Wednesday 19 December 2018

'People see the brand and they assume luxury: there's a value on a Hilti tool'

From earlier dreams of becoming a musician, American Marci Bonham has risen to the top at Hilti, supplying to, and thriving in, Ireland's male-dominated construction sector

Marci Bonham, general manager of Hilti Ireland. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Marci Bonham, general manager of Hilti Ireland. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Fearghal O'Connor

As an undergraduate studying music in Indianapolis, Marci Bonham had a revelation while on a college exchange trip to France: the accomplished classical musician realised that she did not have to make a living from her passion.

The now general manager of the Irish arm of global tool and construction equipment maker, Hilti, returned to Indianapolis and quit music to study international business instead.

These days her musical endeavours rarely go beyond full-voiced versions of Adele's Rolling in the Deep while driving in her car.

Is she as good a singer as Adele?

"Not any more. Woulda, coulda, shoulda," she responds, wistfully. "But," she says, brightening, "Adele can't sell power tools. I don't do what she does, she can't do what I do."

As she talks about her chosen field, expounding enthusiastically on the hidden steel anchors that hold modern buildings together, and the tools and people that drive those fittings home, it becomes obvious that Bonham was, of course, wrong.

Passion, it turns out, was a prerequisite after all.

*****

"No one does everything we do," she says of Hilti's varied competitors. Founded in Liechtenstein 76 years ago by inventor and businessman Martin Hilti, the company's global turnover tops 5bn Swiss francs (€4.3bn).

"Our tools are aimed at professionals who use them eight hours a day. We don't sell in a B&Q or a Homebase, we only sell direct. Construction sites in the docklands, pharma extensions, data centres - that is where you will find our tools."

But tools are just one part of Hilti's offering and not even the biggest part. Firestop mounting and installation systems are where the company applies its true expertise on many construction sites.

"When you walk into a building you don't notice what is holding up the ceiling. We make designed and specified anchors and our engineering teams work directly with architects and designers."

She stands up and rummages around her office and returns with a chunky bolt-like fitting.

"This anchor attaches to the concrete to hold the fitting that holds up your suspended ceiling."

But it is even more impressive than that, she says: "Think of how the Port Tunnel stays in place… there is a lot of Hilti product in there. You need a specified anchor with all that vibration to ensure people are safe."

Bonham and her team at Hilti's Finglas office in Dublin spend time monitoring plans for major new projects as they are submitted.

"It's ebb and flow. We follow market conditions and measure our success in any country against construction output - roads, bridges, airports, schools, hospitals. We are seeing a lot of commercial and industrial builds in Ireland right now - data centres, pharma, dairy, manufacturing."

The new government capital plan is good news for Hilti, but right now it is very tied into foreign direct investment projects and the company has often worked for the clients previously.

"As those projects land here we see the benefit. Chances are we supplied them elsewhere, maybe even for a head office in California. We watch what is going on with these companies."

Bonham's team evaluates the size of each major Irish project to estimate how much work could possibly come Hilti's way. For example, if a tech company submits plans for a new €100m data centre she expects 0.09pc - or €90,000 - of that to involve products that Hilti can compete for.

"How much of that we actually get in the end is another thing, but that is our potential on a typical data centre project. It could be firestop, it could be anchors to tie a steel structure into concrete foundations, or it could be the tools to fasten it all together. It is all potential for us."

Every build is different. Hilti would expect to be able to compete for 1.2pc of supplies into the 23-storey Capital Dock in Dublin's docklands, for example, and a similar amount at the new children's hospital. "The higher or deeper the project, the more potential for us," she says. "The key is to get in early with our engineers when the plans are being drawn."

Overall, the company measures itself against construction output and its goal in Ireland is to outgrow that output by 1.5 times.

"So if the market grows 14pc we want to grow 21pc. Construction output is expected to grow between now and 2020 by 28pc. Things are going really very well."

Hilti does not share its Irish turnover publicly but growth was more than 20pc in 2017, with the same expected this year.

Bonham was not here during the recession but knows it was tough on many of Hilti's Irish staff. Almost overnight, it went from 110 employees down to 46 when a new regional hub structure saw Irish repairs handled from Glasgow and logistical and other support from Manchester.

But thanks to the recovering construction market Hilti Ireland has since grown its staff numbers by 10pc to 15pc each year and now employs 80 people in five stores on both sides of the Border.

Indeed, the company is about to refit its entire Finglas headquarters: "We can't fit any more people and we need to expand."

****

Bonham spends her days talking to people across the Irish construction sector, from small builders, to sub-contractors, to the high-profile contractors at the top of the industry.

"They are cautiously optimistic," she says.

"I think they learned a lot from the last boom and bust. This current boom - data centres, FDI, etc - is a very different boom to the two-storey residential boom of the Celtic Tiger. That is a different kind of construction, high volume, low margin. It was certainly less Hilti-focused.

"Now, these guys are looking more internationally and they have been smart about finding specialty areas to grow, for example, data centres.

