Profile - For the love of concrete

As the first female president of the Concrete Society of Southern Africa, Hanlie Turner spoke to Robyn Grimsley about how she became involved in the industry, the impact of technology, and her experience working in a traditionally male-driven and -orientated sector.

Hanlie Turner 200Hanlie Turner, president of the Concrete Society of Southern Africa.
Image credit: Concrete Society of Southern Africa

Hanlie Turner has over three decades of experience in the cement and concrete industry, and is currently specialist: technical information services at PPC, as well as president of the Concrete Society of Southern Africa (CSSA).

Robyn Grimsley (RG): Tell me about your background, what are your qualifications?

Hanlie Turner (HT): I have a degree in library science (B.Bibl) from the University of Johannesburg and a postgraduate diploma in marketing from the IMM Graduate School.

RG: So how did you end up in this sector and in the Concrete Society?

HT: I knew from the work I had been doing during the holidays while I was studying that I did not want to work in a public library; I wanted to be in a research-type of technical environment. So, in my final year at university — this was the early 1980s when most corporates had very strong technical libraries — I became aware of a position at Murray & Roberts’ technical library. I applied for the job and I got it — it was really a heaven-sent opportunity. I have been in the bigger construction industry ever since and I have just never looked back. So, while I have no formal technical qualifications in cement and concrete, my whole working life has been spent in this industry.

I think it is important to note that my Concrete Society involvement is voluntary. I am grateful to my current employer, PPC, for the time they allow me to spend on the Concrete Society work, but my Concrete Society position is not because of, or related to, my position at PPC.

RG: How did your career progress from that point?

HT: I was at M&R for about seven years and I ended up being in charge of their technical library. I then joined a firm of consulting engineers, also in their technical library, before I took up a position at the Cement and Concrete Institute (C&CI) in their information centre. While I was working at the C&CI, the marketing manager approached me and asked whether I had ever thought about diversifying into marketing. I was sceptical because I saw myself as a good information worker in the research environment. I was skilled at connecting people with the information they needed. I nevertheless enrolled for the marketing diploma, and some years later when a vacancy became available at the C&CI, I was appointed marketing manager at the Institute. That was an opportune change in career direction for me.

And then four years ago, in 2013, I joined PPC as specialist: technical information services.

RG: How has technology impacted the information side of the business?

HT: Technology, and specifically the Internet, hasn’t actually had as big of an impact as we were initially led to believe it would. A few years ago, predictions of a paperless society led everyone to believe that libraries were going to cease to exist and all information was going to be ‘electronic’. But it has not happened, and it is not going to happen in my lifetime. We found that many people, especially students, did not really know how to do research. They could google the topic they wanted information on, but they found it difficult to extract quality information or to find the specific answers they were looking for.

The information centre at the C&CI (these days called TCI) is one-of-a-kind in the southern hemisphere. When I was there, we made it our mission to explain to students that you could not do a technical assignment based on a google search, because the nature of the Internet is that anyone can post anything, and it can be difficult to determine what an individual’s authority is in that field. The Internet is incredibly powerful, but you need to be able to assess the quality of the information you find — the credibility of the source. Particularly if you come across what seems to be a really interesting idea, you need to be able to test it against other credible sources and see whether this is just some whacky person thinking out of the box, or whether it is a credible source with real innovative thinking — there’s a fine balance. So what we found — and what TCI Information Centre still finds — is that there is a swing back to students actually understanding that you've got to consult credible sources of information for sound research and decision-making.

RG: Tell me about the Concrete Society and your time there.

HT: The Concrete Society of Southern Africa, to give it its full name, is an interest body — anybody with any interest in concrete can become a member. You do not need a qualification, you do not need specific experience; you just need to love concrete. So, whether you are an architect, an engineer, a contractor, or a material supplier, if you've got any interest in concrete, you can become a member of the Concrete Society. It is a fully constituted non-profit company that’s been around for 48 years, with a very strong footprint and legacy in South Africa.

I became involved in the Inland Branch of the Concrete Society in 2006 because of my interest in the subject. I was on the committee of the Inland Branch, and eventually became the branch chair of the committee — the first woman in South Africa to hold that position. After a number of years, I was co-opted onto the Concrete Society board. All the board members are involved for the love of concrete and for the passion of the material. The board has nine members: the CEO, John Sheath, and eight elected members. Those members elect a vice-president to take over from the current president when the incumbent has served his/her term. I was elected vice-president in 2014 and during 2016 I was inaugurated as president for a two-year term.

