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Just right

Just right

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After decades of hard work and passion, Alison Just was elected HIA’s ACT/Southern NSW President in 1997. It was certainly a case of the right person at the right time.

Anne-Maree Brown

General Manager of Content

Australia in 1977 was a year of political and cultural change. With Don Chipp’s catch cry of ‘keep the bastards honest’, the Australian Democrats was born. The Uniting Church paved the way for the ordination of women and acceptance of homosexuality. To the sound of ‘C’mon Aussie, C’mon’, World Series cricket was launched with all of Kerry Packer’s grandeur. Meanwhile, as Elvis left the building forever, George Lucas gifted us with Star Wars from a galaxy far, far away.

That same year, perhaps inspired by the climate of opportunity and revolution, Alison Just and her husband Drewe decided to enter the building industry and launch a home insulation business.

Risk and revolution

The couple met while studying at university and moved to Canberra in 1973 to work for the Australian Bureau of Statistics. It took some time for them to acclimatise to the region, but that in itself was the cause of a bold idea.

‘We noticed that Canberra homes never felt temperature controlled and thought insulation had to be part of the solution,’ Alison recalls. ‘That year, when our first child was due, I knew I was going to be taking a short break so that was our time to investigate this conundrum.’ 

Alison says their families thought they were ‘mad’ to leave the safe and stable public service, ‘but we knew we had passion and a logical approach’. And with that, from their home in Evatt, Just-Rite Insulation and Home Improvements was born. 

Alison describes those first couple of years as a ‘transitional time’, running the business from home, borrowing money, negotiating finance, and selling from the street in front of their small warehouse when stocks arrived. ‘From 1977 to 1982, we bought one shop then merged with another local business,’ she says. ‘Looking back, we did make some big leaps – scary leaps. We were naive! But we also had the positivity that comes with youth.’

With technology imported from the UK, Drewe worked out a way to adapt the cavity wall insulation to suit Australian conditions. Back then, conversations around green building and energy efficiency were not at the front of homeowners’ minds, even if they were on Alison and Drewe’s. The pair knew that the global green conversations were gathering momentum, and while they had the right product at the right time, the easier sell was living a more comfortable life.

‘We made sure we had some technical information from the outset, such as facts and diagrams that were easy to understand,’ Alison explains. This was a win with consumers and trade customers alike. While consumers sought out their insulation solutions at the hottest and coldest times of the year, their newly acquired trade business became year-round, allowing them to support a substantial warehouse and showroom. Around that time, they joined HIA, attending trade nights and forums, and building new connections.

Support and strength

Alison’s initial thoughts on joining HIA were twofold: ‘On the one hand, as a small business owner, it allowed us to become aware of wider industry issues and to learn from others,’ she says. ‘It was also comforting to know that while we were busy running our business, there was someone out there looking into, and fighting for, the bigger picture concerns.’

From the outset, they both wanted to become actively involved, and joined HIA committees. Mind you, some were surprised to see Alison at these events.

‘At some events, there might have been a woman from the design side who would attend, but most committees were run by men for men,’ she says. Drewe was involved in the technical and installation side of Just-Rite, while Alison handled day-to-day business, supply and marketing priorities. She adds: ‘There were quite a few men wondering why I was there. I wasn’t always sure what sort of reception I would get.’

Undeterred, by the late 1980s, now with three children, Alison felt a real sense of purpose. ‘I fell in love with the building industry,’ she says. ‘We were providing great products and service, and the most rewarding part was hearing we had made a difference to people’s lives. They would call to pay their invoice and say, “our house is so much more comfortable, we are so happy.” It really meant the world to us and kept us going.’

Merge and mentor

A decade or so later, Alison was appointed president of HIA’s ACT/Southern NSW region – the first and only female to hold the position. It was a challenging time, with the imminent introduction of the GST and the ongoing struggle to encourage the ACT Government to release more land.

But there were many opportunities to ‘chew the fat’ and talk about the ‘thorny issues’. Her profile in the local building industry grew, with other women encouraged and inspired by her ability and confidence. 

For Alison, strengthening pathways into the industry became an interest of hers. This developed into new roles such as one with the ACT Building and Construction Industry Training Fund Authority. ‘I had found so much to love about the building industry, I felt we needed more ways to encourage young people to consider a career in the industry. It has so many opportunities.’

While she points out that a lot of today’s training and networking has gone online, the face-to-face need for connection and communication is just as important. ‘The biggest lesson I want to share is this industry is open to more people now, but we all have a role to play. We all need to continue to mentor, create welcoming pathways, networks and opportunities to learn for women, young people or anyone who feels they want to be part of our industry.’

Past presidents from the region came together at the HIA ACT/Southern NSW50th Anniversary Dinner in August 2022. (L-R) George Tanchevski, Alison Just,Glen Dowse, Andy Rosin, Rex Robinson, Gary Willemsen, John Ainscough, IanMcNamee, Darren Goodwin and Tony Marburg.

Along with other past ACT Presidents, Alison was recently acknowledged for her contributions to HIA and the broader housing industry at the Association’s 50th ACT/Southern NSW anniversary celebration in Canberra in August 2022.

Today, her passion for making impactful change looks a little different. After selling Just-Rite Insulation and Home Improvements some years back, she’s been supporting organisations in Africa, helping students who are orphaned or lacking educational opportunities due to poverty or disease. It’s the right fit for her: ‘I can’t think of anything more important than helping others, especially when someone is young, vulnerable or lacking opportunity. We all have a chance to make a difference, so why not do our best to try.’

First Published on 21 Feb 2023