That works well for Hilti, given that as Irish contractors win jobs in other countries, they can retain Hilti as a supplier. The relationship with suppliers has also changed, she says.

"We get involved way earlier in the value chain across a whole range of products."

She sighs at the mention of Carillion, the huge British contractor that collapsed in January.

"There is definitely a perforated line between the Irish and British industries. It [Carillion] is not the only one that has happened, it is just the biggest one. We have had several here in Ireland and Northern Ireland that have become insolvent and that is a big cost to us as a business."

The really big issue though is not for a supplier like Hilti, but for subcontractors which take on work on long payment terms but which have to keep paying their own staff regardless, she says.

"They build up a cash flow problem. Cash is such a problem in the industry. And if one of these big contractors folds - Carillion being the current example - there are ripple effects: employees, sub-contractors, the sub-contractor's employees, the caterers, the cleaning companies.

"I know several Irish contractors who are owed significant amounts of money for work done and completed in the UK on some of these projects that have just stopped. What do they do? The work is done. They could have a giant piece of precast concrete ready, just sitting there waiting to be shipped."

Bonham believes it is very important that the industry begins to manage this cash-flow issue and she has concerns that it could impact some companies in the sector here.

"You don't want to regulate everything. But if you don't manage this cash-flow issue from contractor down to sub-contractor then you can stretch the wrong group of people - the people who day-to-day actually do the work, buy the products and pay the labour. How do you manage that? It is something I believe Ireland and the UK really needs to look at in the coming years."

Bonham's team is responsible for everything in the Irish market, in the North and the Republic - branding, marketing, sales, the local website, local engineering and customer service.

"We have what we call a triple bottom line. Firstly, there is the financial results - we have to make money. But we also measure customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction. If you don't have all three things then you might make a profit, but it won't be sustainable for the long term."

Operating a business tied to an industry that is so tied to a boom-and-bust profile makes that type of long-term view a challenge. But Bonham says that the company - in Ireland and further afield - did learn lessons during the crash.

"It's important to be lean and we really are," she says, gesturing around the small office with views across the industrial estate towards the M50 beyond. "People see the brand and they assume luxury because there is a certain value placed on a Hilti tool. We want to grow at a sustainable pace."

Because of the company's new regional hub structure, the company focuses on the mobility of the staff that it hires. "We look to hire people with a foreign language, for example, because, like myself, that makes them mobile," she says.

Mobility has certainly been a hallmark of Bonham's own career. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, she grew up playing the guitar, piano, French horn and any other instrument she could get her hands on,

"But musicians can count beyond four," she says. The flexibility of the US college system meant swapping from music to international business after her Toulouse revelation was not an issue.

"International business and my vocal performance did not have a lot in common. But I do a lot of public speaking now, so my experience in music makes it easy for me to stand up in front of an audience. Stage fright is not my issue."

After college, Bonham took a job with a joint venture between Mitsubishi and Caterpillar that involved warehouse equipment. The job took her for stints across the US, Argentina and the Netherlands but in 2008 she decided to go back and study for her MBA remotely.

"I was planning on doing that long before the crash, but the timing was good."

The class of 80 students from around the world would travel to spend time, study and do exams in different countries together, with classes in Shanghai, Rio, Buenos Aires and Dubai.

"It was a really interesting way to watch what was going on around the world at that particular time. Good or bad, there were a lot of learnings to be had. For example, we had 11 Russians in our class. They would look at us Americans and say 'You and your bubble, what have you done?' We would argue that it wasn't just us, that Russian and Chinese investors had put money into America too so it was a global problem. It was an interesting time to be in a class like that."

After finishing her course in early 2010 she joined Hilti in Tulsa, Oklahoma, before moving to Manchester to become Hilti's first female sales director for the UK.

*****

Bonham evidently loves her job and is proud of the progress she has made. But life as an ambitious woman in the construction sector has not always been easy.

Often, she is the only woman in the room.

At times, she has felt scared and even physically threatened by certain situations in the male-dominated world in which she spends her time.

"The higher up you go there is less and less of us. You grow accustomed to it and it was never a big issue. I tend to forget because I don't see myself as the female in the room, even if others do."

But in recent years she came to a realisation about the lack of key female representation in the industries in which she has worked: "If I don't talk about it who will? I can talk about the frankly quite crappy times I have had and about things that have happened to a lot of women in the construction industry.

"If we don't talk about the realities in this industry - particularly with our male counterparts - then we cannot address it. I do feel here in Ireland that is really starting to happen, with initiatives by the Construction Industry Federation and others."

Although the problem is as bad in Ireland as anywhere else she has worked, Bonham believes that the openness to discuss it is better here than anywhere else.

"It's really talked about a lot here. That is good. It is about getting men and women talking about diversity. That is what will get change. It is not a women's issue. It is a business issue. Why would we ignore 50pc of the population here in Ireland when we are struggling to get people into the business? It is really important for the construction sector as a whole. We have major commitments in FDI and civil engineering."

