BUILD: The building blocks of life
“I was heard, and I was supported. The construction industry was the catalyst for me feeling comfortable in my own skin. That’s why I love it so much.”
Interview: Sue Wilcock / Anna-Maria Casas Pictures: Warren Page
Clare Friel talks to Suffolk Director
Construction is a traditionally male-dominated industry with females still making up only 15 per cent of its workforce, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). But for one woman, construction is the place she feels at home. An industry where she feels listened to and supported. An industry that has provided the missing jigsaw piece in a life-long quest to find herself.
Last year, Ipswich business owner, Clare Friel, reached a career milestone when she was listed as one of the Top 100 Most Influential Women in Construction by the National Federation of Builders (NFB), also winning the East of England ‘Unsung Hero’ award.
This year, the 38-year-old – who runs the full-service, construction-focused marketing agency, Friel – has been nominated in the ‘Ally’ category of the awards, recognising those who use their influence to support inclusion and change.
“I’ve met some amazing women in construction, but it’s not about men and women,” Clare is keen to point out. “Although we do need to attract more women into the industry, it’s about having the same values.
“There are other industries that have the gender imbalance, but they brush it under the carpet, or it’s not an issue they address. The construction industry has chosen to tackle this head-on. It is honest and it cares about the legacy it leaves.”
Now an ambassador for the NFB, Clare’s journey into the construction world and setting up her own business has been a bumpy one, but her story is an inspiration.
There has been significant adversity for her to overcome along the way. From childhood dyslexia and running away from home, to becoming a single parent at the age of 18, to managing the effects of stress from running a business.
So, how did it all begin for this entrepreneurial mother-of-two, who also runs the news content hub, Construction Anglia, and the free networking event, Suffolk Property Drinks?
“My parents are both Irish,” says Clare. “Dad’s parents moved first to Ipswich and then he followed, moving initially to London. My parents then both met by chance at a wedding in Ireland and got married 13 days later!”
Clare was born to Gerry and Frances Friel in Whitechapel five years later, the eldest of four children. The family moved from London to Trimley, near Felixstowe, after her father got a job as a database administrator for BT Martlesham.
She attended Trimley St Mary Primary School, but due to her Irish roots and the lack of an extended family locally, she struggled to fit in.
“I had an amazing childhood,” recalls Clare. “I spent a lot of time in Ireland during the school holidays and we had a beach hut in Felixstowe. However, having an Irish home life, I found it difficult to integrate into an English primary school.”
Clare moved on to St Alban’s High School in Ipswich. However, an incident at the age of 14 when teachers caught her trying to take alcohol onto the premises for a school disco, led to her running away from home.
“I went to the bank and withdrew all my savings,” recalls Clare. “I got on a train from Ipswich to London, then to Stansted Airport, and booked a ticket to Belfast. My plan was to make my way to Newry where a cousin lived.
“I looked a lot older than I was. I boarded the plane using my bus pass as ID, but after I’d taken my seat, the police got on, took me off to the airport station, and called my parents.”
“That summer I felt really bad. I realised the impact of my actions on my parents. It must have been horrific for them.”
In 1999, Clare was moved to a private school, Amberfield, in Nacton, Ipswich. It was here she was diagnosed with dyslexia. Despite having the makings of an ‘A’ star student, she had to work harder than other students and her grades slipped as socialising became more important.
She went on to study A Levels at Northgate Sixth Form in Ipswich with ambitions to become a TV presenter or journalist. However, events in Clare’s life were about to take a dramatic turn.
“When I found out I was pregnant, I was hysterical. I didn’t know how to tell my parents and siblings, but they were very supportive. Nia was born in May 2003, the second year of sixth form – I had just turned 18. I still managed to sit my A Levels but didn’t get the grades I wanted, so I went back the following term and retook them.”
“Nia was the catalyst – my reason for everything. She gave me focus and she grounded me. She made me grow up.”
After leaving school, Clare targeted post-production houses in London and landed her first job as a runner, commuting each day while her parents cared for Nia.
