Irène Beard doesn't look like your conventional builder, but then her clients are hardly run-of-the-mill. Take Ringo Starr, for example …
Irène Beard loves telling people at parties that she is a builder. This is not usually a jaw-dropping statement but Belgian-born Beard does not look or sound like the typical contractor, so it is easy to see why people assume the stylishly dressed 55-year-old, who speaks with a heavy French accent, is kidding. "Surely you mean an interior designer?" is the usual response. "Certainly not. I'm colour blind," is her retort.

Joking aside, Beard is a successful businesswoman who heads Eaton Gate Builders, a small, south London-based firm that tackles traditional contracts up to £3m, refurbishing and fitting out homes for wealthy clients – and even the odd pop star.

Former clients include a smattering of European royalty, chief executive of Heron Corporation Gerald Ronson, film director and British Film Institute chairman Alan Parker and Ringo Starr. Beard does not actively seek out famous clients – she is simply well-connected. People know her through the top 10 advertising agency she ran in Brussels, or remember her from her stints as PA to French financier Alexis de Gunzbourg and Sir James Goldsmith. Most of her clients know each other and, she suspects, recommend her while chatting at parties.

Beard is not the type to get star-struck, so even Ringo Starr's home was "just a building site". She is a natural project manager and has found an ideal outlet for her talents in construction. "What I enjoy is the discipline of pushing things forward every day," says Beard, who revels in cajoling her 40-strong team of site managers, estimators, electricians, joiners and labourers into getting jobs done. Breaking off to deal with a phone call from the builder working on her second home in Ireland, it is clear she has a good grasp of Irish blarney, as well as the technical terminology.

Not bad for a woman who admits she fell into the industry by accident. When she married in 1975, she sold her Brussels ad agency to come to London with her Belgian first husband, who had been appointed director of a UK bank. Beard decided to give up her career: "I decided to turn the page and not work any more. Being in advertising is like being a Catholic priest. It's a religion that doesn't allow you to be married." But with time on her hands, she found that she could not sit still. After supervising building work on her own home, she found expatriate friends clamouring for help with their projects. "People arriving from Paris and Brussels asked: 'Can you find me a builder?' because they know I'm efficient," says Beard.

I thought, I’ll do this once, it’s fun. Then I found myself doing a second project, and then I was in business

Her first project was to manage a team of subcontractors working on the conversion of a basement cellar to a flat for Lord Glenconner – "You must know him," she exclaims, "he owns Mustique!" She met him through former boss de Gunzbourg. "During the work, I thought, I'll do this once, it's fun. Then I found myself doing a second project, and then I was in business." She cherry-picked staff from subcontractors she worked with regularly and formed her first small building firm. In 1993, she joined forces with brothers Graham and Keith Merton (an estimator and a quantity surveyor, respectively) to form Eaton Gate Builders.

The firm never scrabbles for unremunerative work – on most jobs, its margin is 4-5%.

Beard considers this low compared with interior design, but it is high for construction. Beard claims this means she has never had a dispute or had to alter her prices half-way through a job.

"Of course, sometimes you have to tender a lower price to get your foot in the door but I don't like doing it," she says. "A lot of the problem in the building industry is that everyone wants a deal – clients, architects, interior designers. Once I have a contract, I don't jump to the other side of the fence and say, 'aha, I'm going to give you a terrible time now'." Beard may not be a typical contractor, but her client-focused approach would make Sir John Egan proud. She says it is a lesson she learned the hard way in advertising: "It's a tough job because you produce one bad campaign and you can't hide yourself.

Personal effects

Who’s who in your family? Second husband Richard Beard is obstetrics and gynaecology professor emeritus at Imperial College London. She has a 22-year-old daughter, Sophie Camu; a son, Thomas Beard, aged 19; and six stepchildren. What music do you listen to? Chamber music – Bach or Mozart. What are you reading? A novel called Rameses. What’s your favourite television programme? Newsnight – when Jeremy Paxman is on. Whom do you admire in business? Richard Branson. Whom would you ask to design your house? Architect Tony Collett and interior designer Chester Jones. Where do you holiday? West Cork, Ireland.