RG: As president, what responsibilities do you have?

HT: I am chairperson of the board of directors so I chair the board meetings, where we focus on the strategy and discuss issues of importance for the sustainability of the Society in terms of membership base, the portfolio of offerings and/or course financial sustainability. I also work closely with the CSSA head office staff, the CEO, the administrator, and the membership coordinator on a weekly basis.

RG: Are there any particular areas that you will be focusing on over the next five years?

HT: To me, the three really important areas that we need to focus on are innovation, relevance, and succession planning, which are all interconnected and crucial for survival of any business or organisation, not just the Society.

Innovation is happening at an alarming rate and if we do not drive and embrace it, we will end up being driven by it and playing catch-up. Traditional R&D programmes should give place to focused development and investigation of innovative offerings in terms of materials, processes, and outcomes, while upholding sound engineering, design, construction, and material fundamentals.

Relevance cuts across staff grades and ages, and the challenge is to remain on the forefront of what is available, what is achievable, and what is practical. We do not need to be swayed by every unsubstantiated innovative fancy or practice, but I believe that our industry does need to move forward to remain relevant. As part of this drive for relevance, the Concrete Society and the other concrete-related bodies in South Africa — The Concrete Institute (TCI), the South African Readymix Association (Sarma), and the Concrete Manufacturers Association (CMA) — have made the decision to work more closely together with the ultimate goal of consolidation of the various bodies into one workable entity for the benefit of our whole industry.

Succession planning is the issue that concerns me most and one that is tremendously important to me. When I say succession planning, I don't just mean in terms of who will replace me on the board when my service term is over; I mean succession planning for the membership of the Concrete Society. Senior people need to ensure a thorough understanding of and respect for engineering principles in the younger generation, and need to mentor and groom junior staff members. We have a responsibility to harness the innovative energy of the younger generation to ensure that our industry remains in good hands.

Where relevance and succession planning intersect, we will ensure that the Society, the board, the members, and the events reflect the realities of our industry.

We have already moved away from the stereotypical staid image of similar bodies when it comes to our presidents: Prof. Billy Boshoff from the University of Stellenbosch was our youngest president ever (2010–2012), Tseli Maliehe (Ibhayi Contracting) was the first black president (2012–2014), and then I became the first female president, so we are already moving away from stereotypes. For me, a mission is to make sure that we bring the youth in our industry with us — we must make way for, and guide, the younger generation.

RG: You mentioned some possible consolidation of concrete-related bodies in South Africa in future. Can you tell me more about that?

HT: This concept is still in preliminary stages. The exact model of how it could work still has to be decided on, because each of the bodies has a slightly different membership basis and different mandates. We will have to find an agreeable, workable solution. A similar exercise was done in the UK some years ago, where the different bodies kept operating according to their different mandates, but under one umbrella of administrative staff and shared facilities. We do not know if that model is necessarily going to work for us, but we are sure that we will find a workable model within the not-too-distant future. The Concrete Conference (TCC) that took place in August this year, was jointly organised by the four bodies to serve our different membership categories, but with a common goal of spreading the concrete gospel. This was a huge step to show our sponsors and the built environment fraternity of South Africa how joint initiatives can add value.

I can foresee that one day there might not even be a Concrete Society president anymore; the role might fall away in a joint organisation.

RG: As the first female president of the Society in a typically male-orientated industry and sector, have you faced any specific challenges?

HT: The greatest challenge was within myself — to not see myself as the token appointment, a case of, “Oh, it’s about time; let’s appoint a woman.” The challenge was to believe in myself, to believe that I was elected by a very professional technical board, and that I had their blessing and support to be an effective president, regardless of who or what I am. My fellow board members put their trust in me and I then had to own that space. Another challenge was to realise that while I might not be technically qualified, I bring a different, and very valid, point of view to the boardroom table. I’ve actually had tremendous support in this role. I believe it also helped that I have been in the industry for so long and I've got a huge contact base, so I wasn’t an out-of-the-blue newcomer who could be seen as a ‘token’ appointment. I have paid my dues in our industry.

RG: Do you think the new B-BBEE regulations will have a big impact on the concrete industry in South Africa?

