“What can I do to help you?” It was with these words that London-based PR executive Leanne Tritton first approached me. She had discovered this multimedia project through a social networking site and decided she wanted to help me. Her goal: to put me in touch with inspiring women she knew, so that I could interview them on this site.
Sara Fox was the first name that came up. As Leanne described Sara to me, during a phone conversation, I could not help but think that Sara would indeed be the ideal subject for a profile. Make that “Ideal” with a capital “I.” Because Sara is a woman working in the most male-dominated profession I could think of: construction. One of Sara’s numerous career highlights is the job of project director responsible for the construction of London’s (now iconic) Swiss Re tower.
I have actually had the privilege of meeting Sara on various occasions, since first making her acquaintance via email. If one was to describe her, using a few adjectives, the first that would come to mind would be warm, incredibly generous, and surprising. Sara’s life is truly remarkable: I feel that she has had more than nine lives so far. Her tales of life as an expatriate (since virtually the time she was born), living in many foreign lands, and of her rise through the professional ranks are so gripping, they could be turned into a novel. Furthermore, Sara’s interests and areas of expertise are manifold and go far beyond the field of construction and consulting. Unfortunately not everything could be covered in this interview – like, for instance, the fact that Sara is a true gourmet, a great connoisseur of fine food and wine.
For all these reasons, the interview below does not do justice to the extraordinary nature of Sara’s life and career so far. But I am at least happy at the idea of sharing part of her story with you, so that you too will have the privilege of getting to know her.
What is your name, age, and location?
Sara Fox, age 57, American living in London.
What is your profession?
I work as an independent consultant advising on a whole variety of issues relating to commercial real estate and construction project management. I have worked in this sector since the late 80s, and have been involved in some fairly large projects as an employee of large corporations, including a ten year stint with Swiss Re, the global reinsurer. For the last five years, I have worked for myself. I thought it would be a big shock after so many years of working for big companies, but with the exception of IT support, which I really miss, I have enjoyed working on my own.
What did you study in school and what degrees do you have?
What was your first job?
Team secretary to the Marketing Department of Reed Ltd. In Toronto, Ontario. I soon realised that this was not a long-term career option for me.
Who or what inspired you to break into your current line of work?
Back in the late 80s, my friend, Carla Picardi, was working for Olympia & York Canary Wharf and asked me to send her my CV so she could forward it to the Chief Executive. I didn’t think I had any skills that were relevant to a huge commercial property development, so was stunned to find myself offered a job in the Construction Division. If it hadn’t been for Carla, I never would have imagined my project management skills were transferable into the property sector.
Name/describe what has been your most rewarding project so far?
Project director responsible for building the Foster-designed Swiss Re tower (also known as the Gherkin) in the City of London. I was employed by Swiss Re to build and deliver their iconic 40-storey building, half of which Swiss Re was to occupy, and the remainder to be leased. It was very challenging on many fronts, and for some time was also highly controversial, not least because it had a major impact on London’s skyline. As a result there was huge media and public interest throughout construction. Completing the project on time (2004) and within budget was incredibly satisfying, and the fact that the building subsequently won so many awards, including the Stirling Prize, was icing on the cake.
Name/describe one incident when being a woman has helped your career?
Because there are so few women in the construction industry, the big advantage is that whenever people meet you, whether in an interview, as a public speaker, at an industry event, or even in a business meeting, there is an extremely good chance that they will remember you. You can’t help but stand out in the crowd, which is (mostly) a good thing.
Name/describe one incident when being a woman has hindered your career?
Well, really for the same reason as above! Because construction is still, really and truly a male-dominated industry, the initial reaction is that as a woman I can’t possibly have any credibility. I can’t tell you the number of meetings I’ve attended where even though I was the most senior person present, because I was the only woman in the room, I was expected to serve coffee and tea. I have often found it’s just easier to offer, to save embarrassment (and a long wait). I can also remember attending numerous meetings with my almost all male project team, when firms who were tendering for work directed their presentation to one of the men. Those who arrived thinking I was just there to take notes of the proceedings were pretty soon disabused of that notion!
Who is your role model or mentor (alive or dead)?
I have been lucky enough to have several mentors over the years, but by far the most influential is Richard Griffiths, who is very much still alive. When I started working for him in the late 80s, he was the person with overall responsibility for construction of Canary Wharf. When I joined Olympia & York I knew nothing about construction project management. Richard was not only brilliant at his own job, but he was also incredibly generous with his time, patient with my near total ignorance and an amazing teacher. Since then, we have worked on two other large projects together, and I consider him a friend as well as a colleague.
If you could give one piece of advice to a woman starting out in your field, what would it be?
Always wear trousers. You just never know when you’re going to be on a construction site and the only way to get from A to B is up a ladder.
“Building the Gherkin” – a documentary by Mirjam von Arx that chronicled the construction of the Swiss Re building
Foster & Partners – a closer look at the Swiss Re building by the architecture firm Foster & Partners
– Interview by Elena Rossini