Stephanie Cornwall talks to incoming FIS president Helen Tapper about her career path, how she came to be in the role, and what causes she is passionate about.

Championing the cause of small contractors and diversity will be focal points for new FIS president Helen Tapper, who takes up the mantle this month.

Helen, a mother-of-two, has spent almost two decades working in the fit-out industry and holds the title of finance director at Banburybased Tapper Interiors, a family-run business set up 35 years ago, of which her husband is the second generation.

Born in Leicestershire, Helen began her working life as an electrical engineer in the materials handling and logistics industry. Her move into the interiors sector came 17 years later while she was on maternity leave with her second daughter.

“My husband has been in interiors all his life, so it was his family business. A lot of the things in the office needed computerising. As I was on maternity leave, it was natural for me to step is as
I had the skills needed to help,” she said. “19 years later, I am still there! I ended up staying and we have grown the business together from there.”

With 84% of FIS members made up of contractors, and more than 60% of those having turnovers of less than £5m, Helen believes she is well-placed to represent the interests of those SMEs, many of whom, like Tapper Interiors, are family-run.

“That is pretty typical of a contracting business, particularly specialist contractors. A lot of them are definitely family affairs. It is a tough sector to be in. A lot of contractors work very long hours and it takes a mammoth effort from the whole family,” she said.

Providing a voice for SMEs
Helen said she first became aware of FIS around 15 years ago and played a key role in Tapper Interiors becoming a member. She put herself forward as a board member after attending several
FIS events, seeing what the organisation had to offer businesses such as theirs and realising that she could contribute something that would help others. “I found a lot of the things being talked about, particularly at the conference, were very relevant to me – the legal, financial and training side of the business. I felt these were all incredibly important to mitigate risk and to help the business expand.

I realised I had quite strong opinions, and once I started putting those forward and I realised that I was being listened to I got drawn in! The more I got involved, it became more appararent, by
our very nature, that it’s much more difficult for smaller contractors to be on the board, let alone become president, because we haven’t got the time, money or support.

“While there is a good mix of supplier and manufacturers and contractor members, many of the board contractor members tend to be from the big fit-out and drylining companies because they have more access to those things (time, money, support). When you are coming from a small contracting company, the board can seem quite far removed from that section of the membership, and I felt the smaller contractors needed more representation. Bridging this gap will be my focus,” she said.

Changes and improvements
Over the past decade, the finishes and interiors sector has seen a lot of positive changes, but there is still much to be done, Helen believes. “I was aware of the interiors sector way before I joined the business, because I was married to someone who was working in it. But back then, on the whole, it was a little-known sector. Whenever people asked what you did, an explanation was always required. Within the past 10 years, there has been a massive progression. We are now a consensus federation. The fit-out and drylining sectors are much better perceived and have a higher profile. People now know what they are and that makes a massive difference,” she said.

“Along with the recognition, there has been lots of technical advancements, with many more new products coming to market,” said Helen. She said FIS has been successful in raising its profile and membership, and part of her drive as president will be to provide smaller contractors with the opportunity to develop their businesses, providing them with access to all the help and information they need to do this, albeit in easily understandable and readily available formats.

“From a personal point of view, we have gone from a small contractor turning over £1.5m when I joined, to now turning over £6m so there has been a natural business progression along with that. I see the role of the FIS as helping contractors,” she said. “One of the major roles of the FIS is to help people in that business progress, with all the problems that that entails – financial, technical and sometimes social. It is a lonely place being a contractor. A lot of us sit in our little bubbles, whatever area of the country you work in. There aren’t that many of us – we are not surrounded by other businesses doing the same thing as us. We need a central hub to look to for advice. Construction is a risky business and being a specialist contractor adds a whole other level of risk. Being a contractor is all about being able to manage that risk.”

She said finding the contracts in the first place, getting paid, looking after cash flow and finding a reliable workforce have been challenges for contractors for the past 30 years, and will continue
to be so. FIS should provide them with the support they need to meet those challenges head-on. She is also keen to ensure red tape and paperwork don’t cause a headache for contractor members who are time-poor.

“Publication of data and legislation needs to be accessible to them in bite-size chunks that can be easily understood and applied to small businesses,” she said. “There is a lot going on at
high level that FIS needs to analyse and inform the membership in a simple and concise way to help us understand, quantify and mitigate the risk within our own businesses.”

Championing diversity
As the first female contractor president, Helen says she will also be ‘banging the drum’ for equality and diversity and endeavouring to overcome some of the stereotypes that she believes are deterring more skilled personnel from entering the finishes and interiors sector. “We have a national skills shortage in construction generally, but particularly in our sector,” she said. “There are whole pools of talent out there that we are not drawing on, because we are just failing to attract them. If you are a woman, it is pretty intimidating if you want to become an apprentice, a fixer or a quantity surveyor. You have got to be quite a strong character to put yourself forward. Equally, I think minority groups can’t imagine themselves working on site for the same reason. I’m not saying there aren’t any doing it, but there are probably more with the right skills set that are put off.”

Because many smaller contractor members are family-run, women from those families are making important decisions and are very much part of the sector, so have a lot to offer in terms of experience and knowledge, said Helen.

“In some cases they are actually running the businesses from their offices, yet when I go to the events, I see hardly any women there. Maybe if I am standing in this role, as a woman, even if it
encourages just a handful of them to come out of their offices to engage with us, it will have achieved something. They have important insights to share – they know what goes on in these
businesses yet they are not engaging with us. It’s a shame because I think they have got a lot to offer.

“I know it’s scary. I won’t pretend I’m not a little bit nervous and have also felt slightly intimidated in the past. But it’s a case of ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’, so maybe by seeing me in this role, it will encourage more women to come forward.”

Passionate about apprenticeships
So does Helen see herself as a role model for more young women looking to enter the industry? She believes this comes from the bottom upwards, with the right opportunities and training being key to the future of the finishes and interiors sector, regardless of gender.

“I am passionate about apprenticeships. It certainly changed my life when I did an apprenticeship myself,” said Helen. “That was a technician apprenticeship which was five years long, so it was very in-depth, but it certainly changed my life. It gave me a platform and the grounding to go on to train in other things.

Apprenticeships are incredibly important for young people and I think they have got lost slightly in the obsession with getting to university and getting a degree in something which won’t always necessarily help you in your career, and will leave you with a massive debt.”

She said apprenticeship programmes within business should be encouraged but many can be put off because they are time consuming and expensive to run, therefore more help should be given in this area.

Having chaired the Trailblazer working group, Helen is particularly proud that the Level 2 Interior Systems Installer Trailblazer Apprenticeship is now in place, thanks to a host of industry partners and employers developing the standard. The apprenticeship also has an excellent £14K funding band.

While Trailblazer apprenticeships have always existed within the traditional building trades, there was previously nothing similar for the finishes and interiors sector.

“This gives our sector the status and recognition that it so rightly deserves and is the shape of things to come,” she said.