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Steady at the helm

Steady at the helm

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Debbie Johnson is a designer, planner, registered builder and the lover of all things residential building. Housing chats to HIA’s new National President about her career and focus for the future.

Anne-Maree Brown

General Manager of Content

As the oldest of four growing up in Queensland, young Debbie Johnson would tag along with her banker father as he checked out homes under construction. His passion for the form and function of buildings soon passed onto his daughter. From the orientation of the fibres and the varied tactility of materials to the velvety scent of timber, her affinity for home building was born. ‘I loved those visits to site, the feel and smell of wood, and crawling over the frames,’ Debbie says. 'I loved the way art and math combined. It was inspirational.'

When choosing a career between architecture or social work, it was her love of the iconic detached single-storey Queenslander that prompted her towards design. 'I used to sketch the houses around where I grew up,’ she reveals. ‘I loved their simple, uncomplicated shapes, but also the beautiful little details.'

Video made the design star

Her passion solidified through study and in the early 1980s, young mum Debbie started working with a local builder. By default, she concentrated mostly on renovation and addition projects, which ended up being the perfect learning opportunity. 'Working on extensions taught me so much,' she explains. 'You get to fully appreciate the structure you're modifying, while working on solving new concerns for the client.'

As was the way of the time, the emerging popularity of video stores soon drew her employer into commercial retail construction. And with it came Debbie’s chance to extend her knowledge. 'We worked around Australia, building new stores in small shopping centres and renovating existing sites. I ended up coordinating that whole growth project for him for about seven years.'

HIA’s new National President, Debbie Johnson.
Debbie with husband Phil at the HIA 2019 National Conference in Perth.

Sunshine shift

With the passing of time, Queensland's Sunshine Coast came calling, and the newly single Debbie, with two children in tow, had to hit the pavement to look for new opportunities. When it came to networking, times were different then, so with no more than a business card and a positive outlook, Debbie went searching for local leads.

'I did get work from builders, but more so from real estate agents,' she says. 'They wanted to sell the land or sell the home and a solution was to partially renovate to move the sale along. I think some locals appreciated that I was a young person, on my own, giving it a go.' 

Debbie also found that her natural understanding and empathy helped her connect with her clients. 'When you are at the stage of building the bones of a design, a homeowner is already visualising the end game. It’s such an emotional investment.'

Personally, bricks and mortar were her present and her future. A woman, a business owner and a single mother was not a banking institution’s favourite client at the time. Questions such as: ‘Can you get your husband to come and sign with us?' was part of their vernacular. Her reaction? Live lean and save to invest in bricks. It was a case of emotional and financial stability that ultimately paid dividends. 

With her varied experiences in hand, Debbie founded Building Suncoast Green off the back of her repeat building contacts and ability to engage new relationships. In its formative years, she worked in commercial, retail and residential building, growing a business reputation for honesty, thoughtful design and a commitment to sustainable, future-driven ethics.

Debbie comments that she didn't have any specific role models in her personal and business life. It was more an amalgam of characteristics in others that she admired and tried to emulate, such as humility, confidence, generosity and open-minded curiosity.

'I've always run a small business and perhaps that's what's driven my thirst for knowledge,' she says. 'I enjoy being able to find information that I can learn from and share.'

‘I’ve always run a small business and perhaps that’s what’s driven my thirst for knowledge,’ says Debbie Johnson

Connecting with HIA

In the early years of Building Suncoast Green, Debbie wanted to be part of every aspect of the business, which meant keeping abreast of industry changes. She says HIA was on her radar long before she signed up as a member. 'I was under the misconception I had to be a builder to join. So, in the early 1990s, as soon as I got my builder's licence, joining HIA was high on my agenda.'

It turned out that the personal connections, the referrals and being part of a 'combining of minds' was her real touch point. 'Maybe the fact I kept showing up meant that I kept getting suggested for committees and groups!' she says, laughing. 'But being a part of a warm, inclusive, regional community with HIA made such an impact. When I was asked to be part of committees and in discussions about the needs of small businesses, I felt I had to say yes.'

Over time, sub-branch group engagement grew into state-wide, then national opportunities. Debbie has remained active with HIA, lending her time and expertise to judging housing awards, leadership groups and the National Board.

Debbie Johnson, whose been actively involved with HIA since joining in the early 1990s, says her presidency is about keeping everyone focused on outcomes.
L–R: Fiona Nield, HIA Chief Executive Business Services, Pino Monaco, HIA past National President, Debbie Johnson and Lisa Burnell, Ronald Young & Co Builders.

Steady as she goes

As HIA's new National President, Debbie says her presidency is about keeping everyone focused on outcomes. ‘We have thousands of members and touchpoints throughout Australia, and hundreds of committed staff. I'm not one for pet projects. My objectives are more about being a guide to our business and our Board.'

Debbie says she is optimistic for the future. 'We have a creative and diverse industry and so many people with incredible strengths. While I'm sure there will be a need to navigate challenges, we have much knowledge and wisdom. I'm dedicated to making sure that our industry does not just survive but thrive.'

First Published on 22 May 2023.

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