A Woman's Touch

Kerrie

As the young woman, decked out in overalls, with paint splashes on her blonde hair and a bright, cheerful expression on her face approached me, I momentarily forgot why I was sitting here in the reception area of a West London television production company.

I was actually at a loss to recall why I had dragged myself out of bed on a drab Sunday morning in driven into London when I could have been taking advantage of a few more hours beneath the duvet.

And then I heard a tap running somewhere in another room and it all quickly came back to me.

It was a Thursday afternoon and my partner had just returned home from a day-long shopping trip with a group of her friends. Laden like pack animals with bags hanging off every available appendage, they dropped themselves (and their shopping) in a big heap in the kitchen and looked from me to the kettle with mournful, pleading expressions.

As my girlfriend was at pains to remind me, shopping is an arduous task!

Happy to oblige (after all I had been left to my own devices all day!) I turned on the kitchen tap – only to have the head come off in my hand and a shower of water spray up to the ceiling.

In a vain effort to stop the flow of water I covered the broken tap with my hands but that only appeared to make matters worse.

“Quickly! Turn off the water supply!” I heard someone shout. A moment later I was pushed aside by one of my partner’s friends who proceeded to take matters into her own hands.

After a few seconds rummaging about beneath the sink she stopped the flow of water and then to my amazement, removed the faulty tap and held up a warped ring of metal for our small circle of sodden members to inspect.

“Faulty washer. Do you have a spare? If not, you might want to get down to the hardware store and bring one back. I’ll fit it if you like.”

“Since when did you know anything about plumbing?” I was compelled to ask.

“Since I went on a plumbing course. You ought to try it. I made some interesting contacts. In fact, there is one woman you just simply have to meet.”

Kerrie Keeling? I asked, slightly unsure.

The blonde woman nodded her head in confirmation and extending her hand, gave me a very welcoming “Hello”.

Kerrie Hanafin is the founder and owner of A Woman’s Touch, a company she first thought about starting in the spring of 2003. Back then Kerrie was the high flying vice president of Citibank - working at the top end of investment banking - but after 8 years in the industry, she realised her job just wasn’t able to offer her a feeling of satisfaction any more.

“It was a really pressurised job and whilst the financial rewards were impressive, the hours involved meant you had little time to enjoy the fruits of your labour. I found myself committing so much time to work that I was becoming a ghost outside of it. I couldn’t sleep properly and my personal life was diminishing before my eyes. Sure! I had a healthy bank balance but with no sense of personal satisfaction, I began to seriously question what I was doing.”

It was at this point that she began to consider a life outside of investment banking.

“I sat down one evening and evaluated my position and my experience. Unfortunately, I soon realised that the only knowledge I had outside of banking was scuba diving (Kerrie is a qualified instructor) and painting so my options were immediately apparent to me, if a little limited.”

“Living in London meant that my scuba diving experience wasn’t going to take me very far so I turned to the only other alternative I had. Once I had made the decision, I put my business studies degree to good use by planning out a strategy that could quickly bring me in the income I required. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy but this was a decision between living and existing and I was keen to sample a little of the former after what felt like an eternity of the latter! ”

Initially her family were surprised by her decision but they took little convincing.

“My parents knew what the pressures were within the banking environment and although they were concerned that this change of career might not maximise my potential and use my education to the best of its ability they proved to be very supportive”.

Surprisingly, Kerrie found the response from her work colleagues to be equally positive and most of them were full of support for her planned career change. However, as a back up, she did complete her last banking exam.

“There’s no sense in burning all your bridges because you just never know in life. I was sure at this point that this was what I wanted to do but I also had to be realistic.”

Initially Kerrie started working alone - tight finances meant there really wasn’t any room for anyone else - but in a rather ironic twist of fate (and because she did need a serious amount of decorating done!) Kerrie’s first customer turned out to be her ex-boss.

“It was probably the hardest test anyone could have given me to be honest. I liked her very much but I’m sure there was a part of her that still questioned my decision, no matter how open she was in her support of it. I knew I had to do a good job for so many reasons.”

Fortunately for Kerrie, she completed the job ahead of schedule and received a glowing reference from her boss, as well as her first bona-fide paycheque.

Very quickly after this the contracts started to roll in and the company went from strength to strength. It wasn’t long before Kerrie realised that she would need to recruit more staff. Almost four years and a catalogue of satisfied customers later, her staff quota now stands at eight women, with future expansion plans set to increase on this number even further.

I questioned the fact that currently all her team are female and asked whether this was not a form of discrimination in its own right?

