."
And when it comes to being the best candidate for the job, that description applies to the Gold Coast as well, especially as it seeks to diversify the definition of its industries.
Tradition may dictate that our city and country outsource manufacturing, but the pandemic has shown that our DIY spirit is strong.
Perhaps the time has come to build our own reputation as a superhero of manufacturing … and, of course, wo-manufacturing.
Originally published as Woman of steel in 'blokey, male-dominated world'