HT: Anybody who operates in South Africa is well aware of the B-BBEE requirements, and while the impact may be significant on the management structures and workforce requirements, I believe that the transition has already been achieved to a great extent. I don’t know whether it is going to impact that significantly on our industry, as long as we don’t just do B-BBEE on paper. This is also something I feel very strongly about, and it ties in again with the succession planning. I have actually seen where the older generation agrees to B-BBEE on paper, but we do not want to let go of the power. People from previously disadvantaged groups are employed and the scorecard looks good, but in some cases, those very same employees are set up for failure because we are not prepared to share, to mentor, to include. All firms and individuals need to internalise the concept of B-BBEE and not just make it a paper-based system.

I believe that for the Concrete Society it is very easy because we are not commercially or politically driven; it comes naturally for us to be very inclusive. If we can influence other people just to be aware of these things, be aware of the younger generation out there and include them in our planning, then I think we have achieved something.

RG: What would you say are the biggest challenges facing the concrete and cement (and general construction) industries in the region?

2-3-2M-45HT: We often say, “Government isn’t spending.” This recurring theme has been with us for several years. There’s also a lot of discussion about public-private partnerships or initiatives (PPPs or PPIs), and I think that is going to be our salvation. We cannot just sit back and wait for government to start doing things; big corporates will have to initiate some projects through appropriate partnerships. I believe that the PPP concept is starting to take off, and I believe a lot of good is going to come out of it. We say our industry is suffering; the economy worldwide is in a different space to what it was 10 years ago, but when you look at it, construction in South Africa is actually not in a bad space. If you look at this year’s Fulton Awards, there were 30 entries, and that is just for projects that have either been completed or had most of the concrete work completed in the past two years. These were often big, iconic projects that will result in legacy structures. Faced with these facts, I believe we are complaining because we are merely perpetuating the negative, unfounded stories we read and hear so often.

We must remember that times have changed. We are not living in the days where people just employed staff; everybody is looking at the bottom line, no matter what country or industry you are in. Because of the increased focus on process optimisation and the increase in automation, it is a given that we do not have the same workforce that we used to have — it’s not because the construction industry is in the doldrums. The playing fields have changed tremendously, but when you look around us in South Africa, a lot of construction is going on. People need to redefine how we assess what is actually happening and steer clear of being prophets of doom. I actually see tremendous growth — look at all the construction cranes around Gauteng. Construction is certainly happening in South Africa. So, the whole world has just become a very different trading place — a much more competitive trading place — and these changes cannot be ignored, but the construction industry is definitely not on the brink of collapse.

RG: What have been some of the highlights of your career?

HT: Purely from a very personal viewpoint, being president of the Concrete Society is the pinnacle of my career. One derives career satisfaction from doing a project well, or working in an enabling environment, but the recognition that has come from being president, for me personally, is just amazing. It really is an honour, and I am so thankful to the Concrete Society for having afforded me this opportunity.

A project of which I am very proud is one that I am involved in at PPC. We devised a portal, the C3 —Cement and Concrete Cube — which is a groundbreaking, innovative idea; the first of its kind in our industry. It is an enterprise social media platform where people can interact and find information on cement and concrete. It was initially developed to add value to our customers, but as an open portal anyone can access and interact on this platform. There is good, diverse DIY and technical content on many issues relating to cement and concrete and to our industry. We have also entered into an agreement with EBSCOhost under which we make our EBSCO licensing available to what we call ‘expert searchers’ — academics who we have contact with — and our customers, at no cost to them.

The C3 is a global platform, accessible to anyone, anywhere, anytime. We currently have around 2 000 registered users on the portal, including overseas users. The information that is available there is public domain information; there are no trade secrets, so it doesn’t matter who registers to use it.

RG: What advice would you give young women looking to work in your industry?

HT: Be enthusiastic about what you do; focused enthusiasm is seen and is often recognised. If there is one thing that I really dislike, it is apathy. Enthusiasm gets noticed, and I think that is what has got me to where I am today.

The second thing that I think is important in terms of succeeding in any industry, is commitment and staying power. I see many young people these days who job hop. When I came into this industry I made it my own, and I feel that it has become part of me — I cannot imagine myself in any other industry — and it has paid off. But if you are in the financial industry today and the medical field tomorrow and then you are in construction the year after that, you will never build up real expertise in any one industry.

Then, possibly the most important area to focus on, is networking. Never underestimate the power of networking. It can open many doors — or close them if your networking reflects badly on you.

My primary piece of advice, my ‘word of wisdom’, would be: focus on networking, on building up your contact base.

An interest body like the Concrete Society is actually perfect for that type of interaction, because it's neutral ground — we do not fight for market share or sell our products, so it is an ideal place to network within a neutral space within the industry.


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