“It’s not that I won’t employ men in my company – far from it – it’s just that of all the men I have interviewed so far none have met the standards that I have set for my employees. One of my clear goals and the philosophy that all of us at A Woman’s Touch believe in is to do the opposite of what we dislike in the many builders we’ve encountered.”

When I questioned her on what those dislikes were and what made her team different she took little time in cutting to the chase.

“Basically, we turn up, give you a quote (which we stick to), don’t take unnecessary tea or cigarette breaks and perhaps most importantly of all, tidy up after ourselves. In general women tend to care more about the home than men – perhaps it’s an instinctive or traditional thing, I can’t really say. But I do know that if workmen (or women) were decorating in my house, I’d want them to leave the place as they found it and all of us here at A Woman’s Touch work on that same principal.”

“There are a lot of “cowboys” and “cowgirls” out there. Being able to paint your outside wall doesn’t make you a professional painter. Changing a light bulb doesn’t make you an electrician any more than flushing the toilet makes you a plumber. All my staff are professionally trained at what they do.”

Being in an industry that in the main is still predominantly associated with men, I went on to ask Kerrie what kind of reaction she has received from her male colleagues.

“Usually when we are called in to do a job it’s at the end of a rebuilding process so we don’t often come into contact with other male workers but on those occasions when we have worked together, the overall reaction has been good.”

“You’re always going to get the odd person who can’t even begin to embrace change but usually they are few and far between. I didn’t start this business up as a way of saying, look at me guys! I’m moving in on your territory because it’s my right as a woman. I started it up because it was something I can do, something I am good at and something to which I believe I can bring a fresh perspective.”

At the moment, the company’s main area of business is within painting, decorating and interior design although Kerrie has put herself on courses for plumbing and electrics in an effort to broaden her knowledge base. She has also been able to utilise her business skills by starting a project management wing to the company, which has already completed one successful project with three more presently in development.

Now that she’s had her dream of hands on work come true, I asked Kerrie if she would ever consider returning to the role she had before as a city high-flyer and her response was quite emphatic. .

“No, not all. I’ve had a good two years of doing what I want and being my own boss. I’ve proved all of my doubters wrong and I’ve lots of plans to take this whole experience up onto new levels of enterprise.”

It was at this point that Kerrie introduced me to a few of her colleagues, Claire Walker Neeta Hughes and Julie Isaac. I was immediately struck by the enthusiasm and intelligence of these women: it wasn’t something I was used to when it came to my experiences with tradesmen in this particular field and more than a little refreshing.

For Claire, whose background actually stems from media and television, A Woman’s Touch was the opportunity to be creative in a more practical way.

“Naturally the visual medium of television calls for a particular eye and the ability to be creative, not dissimilar to the work of a painter or decorator so the transition from that role to this one wasn’t that difficult.”

Married with a supportive husband, Claire has thrown herself into a number of courses in an effort to further her knowledge and experience and more than anything takes a great deal of satisfaction in seeing a completed job.

“It’s a different kind of pleasure completely. You can walk away from a job knowing that what you see is what you’ve done and there’s nowhere to hide from the mistakes so you have to give it your very best. Papering over the cracks isn’t an option.”

Her message for all the “cowboys” out there is simple.

“Do the job right or don’t do it all. That’s our philosophy here at A Woman’s Touch. We’re not out to take work away from men but we are here as competition that will never compromise in its pursuit for perfection.”

Julie also had a few words to say about the physical side of the job.

“Ladies! Forget the gym: this is the real way to lose some of those pounds. You also have something rewarding to show at the end of all that exercise and believe me: it is a serious workout!”

Kerrie and her team are not on a mission to “man mash” or champion a feminist line in DIY. What they are trying to do is raise the standards within an industry that has a fair amount of bad press levelled at it with good reason. As Kerrie concluded by saying to me:

"I care about my home. When I let someone into it, especially if I am paying them to perform an agreed task, I expect them to treat it with the respect they would show their own property and for me that is the bottom line. It’s not a question of men being better than women or women being better than men but more about who can do the best job, regardless of gender.”

I came to the interview wondering whether A Woman’s Touch was little more than a gimmick but to my relief I quickly realised that Kerrie and her team mean business. I’ve had my fair share of experiences with builders – and I have to say that not all of them have been bad – but I was impressed with the professionalism and commitment her company aspire to.

Of course I’m no expert and just like so many people out there I want to believe that I can pick up a paint brush and make a good job of it but seeing these ladies in action made me question what I really know about painting and decorating. After all, I’m only a man.

For more information about A Woman’s Touch check out their website on www.awomanstouch.org.uk

George R Vaughan