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Steeling The Limelight – Maria Mavrikos

A career in the steel fabrication industry may not be every businesswoman’s ideal job, but Rebecca Spicer talks to an entrepreneur who met the challenge head-on, using gender to her advantage.

Maria Mavrikos didn’t name her business Structural Challenge by accident. Since the age of 18 she’s worked in the structural steel fabrication industry and, being one of the only females on the job 13 years ago, developing her career has certainly been a challenge.

Active ImageWhile studying for an Arts degree, Mavrikos took a part-time job at a small steel fabricator in an accounts role. Despite the “dirty, dusty, male environment” and lack of passion for steel, her interest in the business operations grew and after six months she started in an estimating and project management role. “I ended up studying full-time and working full-time, so for three years I didn’t have a life,” she says. But it set her on the right track to doing what she’d always thought she’d like to do, run her own business, though not before her parents convinced her to try a ‘real’ job. “I’m from a Greek background and when I finished my degree my dad was saying, ‘we didn’t send you to uni to end up in a factory’. I got a job in HR managing a marketing division but I absolutely hated it. It lasted about three months and I convinced my parents that if I got a job back in the industry, I’d end up working at BHP,” she laughs.

While not quite BHP, Mavrikos started work as an estimator in the fabrication division of one of Australia’s largest structural steel resellers. After 18 months she was managing the fabrication division, and in four and half years she’d doubled its turnover, implemented a number of new policies and was making her mark on an industry that wasn’t always very encouraging. “When I started out there were no females in steel fabrication so the guys never took me seriously. I’d get all the pick-up lines, the chauvinistic comments and sexual references, but even worse than that was when I was managing a project they wouldn’t take what I was saying as gospel. They’d want confirmation from my boss because how would I know, I was just a girl.

“It was tough, I’d get asked out on dates but I always kept my distance so they knew where they stood as well. At the time I just laughed a lot of it off because I knew I couldn’t make them accept me for being different. I had to become a little bit like them, so unfortunately I swear a lot!

“Over time I built up relationships and proved that yeah, I’m female, and not only can I do the job, I can actually do it a little better than most.”

Structural Challenge

Active ImageBy 2000, Mavrikos had become well known and respected in the industry, and while she’d made a success of her working role, opportunities were limited working for someone else. “I knew the philosophies I held in terms of how I would run a business, and so I decided it was time to move on and do my own thing.”

She started Structural Challenge, subcontracting out fabrication work from her home, with just three tradesmen on the books. In its first eight months the business turned over $1 million and, Mavrikos boasts, that’s before things really started to kick off!

Opportunity knocked when she was approached by a rigging company she’d used as a subcontractor in her previous job. They were building a factory as an investment and asked Mavrikos if she’d like to run Structural Challenge out of the factory so she could actually control the fabrication. A partnership was formed.

Now five years into the game, Mavrikos has around 40 people either working in or exclusively subcontracting for the business. Structural Challenge now turns over close to $8.5 million and has some high profile jobs to add to its portfolio, including work on the Commonwealth Games Village.

So what’s her secret? “We tend to get the jobs that are little bit more complex than most,” Mavrikos says. “The ones that are architecturally challenging and ones that have a lot of admin involved. In the last three years we’ve had absolutely no downtime and everyone’s working overtime and we knock back more jobs than we do, which is a bit disappointing because I’d like to do more but I’ve tried to control my growth.”

Quality in her work is more important than quantity and she agrees with suggestions that this might be a woman’s touch. “I also employ predominately female office staff and that’s a huge thing. Most of our clients, being male obviously, always mention that they know with us things will get done and it’s because we’re females.”

Mavrikos is now using her experience to encourage other women to join the construction industry. She was recently awarded top honours at the National Association for Women in Construction (NAWIC) 2005 Crystal Vision Awards for Excellence for her success in identifying, encouraging, and mentoring other talented women in construction. “I extend that message to the wider world at every available opportunity, including public speaking engagements, my work with students, and my involvement with industry associations.”

Although this 31-year-old has such a busy working life, she has managed to fit marriage and a healthy social life into the mix to maintain a balance. “Especially now the business is established I do a lot outside of work and I think you need that, it’s what keeps you motivated. My husband actually works with me now and has been here for two years which is good because he understands and is a part of what I’m trying to achieve.”
While Mavrikos hopes to grow Structural Challenge a little more, she’s happy with what’s been achieved so far, and plans to focus the future on developing two other businesses started with her husband: an importing business and a construction management company. There’s no doubting this girl loves a challenge.

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