Joining the construction industry by chance on the back of an economic downturn, Katie O’Malley quickly developed a zealous enthusiasm for delivering meaningful places and infrastructure.
It’s hard to imagine Katie O’Malley in an industry outside of construction. Her passion for the sector shines through in the way she speaks about her role as Group Corporate Affairs Manager at BESIX Watpac and the construction projects, initiatives and teams she’s been a part of.
It may be surprising to some that O’Malley’s career began in the advertising world.
Growing up, her parents actively encouraged her to get an education and at the age of 18, O’Malley left home and completed a Bachelor of Communication and Design in Wellington, New Zealand.
At that time, a vast majority of New Zealand graduates made their way to the UK for work, but O’Malley says she was hankering for an adventure and accepted a position in Tonga to work for a small media and tourism publishing firm. “Living in a developing country exposed me to foreign aid and infrastructure projects, high commissioners and an ex-pat lifestyle,” she says. “I socialised with American Peace Corps, Australian Aid volunteers and local work colleagues through to luxury yacht owners.”
“I learned to be incredibly flexible, resourceful and resilient – filling in my time tutoring, volunteering, completing my first triathlon, kayaking and even teaching aerobics at the local gym (it wasn’t pretty).”
O’Malley’s next adventure led her to Brisbane where she began working in advertising, publishing and digital media. It was here she progressed into management roles and gained experience building teams and leading communication strategies for business transformation projects.
“It was about this time I realised the importance of being a trusted partner in an organisation,” says O’Malley. “I found myself working closely with C-Suite executives to communicate confidential and complex initiatives like a voluntary redundancy program or launching a new solution.”
“I think having a creative background has helped me develop a solutions-orientated approach in most things I do.
“I’m often not the most qualified person in the room – but I can support developing a roadmap to navigate a way forward.”
In 2008 O’Malley was recruited into a communication role for a start-up marketing automation software company but, not long after, found herself redundant as a result of the global financial crisis. Little did she know, a great opportunity was around the corner.
O’Malley scored her first role in the construction industry in the submissions space for national engineering design, construction and land development firm BMD Group. Submissions is a great place to get up to speed with any industry, she says, and understand client requirements.
“I was incredibly fortunate at BMD Group to be offered a lot of training and development, including an opportunity to be mentored by the Chief Financial Officer,” says O’Malley. “This helped build my confidence and my overall understanding of commercial business management outside of my own role.”
By this stage, O’Malley had built a strong portfolio of industry experience and was approached for a role at Hastings Deering Caterpillar. She says she jumped at the chance to work for a global brand with much larger consumer marketing budgets.
Her career then took her to Melbourne for two years where O’Malley worked for Viva Energy (Shell Australia) until joining SMEC – a global multidisciplinary design firm. “Part of my role was to lead the communication program for the acquisition of SMEC and then Robert Bird Group by Surbana Jurong Group,” she says. “The organisation is owned by CapitaLand and Temasek Holdings, an investment company owned by the Government of Singapore, so it was a huge step up in terms of working with global stakeholders.”
With experience now across civil, equipment, energy and engineering design sectors, O’Malley joined BESIX Watpac in October 2021 as Group Corporate Affairs Manager – her first time working in the built environment.
Currently responsible for the company’s sustainability, Indigenous affairs, workforce development and training, marketing and communications functions, O’Malley leads a team that supports the business across the entire value chain – from helping set environmental, social, and governance (ESG) targets and developing content for bids, to managing media and promotion of company projects, to supporting community initiatives in the regions where BESIX Watpac operates. Additionally, O’Malley is part of the Group Leadership Team, involved in strategy and planning workshops, and sits on a range of internal committees.
Her commitment to the construction industry extends even further as a member of the Construction Skills Queensland Women in Construction Advisory Committee and as a board member of the Australian Construction Association.
Since joining BESIX Watpac, O’Malley says she has been provided with lots of opportunities and support from the company’s leadership team. “In particular my Chief Executive Officer, Mark Baker, is a great mentor who has consistently provided me with opportunities and stretch projects to deepen my industry knowledge and develop my career,” she says.
