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Construction should be wary of slipping into a ‘default future’: Ramsden

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by Lindsey Cole

Every business has a default future — what will happen if nothing happens.
Canadian entrepreneur Kelsey Ramsden recently spoke at the Canadian Construction Association’s 99th annual conference in Mexico as the opening keynote address. She encouraged business leaders in the audience to embrace change in the industry.
Canadian entrepreneur Kelsey Ramsden recently spoke at the Canadian Construction Association’s 99th annual conference in Mexico as the opening keynote address. She encouraged business leaders in the audience to embrace change in the industry. - Photo: Warren Frey

The Canadian construction industry is no different and employers need to be ready to evolve, be it embracing new technologies and practices or hiring more women, said entrepreneur Kelsey Ramsden during her opening keynote address at the Canadian Construction Association's 99th annual conference in Mexico.

"What's happening in our industry is going to keep happening and it's going to happen faster," she said of the changing tide as new generations and new technologies continue to emerge.

"It will change despite us. I ask you to consider what the default future of your business is. There is a default future for all of our businesses if nothing changes. Make a choice while you have a chance."
Ramsden, who is currently Canada's Top Female Entrepreneur as ranked by Profit magazine, founded Belvedere Place Development, a construction firm that builds roads and other infrastructure in B.C. and the Caribbean as well as Tallus Ridge Development and SparkPlay, a monthly adventure pack sent to families to encourage creative learning for children.

Ramsden said she was introduced to construction at a very young age, as her father was in the trucking industry and she often worked on projects he was involved in.

"My first actual job ever was working for my dad on the Alaska Highway. I was a flag girl on the side of the Alaska Highway, living in a trailer," she described. "There were two women, the cook and myself, and I was 15. Talk about an education."

After attaining a bachelor of economics degree from the University of Victoria and an MBA from the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, Ramsden said she wanted to follow what she knew best.

"The only thing I knew how to do was build roads," she explained, adding when she started in the industry she was over $100,000 in debt, but she always saw risks as an opportunity. "I have always believed risk is an opportunity with a bad name tag."

It's a mantra she has carried with her throughout her life. The mother of three has faced many challenges, including being diagnosed with cancer two months after her third child was born. It was a form of cancer that doesn't respond to chemotherapy or radiation and had a 17 per cent survival rate, she added.

"I always call cancer the greatest misfortune of my life. All of a sudden time becomes very real. Value becomes very real," he recalled. "It made it really clear what I'm good at and what I am not good at."

She also knew she needed to act quickly when it came to business.

"I was given the grand opportunity to transition my business really quickly," she said, adding she transitioned out of the lead management role. "I never took back the management of my businesses. Other people are better at doing the maintenance."

Now a cancer survivor, Ramsden said she has focused her energies on working with a lot of businesses on future proofing, assessing the value today versus the future value.

"It's really important to look at what we're doing and see what we can do to change it," she said.

"This notion of the difference between status quo and adaptation."

Ramsden pointed out that most people in the construction industry are over 55 with a much younger generation coming up behind them that may not understand things the same way the older generation was taught.

"The challenge is how do we bridge that gap? There are people that are doing what's known and safe. We're not moving forward. I would ask you to consider where your business sits, where that readiness factor is," she said. "In the past there was a checklist. All of that education and training is 'Google-able' now. The experience set of a person is increasing greatly. It is the experience base that really will add value to your business and your ability to take your experience base and translate that to the next person."

She said there's courage and there's comfort and you cannot be in both places at the same time.

"There are some things we could question our assumptions on. Do we have to keep doing things this way, or are we just comfortable?" she asked rhetorically.

She said this aspect can also be applied to hiring women in construction. Since she was the boss of her company, she said she'd often take her children with her to job sites, or on business trips.

Since not everyone is in that same circumstance she said it's important for employers to consider flex hours or other options that may accommodate women or those who are primary caregivers.

"Women tend to be the primary caregiver...so I think some real clarity of what your company does or what's acceptable is needed," she said.

"I think we grandly underestimate the capacity of the construction industry to incorporate women. I think we make a lot of assumptions. We're quite capable and it's important the requirements of our lifestyle to be brought into that."

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