Property insider view: Sarah Fenton, regional development director at UK housebuilder Avant Homes
What interested you in the industry?As a teenager I was intent on studying law, but after my first job in a law office I realised that I really didn’t want to do that.
I actually phoned a careers advice line as I had no idea what to do instead. I wish I had the name of the woman I spoke to who asked if I’d ever thought about a career in construction, something that had never entered my mind. She explained that if I had an interest in law then quantitative surveying has similar elements, but is a very varied profession.
From that conversation sparking my interest, I took a night class in construction while working during the day, so that I could access a degree course. I did my degree in quantity surveying at Glasgow Caledonian University, working in the industry one day a week, so I had contacts and experience by the time I left uni.
How did you get started? I worked at Bett Homes as a trainee quantity surveyor, and from there I have worked for housebuilders predominantly apart from a stint at [UK engineering firm] NG Bailey during the housing market downturn.
I enjoyed my time there, but I was really keen to get back into the housing industry as soon as activity picked back up. Over the years, I’ve worked for Strathclyde Homes, Barratt, Robertson, in roles such as trainee surveyor, assistant surveyor, quantity surveyor, senior quantity surveyor and commercial manager. My last role was regional commercial director.
I am ambitious, but I’m usually attracted to the individual company and the specific roles – they have to be right for me to make a move.
What is your typical day like?A regional development director oversees the technical and commercial departments.
The technical department is the kind of engine room of a building company – taking a development from inception to create the design, layout and put every project through the planning and consent process. There is also ongoing support to the live team who are on site.
I also have to take that information from the technical team and relay it to the commercial team, who oversee the preparation of budgets, so it is a double-headed role.
I’m constantly assessing information for viability in a commercial context. You need to have a good sound knowledge of the intricacies of the planning process, coupled with the gumption to challenge designs.
The role goes right from the front end of land acquisition right through to the operational side of the business, and I’m the conduit all the way through.
Where do you live? In a modern house in Stirling. It is ten years old and quite small, but we do have a generous back garden. We’ve recently had that done up, and it has been brilliant during the pandemic – we just love the outside space.
Does your job affect your social life? I do work long hours. We’ve recently been bought over by new owners with big plans to expand in Scotland. It means opportunities for everyone in the company but also hard work.
We are all working the hours that we need to get the job done, but we can see that it will calm down once we have been through this evolution.
What advice would you give someone wanting to work in the industry? We are about to embark on a recruitment drive, and there are so many opportunities for technical and commercial roles.
Avant Homes is currently looking for quantity surveyors, an architectural technician and senior engineers, but we also take school leavers.
We currently have a 17-year-old in the surveying department, but it isn’t just about age – anyone in the team can develop in whichever direction they choose and will be given the platform to do so.
How would you get youngsters interested? I’m always promoting the industry. I give talks to schools and you can always point to the fact that even at a junior level, our industry can be a lot more financially rewarding than others.
Sometimes you just need a way to attract teenagers’ attention. One presentation took pictures of our director’s nice cars and photos of the top-end showhomes and showed them to the kids, asking what job could afford this lifestyle?
The answers we got back were generally footballer or celebrity, so when we told them that this was achievable in the construction industry, I think that got through.
There is definitely a generational shift between my age group and school leavers now [Sarah is 36], but you maybe just have to find something that explains the reality of a job.
“And if that is showing off an Instagram lifestyle, so be it.”
Born and raised I moved around a bit growing up, but I’d say I’m definitely a West Coast person.
Education Secondary school in Ayrshire and Callander, a night class in construction, then Glasgow Caledonian University for an honours degree in quantity surveying.
First job A short-lived stint as a legal secretary before deciding to switch to construction.
First home A rented flat in Stirling.
Plans for retirement I’ve not thought about it, I’m quite young and so it is a long way off. I’ll see where the opportunities take me. I’d quite like to travel, maybe.
Personal mottoI’ve got a few wee quips that I use that the team would definitely associate with me. One is “Nae cheek, nae chance”, which is definitely a very useful thing to keep in mind when you are negotiating as part of a commercial team.