Meet the actress who became a temp, set up a management consultant and took a degree in France. Now she wants to try something challenging: turning around ailing quantity surveyor MDA.
Elaine Headlam is itching with impatience. The MDA chief executive has come up with a strategy that she reckons will save the troubled quantity surveyor's bacon, and can barely control the urge to reveal all.

She briefed senior managers on Wednesday, but is coy about taking journalists fully into her confidence because the announcement is not due until February and "I don't want my competitors knowing". Then she adds: "It's about evolution, not revolution. We want to maximise value and minimise risk. We want to create opportunities." (Translation: MDA will be broadening its range of services.)

If you hadn't guessed already, 45-year-old Headlam is a management consultant, so phrases such as "change management" and "thinking outside the box" tend to crop up in her conversation. But there is also a down-to-earth bluntness about her. (As she puts it herself: "I am not a bullshitter.")

Headlam will need all this directness for the task facing her at MDA. The firm's 200 staff had a rough time of it last year: management disputes led to chief executive Richard Houghton being voted out and Stefan Allesch-Taylor, the hyperactive entrepreneur who own 29% of the firm, urged it to merge with a rival then float. Add a less-than-healthy set of accounts (it posted a £2.5m loss on turnover of £16.3m for the 15 months to 30 September 2000) and you're looking at a pretty bleak picture. In fact, MDA seems to have found itself landed with the role of the cadaver in an anatomy class: an exemplum of the problems faced by QSs everywhere.

So why did a brand expert, who had founded her own management consultancy and had worked with clients such as the Millennium Commission and the Woolwich, decide that MDA was for her?

The story starts last year when Headlam's firm, X-BBE, was employed to help MDA through a restructuring. Then, early this year and "out of the blue", Headlam received a call from chairman Simon Metcalf offering to buy X-BBE and to give Headlam the chief executive job at MDA. She took some time to think about it (about three seconds) and accepted. "It was the right time in my career."

Headlam's six-month assessment of MDA gave her definite ideas about what it needed. "MDA had very good professionals. The perception among staff and clients was that the firm had gone through a hard time but it was coming out the other side. What was clear was that it could not stay as a traditional QS, and that if it did change, the clients and staff would support it."

Headlam's favourite topic is people, and she says that without good people she would not have taken the job. "The joy of working in a business is always based around the people," she says. "I feel as if we've known each other for ages. I want MDA staff to be able to go into a pub with their peer group, say they are working for MDA and their rivals will mutter 'I wish I worked for them'. It's been years since they've had that."

Headlam also has something of a track record in the industry. She joined the RICS at the age of 26 after abandoning a career as an actress – her last performance was in Guys and Dolls. "Acting was fantastic work," she remembers, "but it reached a stage when I thought, 'someone is going to suss me'. I am not a great actress."

With no training – she couldn't even type – Headlam started to temp at the RICS. Five years later, in 1987, she was secretary of public relations and membership affairs, and had ambitious plans. "I was meeting senior partners at surveyors and speaking to them informally about their businesses. I built an incredible network. The obvious thing to do was to set up on my own." As well as doing that, she formed brand firm Balfour in the same year.

Headlam also married into the industry after falling for Rob Headlam, who was with surveyor and architect Hunter and Partners. They met in 1988, four years before Rob, a former president of the RICS' building surveying division, died of cancer. His illness put his wife's career on hold. Rob sold his practice to the Rutland Trust in 1988 and the couple went to live in the south of France in the early 1990s. After his death, she took a degree in French history in Aix-en-Provence. "I wanted to do something just for me," she says.

Headlam thrust herself back into business in 1996, forming X-BBE with a go-getting attitude that was partly formed by her husband's death. "I have a different view of life now. There is so much that it gives you."

But what is Headlam planning to give MDA? The general idea is to look beyond construction, but this doesn't mean the practice is about to move out of the sector.

"I want to lift the boundaries. First I want to make us the best QS. Then we will look at selling other services."

This will presumably mean that MDA will forge closer links with X-BBE – the two have already teamed up to pitch for a single regeneration bid to get long-term unemployed people back into work in four London boroughs – Southwark, Lambeth, Camden and Islington.

Headlam thinks there are plenty of opportunities for QSs to become general consultants. "It's easy to stereotype QSs, but I don't think you can," she says. "I want to look at what there is to unlock in individuals. That's when you can aspire to things you have never even dreamed of."

Nothing seems to faze the bright and breezy Headlam. She even sees the imminent downturn in her sector as an opportunity, and (answering the inevitable question) says it is an advantage being female. "If you're a woman and you're good in this industry, it helps you go further; you're more memorable."

Personal effects

Where do you live?
A flat in Pimlico designed by Eldridge Smerin. It is all glass and steel. I employed a QS, which made it on time. I also have a cottage in Wiltshire.
Who’s your favourite actress and actor?
Juliet Stevenson. And Brad Pitt, on any level.
What are you reading?
The autobiography of Jack Welch, former chief executive of General Electric.
What do you do on your days off?
I am a member of the Chelsea Arts Club and a massive fan of Lincoln City. I’m also a keen kick-boxer.
Who’s your furry friend?
He’s Presto, a wheaten terrier. Actually, I’m a bit worried he’ll upstage me …