This interview is brought to you by Female Focus, an exclusive international network enabling professional women to meet from, share experiences and build business relationships whilst engaging in interactive experiences. Female Focus was established by Vaishali Shah at Minerva Trust & Corporate Services Limited.
If you were assessing their chances from the outset, it may not have seemed promising: Two Asian Immigrant brothers arrive in London in the 1970’s and look to build a contracting business. Neither brother has an engineering degree, so they started out as general labourers when the Barbican Towers were being built. But they saw an opportunity to start a sub-contacting carpentry business and took their shot. That single leap of faith has led to Vascroft Contractors growing into a major company that today employs more than 120 people and boasts an annual revenue of more than £40m.
Recently the Women in Family Business Team had the opportunity to sit down with second-generation executive Chandni Vora, COO at Vascroft Contractors Ltd to discuss those early challenges and her experience as a female in a male-dominated industry.
Two Asian immigrant brothers trying to establish a foothold in the 1970’s London construction industry could not have been easy. Can you tell us a little about what those early days were like?
The two founders were my father and my late uncle (Shashi and Late Arjan Vekaria), and they came into this country as immigrants from East Africa. So they started out as blue-collar workers building their skills and know-how on the jobs. They had a bit of a construction background in Uganda but nothing major. My father never earned an engineering degree, but he is the technical brains behind a lot of our projects in our business in finding alternative solutions. He always calls his degree his PhD of life. My uncle was the commercial person of our business with a finance hat on.
They started to get more and more work and were really starting to grow, they realised that they had to choose a company name. Vascroft the name, originated from V for Vekeria, A for Arjan, S for Shashi and croft means “buildings and land” from Scottish origins. The idea behind it was that they wanted a name that would fit in with the culture, and when people heard it, they would think ‘OK these guys mean business’. It was important not to be viewed as just two Asian regular builders. That’s the hurdle they had to get through in the 70s, and I think the same hurdle a lot of Asian businesses would’ve gone through when they’re trying to compete with other Caucasian businesses.
Did you and your brother get exposed to the inner workings of the family business from a fairly young age?
We lost our mother at a very young age when I was ten and my brother was nine. My dad’s business was thriving at that time around 1985 and 1986. I would regularly go into dad’s office which was on the mezzanine floor of our family newsagent shop in Holland Park. It was chaos, I was only 9 or so, but they would teach us how to do the filing of paperwork, how to put invoices in sequential numbers and even when we were in the sweet shop, they would make us do the arithmetic in our head allowing us to serve the customers. I think this was their way of saying ‘this is what you have to do. These are the lessons that are going to stay with you for life’, and they did.
When we were growing up, we would always be the last kids to be picked up from school because he was always trying to close one project or another. But we understood that because even from a young age, it was just automatic for us to understand survival of the fittest to not be dependent on anybody and to have a ‘can do’ attitude to life. Be dependent on yourself and then you can get somewhere in life, and that really has stuck with us.
When it came time to choose a career path, did you always know you would end up in the family business?
Not at all. That was never my intention. When I was at school I knew that I wanted to do medicine, so my A level electives were geared towards science because mathematics and science were my strength. However, when I went to university and reassessed what I wanted out of life to strike a balance, I decided on reading a BSc in Business taking the route of finance as the main discipline.
I had no inclination of coming into this business; I wanted to build my own success so I could stand on my two feet. Something always engrained in us from our early years. Our father had always said, “go and work outside and see what it is all about”.
I started off with a graduate job with Bechtel engineering as a Project accountant and progressed my career from then on. I spent 14 years with reputable blue chip companies to build my career and knowledge such as Bae Systems Cable & Wireless, NTL and finally at Majestic Wine Warehouse Ltd as a commercial analyst prior to joining Vascroft. Majestic was very small in terms of head office resources however with a large turn over AIM-listed company. I had the opportunity to work with the Board and all department heads, and I just looked at this, and I thought, hang on a minute, this is what Vascroft is all about. So why am I here? And that’s when I thought all this energy that I’ve spent with all these different companies in the area of process improvement and finance could possibly be put to good use at Vascroft.