She got the break she was waiting for as a runner on Celebrity Big Brother in 2005, which was followed by stints for other production companies. However, concerned about the unsociable hours, she pursued a 9-5 job with a talent agency, co-ordinating pop stars’ diaries.
“I didn’t really enjoy being behind a desk,” she explains. “My heart was at home, and I wanted a job that allowed me to be closer to my daughter and spend more time with her.”
Clare found temporary work back in Ipswich, but a new arrival was on the way. In 2009, she gave birth to a son, Stanley.
With sole responsibility for mortgage payments, Clare needed a permanent job, and a career change was on the horizon.
“I’d never aspired to work in recruitment, but I enjoyed connecting people and helping them reach their full potential.”
Her first foray into construction came when she took a job with Ipswich-based industry recruitment specialist, Agentis. “My boss, Mel Wilson, was amazing. She took me under her wing, and I started going out on construction sites – I absolutely loved it!”
As Clare’s experience in the construction sector developed, her affinity for it deepened. “I liked construction because people say it as it is. I also love how you can impact a legacy – you can drive past a building and say, I played a part in making that happen.”
However, in spite of her new-found vocation, Clare was lured back to the city by the offer of another recruitment agency job. It was a choice she regretted almost immediately. “It was awful – headsets, targets, recorded calls. I felt really claustrophobic. I started on a Tuesday and resigned on the Friday, but they somehow convinced me to stay for another 18 months.
“Deep down, I knew I loved construction and the people, but not recruitment because I was being measured on whether a labourer turned up to a building site on a Monday morning or not, which was completely out of my control.”
In 2018, Clare secured a position as Business Development Manager with groundworks company, R&D Construction, in the Suffolk village of Walsham-le-Willows.
In her 18 months working for the company, she achieved significant milestones, getting her employer on lists for major contractors, while also working with colleges to pave the way for industry apprenticeships.
She was keen to raise the profile of the industry, as well as tackle barriers in working relationships. “There’s this site versus office mentality in construction and I was passionate about bridging that gap.”
Working once again in construction, Clare felt like she belonged.
“When I got to R&D, I could be myself. As a Business Development Manager, I saw my role as building relationships – not selling.”
“If I’ve learnt one thing in this business, it’s just to be kind to people – you don’t have to like everyone, but if someone’s values align with your own, there’s potential for a strong relationship.”
Going it alone
After R&D went into administration in 2018, Clare took the bold step to set up on her own, creating Friel Consulting. She found a demand for her industry knowledge and book of contacts, but it soon became apparent that it was not going to be plain sailing.
“What I realised was that if I found a business a connection quickly, they’d get the job and their order book would be full, so I would be effectively redundant. If a relationship took longer to build, they’d say, ‘we can’t afford you’.
“I would say you need to know your worth. I found it really hard to have a conversation around money without guaranteed deliverables.”
Clare’s main focus was to create a business that provided everything she had wanted from an employer.
“When I started Friel I had no savings to fall back on. I don’t think money would have changed things though – I think the biggest thing that would have made a difference was having training in running a business. There’s a big skills gap between working on a business and working in a business.”
As well as industry introductions, Clare was being increasingly asked by companies for digital services. So, to better cater for that demand, she merged with another marketing agency in 2019.
The pressure of running a business
With rapid growth and success came increasing pressure to keep on top of things, and Clare was finding it harder to manage the stress.
“You get more clients, your team expands, so you need to feed the beast with more business – that’s when it becomes a whole new ball game. The difficulty is that when your name is on the door; people want to speak to you.”
“Although I was still in the honeymoon phase of running a business, I was waking up crying, not wanting to get out of bed. I just felt so stretched. I was attending every breakfast and evening networking event going because I just felt I had to be there.
“My work-life balance was totally out of kilter, and this started to affect me mentally. I pretended that everything was ok. When the reality was I just needed a break.”
