Interview with our pioneering Founder

Many people are surprised to hear that Jackson Coles was founded by an incredible woman, Maggie Coles, who overcame numerous obstacles to become a trailblazing chartered quantity surveyor and female business owner, in a time when both were very rare.

Hearing her story, and some of the blatant sexism she encountered, makes us even more proud of the great legacy Maggie created.

Could you tell me a bit about your background and what led you into the construction industry?

In those days it was assumed you would become either a secretary or a teacher, both of which I would’ve hated. My school held a careers fair and I got talking to a representative from George Wimpey. I told him that maths was my best subject and he asked me what I knew about building sites, which I’d always been interested in and was happy to talk about.

He then asked me if I knew what a manhole was! When I explained that I did – because I always helped my father with practical work at home – he was surprised and wanted to know why it was me and not my brother lending a hand. I told him my brother couldn’t stand things like that whereas I really enjoyed them. He asked me a few more questions and then proclaimed that he knew what I should do with the rest of my life – I should become a quantity surveyor.

After talking to me about the role and what it entailed he suggested I discuss it with my parents, who were very supportive. We agreed that if I still felt the same way after 4 weeks I would withdraw my university application and instead take up the opportunity with George Wimpey, which is what I did.

How had your career progressed before you set up Jackson Coles?

I started working for George Wimpey in 1967 on a 4 year sandwich course, which included 6 months’ based at a college of technology and various placements, both office and site based. This was a fantastic way to learn the profession and about halfway through I decided to move into private consultancy. At the time I completed my training I believe there were only a handful of female chartered quantity surveyors working in the world.

What was the motivation to set up Jackson Coles? What were you trying to achieve?

I progressed my career through several different Practices and was working for a well-known firm running their thriving office in Milton Keynes. There was a conversation about making me a Partner but then it all went mysteriously quiet.

When I asked what was happening I was told that joining the Partnership had been blocked, for reasons that had nothing to do with my talent or capability. The explanation given was that, as my husband also had his own successful business and we therefore had two incomes, I would still be able to go on holiday if there was a downturn in business whereas the other Partners – whose wives didn’t work – would not.

I decided there and then that I would leave, but I had a client who specifically asked me to stay for a year to help him complete a project. During this period I began talking to a former colleague, Mike Jackson, about setting up on our own and after a year had passed that’s what we did.

The Partners at my existing business were very shocked that I was leaving; they had just expected me to accept that I could never join them at the table.

You set up Jackson Coles in 1981, when only around 1% of chartered quantity surveyors were women. What was the landscape like at that time? Tell us about the early years.

Starting up any business is challenging in terms of the responsibility to effectively walk the streets to find and bring in work, and a few people did resent having a woman in charge. But it was also exciting to make your own luck.

A lot of our early work was for McDonald’s and as they spread across the UK we helped them with their new restaurants. We had steady growth, were working with some great clients, and by the end of the 1980s Jackson Coles was doing very well. The impact of the sharp recession at the end of that decade then hit us very hard, and it was a really worrying time for anyone running a business.

After founding Jackson Coles you also set up a business in Poland, Euromost*. Tell us about that.

It was the height of the recession and things were tough. On 30 April 1990 projects with one of our biggest clients came to a halt. Just a few days later I got a phone call from a Polish-British architect, who I assumed was ringing to ask me for work. Instead he told me about some of the opportunities that were opening up in Poland, and suggested I go out there to see for myself. I travelled to Poland and soon after Euromost was born.

At that time the communist era had only recently ended, and the environment and laws were very different to what we were used to in the UK. We managed to recruit a brilliant team in Warsaw, many of whom then studied in their second language to become MRICS within just a few years, which impressed me greatly. The business in Poland allowed opportunities for people in the UK to experience working there, Alan Tovey being one of them, and vice versa. The projects were also very different in terms of sector and complexity; we delivered some very large flagship schemes in Poland and learnt a great deal along the way.

What is your proudest achievement and why?

I’m proud to have worked with some really excellent people, both in the UK and in Poland. We delivered some fantastic projects, but it’s the loyalty and skill of the people I’ve worked with that I remember most fondly. The fact that so many members of the current Jackson Coles team have stayed and been happy working here for so long is a real testament to the business.

What advice would you give to those starting out in the profession?

Work hard! It can be tough at times but this is a very rewarding industry full of opportunities.

*Euromost was sold to Hill International in 2008 and continues to be successful to this day.

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