When we knew we were heading into the City of London to see Como’s Zoe Moss, we became particularly excited. Not only were we looking forward to chatting with Zoe and finding out more about one of the industry’s leading fit-out companies, we were also incredibly intrigued to see inside Como’s London home – on Moorgate – a building we must have walked past and wondered what lay inside literally hundreds of times.
The impressive 155 Moorgate is actually the HQ of the Mace Group – the leading international consultancy and construction company – of which specialist retail and commercial office fit out contractor Como is an integral part, delivering projects nationally under all forms of contract, across the full spectrum of fit-out services, from Cat A and Cat B to refurbishment.
The firm principally works across the commercial office, financial, legal, technology, media and arts and culture sectors, boasting an enviable range of clients that includes JP Morgan, Microsoft, Nabarro, EY, SABMiller, Proskauer Rose, Liberty Specialty Markets, Deutsche Bank, Expedia, Quintain, Sky, Invesco, Google, BlackRock, Great Portland Estates, John Lewis and Land Securities.
Zoe is Project Director at Como – and therefore is at the forefront of possibly the firm’s busiest ever period. Sitting down in the impressive meeting suite here at 155, we waste no more of Zoe’s time than is strictly necessary and begin by asking about the current state of the market.
‘A big focal point of what we’re involved with right now is public sector work,’ Zoe reveals. ‘We’re currently talking with a number of public sector organisations and I think, judging by the way that they have come back to us so positively, this shows how they have realised that they need to modernise.’
Before we have to dither and awkwardly skirt around the issue of gender, Zoe does us a massive favour by addressing it directly for us.
‘I think it helps that I’m female,’ she smiles. ‘Coming in to interview a senior woman is big tick in the box for a lot of organisations! It’s funny actually – I’ve been in this business for 15 years now. I started out as a quantity surveyor – and there have always been female surveyors around – but making that leap to Project Director, and to be responsible for both delivery and commercial, is actually a leap of gargantuan proportions. I don’t even know why that is. I wouldn’t say that the industry is particularly sexist nowadays – but then again maybe I’ve got rhinoceros skin!
‘I don’t ever want to be treated specially for being a woman. I accept that there are initiatives that run both in this business and throughout the industry, but I don’t want to progress just for being female. I want to progress because I’m great at my job. I’m no wallflower – I’ve never been backwards in coming forward – and that started way before I came into the construction industry. I believe that if you’re a leader, you’re a leader.
‘I would say that, nowadays, clients are often more conscious of the fact that diversity is a good thing – and sometimes it can certainly ‘soften the blow’ when there’s a little too much testosterone in the room! Equally, we find that our clients are represented by more and more females and I think, from their prospective, I’m sure it’s nice to employ a main contractor whose senior counterpart is another woman.’
So how did Zoe find herself in this male-dominated sector. ‘We were never told about this profession at school!’ Zoe laughs. ‘Back then construction was never an option. I’ve actually been back to my old school in Upminster, Essex, to speak to a GCSE year group about the fact that there is an industry out there that they might not even know exists – and we’re talking about professional careers here. I think that was something that was definitely missing when it came to our generation.
‘I fell into this industry by mistake, if I’m honest, but immediately felt that it was made for me. There’s a really endearing quality about the industry. You’ve got that mix – that balance – of the builder and the degree-educated professionals who come together to deliver something that can be really quite amazing. And we deliver these things in timescales that you wouldn’t believe!
‘This is the reason that I opted for the world of fit-out. I started in fit-out, went to high-end residential and then came back to fit-out – and, like I said, the main reason.
I came back is the speed, the pace at which this sector works. I love the fact that you have something tangible after 12 weeks – not two or three years. It never stops.
‘I think you have to be someone who thrives under pressure – and if you are then fit-out is an industry that show off your skills brilliantly.’
We ask Zoe to tell us a little more about her role as Project Director at Como. ‘The reality is that the Project Director is a strategic figurehead for the delivery team,’ Zoe considers. ‘So the tender comes in, we sit around the table and really start to understand who our client is – the Project Director should always be leading that process.
“Trust is absolutely crucial in delivering this work. After all, we’re often getting appointed before clients know how much something will cost.”
‘First and foremost, it’s vital that we know who our client is and how we’re best going to deliver the project for them. The bidding process is often just as quick as the construction process, so you have to really be on the money. A big part of the process is relationship building. If you have a client talking to you about a project in, say December, I should be nurturing the team right now because the truth is that you have much more chance of understanding your client if you have six months rather than over a two-week bid period. The Project Director has to lead that from the front. It starts with relationship management, I suppose, and then strategy comes next and beyond that is the delivery. The differentiator here is a Project Director’s ability to nurture relationships both upstream and downstream – with your clients and consultants and also your own team and supply chain.
‘Having a background as a QS, I would say that I’m fairly unique. Most of the guys have Project Management backgrounds – they come from the bricks and sticks delivery side – whereas I am more financially orientated. I think that’s a really positive thing in this market – to be able to turn around to a client and tell them that I understand delivering value and can get them to a fixed price that really means something to them. I think that really helps me stand out from the crowd.
“I don’t want to progress just for being female. I want to progress because I’m great at my job.”
‘Trust is absolutely crucial in delivering this work. After all, we’re often getting appointed before clients know how much something will cost. There are times when you have to be both a Project Director and an agony aunt – you have to be all things to everybody. It is important, though, to never, ever forget that you are the strategic head, the delivery head – and ultimately you have to get to the end of the job and then deliver all the lessons you have learnt back to your team. This is why, for me, it never ends. You can have three projects on the go at one time – but there is also one just around the corner and one just finished. But you are never finished. Each and every day is different. You never say, ‘I’m done!’ That variety is what keeps me interested – that’s a big part of what makes me hop out of bed every morning.’
Before we leave, we ask Zoe about one of the key projects that will be keeping her and the Como team busy over the coming months. ‘We’ve recently secured the first ever HMRC hub, down in Croydon,’ she enthuses. ‘It’s a total change of workspace for HMRC. They are undergoing a massive rationalisation and efficiencies programme, reducing all of their square footage down to centralised hubs and ensuring their workplaces become places to retain and develop their staff. The Croydon project is an 183,000 sq ft space with canteen, open plan floors, great meeting facilities and efficient technology. This will ultimately generate terrific savings for them as an organisation and in turn the taxpayer. This is just the tip of the iceberg for HMRC and I am sure most other government organisations. Over the next four years HMRC are looking at fitting out 2,000,000 sq ft, as far north as Edinburgh and Glasgow and as far south as Bristol. Croydon is our flagship project and we are incredibly proud of that fact.
‘It’s an incredibly exciting opportunity and is likely to be the most hotly contested suite of work in the fit-out market over the next four years.