After confiding in her business partner, Clare booked herself on a retreat in Spain in the autumn of 2019. She had just made the list of the final 20 contestants for that year’s, The Apprentice TV programme, but regaining her mental health was her priority.
“On the outside I was smiling, but inside I felt as though I was drowning. I just didn’t want to do what I was doing anymore.”
Clare flew out for a week of exercise, relaxation and reflection. She had access to her phone just once a day and cut out alcohol, as well as sugar, to curb unhealthy habits that had taken over.
“For the first time in a long time, I didn’t have to think about anyone else but me. I was looked after for a week; I came back feeling invincible!”
On her return, Clare decided it was best she and her business partner went their separate ways, and she launched her own marketing agency.
“There was almost like a grieving period after we split, but it was the right thing to do, but then Covid hit.”
The impact of Covid
In the initial throes of the pandemic, clients began pulling out. “The first thing people wanted to do was get rid of their marketing – which was the last thing they should be doing. I took call after call from people saying they needed to scale back,” explains Clare.
At the time, she was chair of the Forum for the Built Environment (FBE) and was trying her best to get answers from the Government, but to no avail. With 90 per cent of Friel’s business linked to construction, things hung in the balance. However, construction was quickly recognised as a key driver for the economy, and it wasn’t long before sites were back open around the country.
Like most businesses, Clare had to furlough some employees, but the bonds between her team grew stronger, even though they were working from home.
In 2021 Clare’s daughter, Nia, started working for the company as a Digital Marketing Apprentice. Based at Fox’s Marina in Ipswich, Friel Marketing was seemingly doing well. Then Clare appointed an accountancy coach, Tom Jamison. His advice came as a shock.
“Tom told me that continuing as I was, I could be facing serious issues around the finances. I was like, no it’s fine – I’d won a massive contract, but when I told him how much time I’d spent on it, he told me I’d actually made a loss.
“I started to make some big adjustments in the company, and at the same time, it helped that three core members of my team left of their own accord. It was all very amicable; I didn’t want to let them go, but I had to take the emotion out of running the business.”
“Ultimately, when it’s your business, you’re the one who has to take tough decisions when they’re needed.”
Clare is keen to pay tribute to her Finance Manager Shell Smith. “The most undervalued person in a business can be their finance function. Shell has been with me from day one and is my rock. I’m so lucky to have her.”
Meanwhile, Clare’s personal life had become happier after meeting Leon, who worked for a groundworks contractor. She first saw him on her flight home from the retreat and recognised him from the construction world (but didn’t say hello as she didn’t know him). They connected on LinkedIn and when Covid hit they started messaging about work. This then led to a ‘socially distanced’ relationship during the pandemic, which grew into something more serious post lockdown one; they are set to marry this Summer.
Looking to the future
After undertaking several projects between 2020 and 2022 for Ipswich Central, the town’s Business Improvement District (BID), Clare started working part-time in early 2023 for the organisation as its Head of Place Marketing, as well as running Friel and her other ventures.
She decided to relocate from Fox’s Marina to the Lower Brook Street offices where Ipswich Central is based. “It has been great to relocate to the town centre. It is nice for the team to be able to spend time in the town and be in easy proximity for after-work drinks.
“I wouldn’t call myself a conventional businesswoman, I have no filter which can get me in trouble sometimes. However, I’ve had situations where speaking before thinking has helped. Saying yes and then knowing that I have an amazing network and together we can make anything happen.”
One example of this is around the comedian Omid Djalili, whom Clare approached – almost hounded – after he moved to Ipswich, persuading him to become a ‘town ambassador’. She is now the driving force behind some of his events taking place in the town that raise funds for the Turkey-Syria Earthquake Appeal.
“Looking back on the past, the people I’ve learnt most from are my parents. They have been there for me every step of the way; when I’ve hated my career, when I’m feeling guilty that I am missing parents’ evenings and school sports days. They have both played a big part in helping me reach where I am and my realisation that you can do anything if you believe in yourself.”