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If you want to influence change, you have to be that change and not wait for someone else to do it for you,’ says Colleen May, General Manager of May Constructions. It’s a philosophy that has informed every move of her 20-year career in the housing industry. Equally comfortable working onsite in a hard hat, in the office or in the boardroom, Colleen has led improvement and transformation within her own business, across the industry and in the wider community.
Colleen commenced at May Constructions in the early 2000s, armed with a Bachelor of Arts and wide-ranging professional experience, but knowing ‘very little about the “nuts and bolts” of building’. In the early days, as she nurtured the new business alongside husband Peter, she was constantly learning and making incremental changes.
‘You have to start and do everything to build a company and explore opportunities. I helped to create the baseline upon which we’ve managed to build on over the years,’ she says.
As her practical knowledge grew, Colleen became more involved in setting direction, refining processes and driving the performance of the business. Under her capable direction, it flourished – diversifying from high-end residential into commercial projects such as schools, community facilities and multi-use developments. Today, with 40 employees, May Constructions is one of Melbourne’s leading commercial contracting and development groups.
For Colleen, however, building is as much about people as it is about bricks and mortar. ‘The buildings are an enduring legacy to our work, however, it’s the people who work on them who are important,’ she says. ‘I want to ensure that everyone working with me is skilled, empowered and passionate about what we build, that our colleagues and collaborators in the building process enjoy a positive and professional experience, and that ultimately the client and end-user is delighted with the result.’
It’s this people-first approach that motivated Colleen to extend her involvement with HIA, which she views as a powerful platform for advocacy, joining the Membership Committee in 2003. ‘HIA committees are an important conduit between members working in the industry, and those who administer and regulate it,’ she says. ‘HIA plays a significant role in lobbying government on our behalf and in informing and educating members.’
Contributor to Housing
In subsequent positions on the Victorian and National Training Committees, Colleen worked tirelessly to drive improvements to building-related courses and qualifications, better outcomes for occupational health and safety, and a reduction in red tape.
She was elected President of HIA Victoria in 2008 – making history as the first (and only) woman to hold this position in the region’s history. ‘I was acutely conscious of my responsibility to members and of the legacy of service entrusted to me by those who had gone before,’ she says. Being the first female to step into this role ‘raised a few eyebrows at the time…but the overwhelming majority of people were extremely supportive’.
During her three-year presidency (and beyond), Colleen endeavoured to dispel the perception of construction as a male-dominated industry, and encouraged women to actively participate in setting the direction of HIA and the wider industry.
‘There are many successful women making significant contributions in all areas of the industry,’ she says. ‘Unfortunately, they are largely invisible. It’s important for female role models to put themselves forward and encourage younger women to see that a career in construction is attainable.’
Last year Colleen helped launch the HIA Building Women initiative. ‘We are working to increase the visibility of women in our industry, provide education and training, offer networking opportunities to combat the isolation women often encounter, and to mentor and facilitate career pathways for women in our industry,’ she says.
As an active member of HIA Victoria’s Regional Executive Committee (REC), Colleen remains focused on fostering positive working relationships with government, other associations and regulatory bodies. She’s also a passionate champion of industry training as a mechanism for strengthening career pathways for men and women. ‘It’s important that people have the skills they need and that the education and training provided is appropriate. Many of the pathways existing today are historical and need to be adapted to achieve twenty-first century outcomes.’
However, the cause closest to Colleen’s heart is the Victorian Homeless Fund (VHF), which assists the homeless by building and renovating houses, and which she has chaired since 2013. ‘I’m most proud of my contribution to providing houses for homeless families, particularly women and children victims of domestic violence. I’m proud of all the HIA members, builders, contractors, suppliers and trades who have given so generously over the years and who continue to give even in these dire times, to help those in desperate need.’
With her unstoppable energy and drive, Colleen has built a lasting legacy in strengthening the industry she loves. It’s been a rewarding career, and she believes she’s got as much out of it as she has put in. ‘It’s a dynamic industry full of opportunity, diversity and challenges,’ Colleen says. ‘I’ve met amazing people and achieved far more than I ever imagined.’
She was ‘honoured and thrilled’ to be awarded HIA Life Membership in August. ‘I was humbled and completely overwhelmed to think that my colleagues…would actively create an opportunity to shine a light on me and recognise my contribution to our industry,’ she says. ‘I’m very grateful to the Victorian REC members for nominating me and to the National Board for awarding me this amazing honour.’
In terms of the future, Colleen’s first priority is to ‘chart a path through this period of COVID chaos’ and is hopeful of being able to ‘go outside without a face mask’ sometime soon. Looking further ahead, she’s ready to support and mentor industry newcomers as May Constructions enters its next phase of growth. ‘I have many decades of experience and knowledge to share but it needs to be viewed through the lens of a new generation with their own ideas, goals and challenges.’