Bonham says that she has lots of conversations with her customers where they say 'My biggest struggle is getting skilled labour'.

"They are trying to attract home plumbers and electricians from Australia. That's great. But would it not be faster and better to try and attract the 50pc of the population here that are available to work but have often been ignored?"

Bonham agrees that many girls have no interest in construction as a career but she says this is because it is never presented to them as an option.

"Trades are a wonderful way to have a career but girls and women never get that view, be it because of parents, school or the population in general not making it a respectable career choice."

Change is needed badly says Bonham, not least on construction sites themselves.

"I still get comments and have to look the other way. It is ridiculous that grown people react this way to seeing a woman on a job site."

The comments vary, she says: "Sometimes it is sexist comments that are unrepeatable and really shameful. In some incidents we have actually cancelled a customer from being a customer because it is just insulting and I won't put up with that for myself or any of our female employees. That has happened in both Ireland and Britain. You cannot accept it just because it is a construction site. You have to call it out."

But in general, Bonham says the comments are not so extreme. It's the little things that irritate: the expectation that, as a woman, you will not know what you are talking about.

"I do know how to talk about tools. I do know how to explain deflection-head installation. But they look at me like they expect me not to know. It's a shame because they are looking right past sometimes the best knowledge in our company - the female engineer that we send in there.

"They look at the guy who is bigger and stronger rather than the one who knows how to do it. It's hard to change that overnight because it's a culture. But I think the more that my gals are out in the field to help change that perception one person at a time the better."

The key, she says, is for construction companies to hire more women.

"It's hard to be the only one but when you reach a critical mass that can change," she says.

"We all do the same job. We pull up in a van at a site just like any of the guys do. We wear a hard hat and steel-toed shoes. This is our uniform, male or female," she says, gesturing to her red Hilti T-shirt.

Gender balance at Hilti Ireland is about 80pc male to 20pc female, something Bonham wishes would change. Advertised roles at the rapidly-growing company get few female applicants, she says. "It's growing but it is too slow. But if you don't start with a commitment to do it you will never change it and the main thing is to focus on inclusion to make the female workforce that we do have feel welcome here."

******

When Bonham arrived in Ireland from Manchester in August 2014, things had already started to pick up in the sector.

"I like to think I brought it with me... ride the Bonham wave!" she says, laughing. "But, no, my timing was just very fortunate. It's a great time to manage the business through that kind of growth and make sure we do it in a sustainable, profitable way."

Moving executives like Bonham around the world is strategic on Hilti's part. In Britain she was responsible for more people and more revenue. But in Ireland she is responsible for everything and reports into Hilti's board.

"I get to run the business here in this country. It is part of my development."

That sounds very much like Bonham is on a track to even greater things within the huge company. "I hope so, yeah," she agrees. "I don't know where that leads. I'm enjoying my time here in Ireland. But I am ambitious. I absolutely think I could play a role as a board member."

Right now Hilti has no female board member.

"Could we? Absolutely. And Hilti is open to it. But it has to be the right person with the right experience. We want people coming through the company into those roles."

The sheer diversity of employees at Hilti Ireland is not something found in Hilti workforces elsewhere and the experience of running that is hugely beneficial, she says.

There are other less positive aspects to the Irish market that bring unique challenges too: tool theft is a real problem here and Hilti itself has suffered a series of expensive break-ins.

Bonham says small Irish builders are often left devastated when their tools are taken, depriving them of their means of making a living.

The company now runs a special programme here to replace stolen tools.

"Contractors have their tools stolen and contractors buy stolen tools. It's a vicious circle. It certainly feels like it is a bigger problem here than in the US. Of course, in the US we have ways of ensuring that doesn't happen. You wouldn't dare break in to my Dad's house in Nebraska," she laughs.

All of these varying experiences will only help her as she moves up through the Hilti organisation. She and her husband love Ireland but geographically she says she is open to any move as her career progresses.

"I hope that works to my advantage - I'm not set on any one place. I speak French so I could go to a French-speaking location. But I would go anywhere. And my husband is fantastic, he would move anywhere with me as long as he can find work too. He is amazingly supportive to follow my jobs around the world as he has."

But for now she is in Ireland, enjoying almost every moment of the journey.

 

CURRICULUM VITAE

Name

Marci Bonham

Age

45

Position

General manager, Hilti Ireland

Lives

Dublin city centre and hails from Omaha, Nebraska

Education

MBA from Duke University, North Carolina.

BSc in International Management from Butler University, Indianapolis

Family

Husband Tom

Pastimes

Playing music and travel

Favourite holiday destination

Paris, France

Currently reading

Under the Duvet by Marian Keyes

Favourite movie

Star Wars - The Empire Strikes Back.

"I'm a huge Star Wars fan. I loved Princess Leia when I was a kid. I wanted to be her. And Han Solo was easy on the eye," she says

Favourite pieces of advice

"Listen more, talk less" and "find a company where you can be your true self and one that supports your development and learning"

Sunday Indo Business

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business