Melbourne local Clare Quinlan has worked in environmental roles for Tier 1 construction companies, established multiple businesses and today steers the success of her latest venture, Salus Workwear.
Proving her ambition has no bounds, the zealous construction professional has moved from state to state and coast to coast completing projects for the likes of McConnell Dowell and Lendlease. She has juggled pregnancy and motherhood along the way, having to move house while six months pregnant for one project and again with her six-week-old and two-year-old in tow for another.
But the construction industry wasn’t always on the cards for Quinlan. “Initially I wanted to be a marine biologist and so I completed a Bachelor of Science at the University of Melbourne,” she says. “Unfortunately, there aren’t many jobs in pure marine biology that involve diving and collecting specimens, so I did some travelling and lived in England for a while before returning home in search of a career.”
As luck would have it, Quinlan fell into a role at McConnell Dowell’s head office in 2008, sparking her enthusiasm for the construction industry and its vast opportunities. Soon after, she moved over to the environmental team within the business.
“I had a science degree that I really wanted to use, and I love the environment, so I was excited to be able to merge the two at McConnell Dowell,” explains Quinlan. “I didn’t even realise there was an opportunity within a construction company to do environmental advising before I started in the industry.”
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Her new role as Environmental Advisor led Quinlan to work on the Adelaide Desalination Plant project in 2010, assisting in the management of contractual environmental specifications, legislation, and compliance – where she also met her now husband who was working with Abigroup.
“McConnell Dowell delivered the project in joint venture with Abigroup, and it was great,” she says. “I loved being onsite because it’s a completely different world as opposed to working in an office; I’d never experienced anything like it.”
Quinlan recalls in one instance; she was asked by her superintendent to give the environmental toolbox talk to a room full of 85 men. As a young woman in the first week of her first onsite project, she gave the talk with her hands shaking.
Looking back, she says it was extremely daunting, but a rewarding experience. “At the end of the toolbox, everyone applauded me,” says Quinlan. “I was clearly nervous, but at the end of the day everyone is there to do a job and the support I received was second to none.”
When the project was complete in 2011, Quinlan was sent back to Melbourne at the same time as her partner, who was moved to the Peninsula Link Freeway project. She found herself without a project to move to, and so joined Abigroup as an Environmental Coordinator to work alongside him.
As an environmental professional in the construction industry, Quinlan’s key responsibility was to ensure the company was working within the environmental laws and constraints of the site it was working on. She strategically planned ways to minimise or eliminate disruption to sites with Aboriginal heritage areas, First Nations artifacts, protected flora and wildlife habitat zones. Her role also involved monitoring water quality, dust, noise and the effects of weather such as excessive rain on a worksite, as well as controlling and minimising project impacts on surrounding areas.
As an Environmental Coordinator on the Peninsula Link Freeway project, Quinlan says she was given more responsibility. “It was amazing,” she says. “I felt like I was being thrown into the deep end, but in a good way.”
“I enjoyed educating the workforce, through toolbox talks and pre starts, on what the environmental team was doing and why we were doing it.
“It was great to be able to share information and educate, as well as come to a middle ground as a collective where everyone can work together to get the job done.”
After her time on the Peninsula Link Freeway, Quinlan was assigned various projects along the eastern coastline of New South Wales as part of the Pacific Highway Upgrade. This led her to move to Coffs Harbour in 2013 to work on the Nambucca to Urunga section and move again later that year to Byron Bay to work on the Tintenbar to Ewingsdale section. These projects involved Quinlan moving from a more boots on the ground role into an office role writing environmental policies, tenders and control plans. Then, in late 2014 she moved to Port Macquarie to work on the Oxley Highway Kundgebung section, six months pregnant with her first born, Heidi.
“Heidi was born in March 2015, and I went on maternity leave,” says Quinlan. “I had established a jewellery business a few years before as a side hustle, so I set up my own home studio for handmaking jewellery and continued selling it to local stores in Port Macquarie, Byron Bay and surrounds.”
“A few years later whilst still on leave, I fell pregnant with my daughter Emma who was born in April 2017.
“By the time Emma was six weeks old, my partner was moved to a project in western Sydney, so we moved again – something I don’t recommend doing with a baby and toddler.”
Interested in finding another job in the construction industry after the birth of her two daughters, she looked for an appropriate role but says being expected to be onsite at early hours and finishing late as she was in previous site roles wasn’t feasible.
Quinlan didn’t want to put her kids into care every day and with her partner still working long hours as a superintendent in the industry, it wasn’t conducive for her to also take on those long days. “It just couldn’t have worked – to bring up our family in the way that we wanted and have two parents in the construction industry,” she says.
Although Quinlan says flexibility for working families is an ongoing challenge that needs to be addressed by the construction industry, she asserts that the industry provides vast opportunities and positive career paths.
“Construction is a great industry to get into as it can really propel people forward in their career,” she says. “I also love its diversity – there’s an abundance of diverse projects and, like my husband and I, you can travel and work around Australia.”
“We would never have lived in Port Macquarie or Coffs Harbour, or possibly even Byron Bay if it wasn’t for our construction careers, and to live in a number of different communities along the way was amazing.”
The move to Sydney was difficult for Quinlan, given she didn’t know anyone in the city and had two young children to care for. She explains it wasn’t the best move for her family due to the distant location from her extended relatives, so they packed up again and moved back to their home city of Melbourne in early 2018.
Still there to this day, Quinlan is currently studying her Masters of Education at Swinburne University of Technology, but her grassroots remain in construction. Launching her construction industry branding and workwear business in July 2022, Quinlan has received a flood of support from her previous construction employers and colleagues.
Building Salus Workwear with a focus on increasing the visibility of women in the construction and workwear industries, Quinlan has further expanded her business’s offering to provide work apparel, safety, corporate and leisure wear, and promotional merchandise and uniforms to the health and wellness, sports, education and transport industries.
But she says the construction industry is still at the heart of her business. “I networked and made many connections throughout my years working on various construction projects around Australia,” says Quinlan.
“One of my first clients was McConnell Dowell which is incredible; it is a company I loved working for – it’s as though my construction career has come full circle.”
Having her own business has provided her the means to stay connected to the industry she loves and has been a part of for most of her career. It’s also allowed her the flexibility to care for and spend time with her children.
As a professional who has let little to nothing get in the way of her ambition, Quinlan has one piece of advice for those aspiring to work in the construction industry.
“You’ve got to get in there, jump in and be open to learning as much as you can,” she says. “There’s absolutely going to be challenges and really difficult times, but if you’re assertive and apply yourself the opportunities for growth, both professionally and personally, are limitless.”