Her role at BESIX Watpac has seen her involved in notable projects including the Te Kaha – Canterbury’s Multi-Use Arena Stadium in New Zealand, positioning for the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games and projects right on her doorstep such as Kangaroo Point Green Bridge.
With employees fundamentally connected to BESIX Watpac’s success, last year O’Malley developed and launched a new employee Awards and Recognition program with a monthly values-based peer nominated award.
“My team also launched our second Reconciliation Action Plan ‘Innovate’, which is focused on providing training pathways such as apprenticeships and traineeships to support local communities and Indigenous people to gain sustainable employment,” says O’Malley. “We’re incredibly proud of our track record and have achieved a national average Indigenous workforce of 2.1 per cent, which is approximately 797 Indigenous people on our projects over the last four years.”
“Our National Estimated Indigenous Spend since 2019 is also $14.5 million and growing.”
To strengthen BESIX Watpac’s commitment to community, O’Malley worked with the company’s Chief Executive Officer and Group Risk and Compliance Manager to establish the BESIX Watpac Community Fund. The company has supported multiple charities through this initiative, including funding the Tradie Health Institute which is focused on silicosis disease treatment and research at The Prince Charles Hospital in Queensland.
Sustainability is also really high on her agenda. “It’s been great to have our new Sustainability Manager join our team to support our ESG strategy, lead our Sustainability Committee and support our bids and projects,” O’Malley says.
More recently, O’Malley has been a part of BESIX Watpac’s Group Leadership Team working group that developed a diversity strategy that enabled the company to announce its commitment to a 25 per cent female workforce by 2025.
“We’ve committed to a 5 per cent increase of females in management roles by the end of 2023 and are focused on eliminating any gender pay gaps – I sit on a review panel where we track and review recruitment data and outcomes,” she says. “This year we are also celebrating 40 years of operations which has been an exciting opportunity to promote our legacy, experience, and value add of our BESIX Group partnership.”
More than the opportunities the construction industry has provided her, O’Malley says what truly drew her to the industry was the positive and sometimes life-changing impact infrastructure and buildings can have on the community.
“Making a difference is important to me, it sounds a bit cheesy – but I think in construction you really have the opportunity to contribute to building meaningful places and improving lives,” she says. “My own family and a lot of people I know have been directly impacted by suicide and mental health; it’s also one of the biggest challenges in our industry with construction having one of the highest rates of suicide.”
“It’s meant a lot to me that my role has included developing partnerships with Greg Inglis and the Goanna Academy and supporting initiatives like Movember.
“Launching these programs into our workplace has been a great way to help raise awareness, remove the stigma and most importantly, support more conversations.
“Outside of purpose, it’s the people – in every organisation I’ve worked in, I’m surrounded by exceptionally smart, humble and gritty people working hard to deliver outstanding projects.”
O’Malley’s multidisciplinary career is nothing short of inspiring. Recently, O’Malley drew inspiration from another leading woman, BESIX Watpac board member and reportedly the first woman in Australia to be appointed to an airport management role, Julieanne Alroe.
Speaking at BESIX Watpac’s International Women’s Day lunch, Alroe shared her story of becoming the Chief Executive Officer of Brisbane Airport in her 50’s and discussed having ‘seasons’ in your career – times when you could work longer hours or had the support structure in place to enable you to step up into a larger role, or times when you needed to pull back and find better balance for your family or health.
Similarly, O’Malley says a career in construction doesn’t mean you need to separate your ‘weekend self’ from your ‘work self’. “If you are starting a career in construction and have flexibility – saying yes to a remote project might provide you with the opportunity to step up and manage a team or lead a project,” she says. “You’ll likely meet interesting people and community partners along the way and learn a lot beyond the scope of the project.”
“Be patient and learn as much as you can through experience.
“Find your point of difference and keep up-skilling through work experience, stretch projects, industry workshops and events, or more formal learning – say yes as much as you can.”
A bit of difference is a good thing, says Katie O’Malley, the industry desperately needs more diversity, so there is a lot of opportunity for people who want to transition into construction.