Diane Johnson is the ECA’s first woman president.What’s she got planned for her year at the helm?

When you think of what an electrical contractor might do to wind down, having their nails done probably isn’t top of the list. But then, you’re probably not thinking of Diane Johnson.

The new president of the Electrical Contractors’ Association (ECA) is the first woman to take on the role in the body’s 109-year history. She has never been busier; splitting her life between London, to carry out the better part of her presidential duties, and Cheshire where she is financial director of Eric Johnson of Northwich, the family electrical contracting business she runs with her husband, Ian. But she still finds the time to get her nails done every fortnight - it’s her “escape”. Sitting in the bar of the Hyde Park Hilton hotel over her first ever mug of green tea, “just to see what it’s all about”, she takes a moment out of the interview to show the nails off, on request. Each one is individually hand painted with a zebra pattern to match her outfit and adorned with a scattering of diamante. “This is nothing. For the ECA conference I had them covered in sparkles and flowers.”

Then, in the blink of an eye, nail chat is over. Onto the plan for the year ahead - Johnson can be quite firm. Under the coiffed exterior is a sharp mind and an even sharper tongue. Now, after years of loyal service to the ECA, the 54 year old is preparing to use her position at the helm to raise awareness on a host of issues, including skills and the carbon agenda, an aim that has just been enhanced by the fact the ECA has signed up to the UK Contractors Group. And woe betide anyone who implies she’s not up to the task.

Women’s work

Johnson makes clear that, as far as she is concerned, the ECA’s century-long wait for a female president is nothing to do with a backward approach from the association itself - at least not in recent times.

“There used to be an equality issue but not anymore. I have never had a negative comment from anyone in the ECA or from any of the guys in the industry. Every door I have knocked on has been opened for me and men have never shown anything but respect. The ECA has not taken 109 years to appoint a female president - there has just never been a woman, until now, who has put herself in a position to be asked.”

She believes that a lot of the perceptions about women in the construction industry actually come from women themselves. “They look at this industry and see barriers. But if they just went for it, those barriers that may look like concrete walls are just bales of hay. I hope I can inspire others. Women should look at me and think ’well, if she can do it. Why can’t I?’”

It’s clear Johnson is passionate about these issues, but does she really think many other women will want to emulate her? Are they even interested in the electrical sector? “Not being funny, but how can someone say they don’t like what they know nothing about?” she shoots back. “I go up to a woman and say ’building services’ and she has no idea what I am talking about. I say ’electrical’ and she thinks light bulb. They don’t see what else it involves - coloured lights, mood lighting, making ugly buildings look sexy.”

And she adds that female electricians are an untapped financial resource: “I look at my Aunty Betty, she’s 80-odd, and I think, would she, at 3pm on a winter’s day, like to let a bloke into her house? There are ladies from ethnic minorities who aren’t allowed men in the house while their husbands are out - so what if they could have a woman instead? It’s a selling point. The way I see it, having women working for your company could increase your profit.”

And the rest…

Skills, even more than equality issues, are Johnson’s “bag”. She has been interviewed on programmes from Radio 5 Live to Channel 4’s Dispatches about the crisis she describes as a time bomb. She will lobby government as much as humanly possible over the next year to try and secure funding and policy updates for a proper training and apprenticeship system: “The majority of people losing their jobs in our sector are between 18 and 25,” she says. “So where’s your succession plan? Plus, who is training up our future captains of industry? The guys who really know their craft in this sector won’t be around forever.”

Part of the problem, of course, is that when firms are forced to make cuts, training is often the first thing to go. “I can see why people think it’s cost effective but in the long term, these people may not get jobs and then they won’t be paying taxes. We have had a tough 18 months with the business {Northwich] but we’re still taking on apprentices. There should be some kind of corporate social responsibility that encourages other firms to do the same.”

In the interim, the ECA has its own training fund. “Anything that doesn’t attract government funding, we will help. We are offering companies the chance to claim £3,000 a year to help train an apprentice - we do put our money where our mouth is.”

Finally there is the carbon agenda - which Johnson believes could be a saving grace for electrical contractors. “We can become energy advisers for the government. I want our sector to show they have the expertise to fit the kit. Our industry needs to know about solar panels, photovoltaics, the works. And that’s where the training comes in again. Everything is connected.”

So it sounds like Johnson has a lot to do over the next year. But, as she adamantly points out, she won’t be falling off the face of the planet when her time as president is up: “I’ll be past president, then a member. I will still sit on the education and training and M&E sustainability committees. A year isn’t enough time to make radical changes but I want to get the ball rolling. As long as I can step down knowing I’ve done my best. That’s all anyone can ask.”

Path to the presidency

  • Diane Johnson is financial director of Eric Johnson of Northwich, a family-run business originally set up by her father-in-law 64 years ago
  • She now runs the business with her husband Ian
  • Johnson went to her very first ECA meeting in Preston around six years ago. She was the only woman in the room. She sat next to a man who was there for the first time too. He asked her if she “came here often”
  • Diane became the first chairwoman of the ECA’s North-west region in 2008
  • She was made ECA senior vice president in 2009