What was that transition like when you walked in as the newest employee of your father and uncle’s business?
There were opportunities for me to come over earlier but I didn’t feel the time was right. I didn’t want just to get here and do a job. It was important for me to take what I had learned about process improvement and apply it to Vascroft’s operations. So I sat in the various departments of Vascroft such as estimating, buying, finance, yard logistics team and shadowed their tasks so that I could get a better understanding of Vascroft’s procedures. I told my father, don’t put me at a certain level because I am your daughter. I need to understand what our business is about before I can add any value to it.
What did you discover about your family’s business as a result of this process?
A lot of it came to modernising our business infrastructure and processes. Much of the institutional knowledge was retained in my father’s and uncle’s heads. So I had to say to them ‘What if you two are not around? What if you’re not there when somebody needs access to that institutional knowledge. People at the company had been working there for 25 years and were doing the tasks and procedures with not much efficiency. So a lot of it was streamlining the day to day operations with the buy-in of the staff, so it was a more efficient process and recording documenting procedures. We were empowering the various departments so not to rely on just the founders to make decisions.
You have joined a boy’s industry. That’s not opinion; it’s a matter of the fact that the contracting and construction is a male-dominated industry. How have you navigated this particular set of circumstances?
I think it’s still pretty male and the British colleagues are fairly modern, and they respect you, and that’s not a big issue. However, 50% of our clients come from South Asia and live in a different culture with different gender norms. But when I’m in a meeting with them, they don’t see me as a girl because I’m just as bullish as a guy can be. I’m quite used to that dynamics. In a previous employment, I used to have bi-weekly operational meetings, and I was the only woman in a room full of men who were all over 50 years old. I had learned how to be thick skinned and get your point across to stand your ground pragmatically.
Is there any advice you wish you would’ve gotten from another woman before heading into this family business? What advice would you give to young women entering this industry today?
I see a lot of amazing women now executives in their 50s and 60s, and I think wow I wish I had met you when I was 25 when I was in that period of going from entry-level into middle-management.
When I see young women just coming out, I want to tell them don’t be too cutthroat. I know there’s an expectation to have to go out there and be in business like a man, but you need to find this medium where are you understand what makes that man tick in the boardroom while remaining who you are. Whoever you were when you were in a young enterprise in school or when you were doing some charity work for the local community, is who should be present in the business world. Don’t become Jekyll and Hyde of who you were before to who you are now because that’s the strength that will get you far. That’s been a big part of my values, this is who I am whether I’m at work whether I’m at home it doesn’t matter this is who I am.
The most important thing is never to let your gender impede you from getting things done. My sister has a great saying. I’ll often hear her say “Forget my anatomy, I need to get this executed.” I guess that has brushed off from me.
Now that you have a family of your own, how has your father’s experience in the business influenced how you handle that work-life balance?
My dad always says “don’t do what we did because we were never there for you, we were too busy providing and growing the business. When you have a family make sure you’re there for them”. So I do a million things with my kids outside of work, I don’t know where I find the hours, but you just pack it in where you can. I get up at the crack of dawn in the morning so I can get my fitness and “me time” into my daily agenda, so I’m not compromising on my children’s time. Now my dad is older, and he’s making more time for the grandkids. It makes us realise how important the family aspect is, in turn, creates a better person in the business environment. Having that kind of perspective, we can work with a more compassionate outlook. I said before, I don’t think that cutthroat way of business gets you as far as it did because people are more mindful now than they were in earlier years.
About Minerva Group
Minerva Trust & Corporate Services Limited is regulated in Jersey by the Jersey Financial Services Commission. Minerva Trust Company (Switzerland) SA is regulated in Switzerland for anti-money laundering legislation by the Association Romande des Intermédiaires Financiers. Minerva Fiduciary Services (Mauritius) Limited is regulated in Mauritius by the Mauritius Financial Services Commission. Minerva Middle East DMCC is registered and licenced in Dubai as a free zone company under the rules and regulations of the DMCCA.
Featured Picture Courtesy of Vascroft Contractors, Ltd.