Any little girl, when asked what she’d like to be when she grows up, is likely to say a teacher, vet, hairdresser or doctor. Or perhaps she might want to be a ballet dancer, pilot or police officer. It’s probably fair to say that not many girls aspire to be builders – but that’s exactly what Co-Owner and Director of Austart Charmaine Matthews wanted to be when she was still in primary school.
“Visiting display homes on the weekend was a treat,” Charmaine recalls. “I used to go with my cousins, who were looking at building a home. The whole process – designing, constructing and decorating – was very appealing to me. I was a bit of a tomboy, so the idea of working in a male-dominated industry excited me.”
From the age of 10, she loved drawing houses and designing floor plans in her spare time. As soon as she finished high school, she moved from Sydney to Queensland’s Gold Coast to start a drafting cadetship.
In 1993, Charmaine started working at Newstart Homes, which was owned by now-husband Phillip. Four years later, she and Phillip decided to set up a new operation in Cairns called Austart Homes.
“Initially, I was designing and drafting houses, as well as liaising with salespeople and clients,” she says. “I was then taught contract administration, plus I was drafting all the plans for the Cairns operation. Twelve months later, I was promoted to office manager.”
Together, Phillip and Charmaine worked tirelessly to build their business. After their son was born in 2000, she took just four weeks off before returning to work. “It was too hard to take a newborn into the main office, so I changed roles and moved into sales,” she explains.
When their son was older, Charmaine reprised her role as office manager, in addition to assisting Phillip with supervision on building sites. During this time, she obtained her Queensland Building and Construction Commission (QBCC) building design licence and soon afterwards she was granted a QBCC builder licence.
“Few women in our region have this qualification,” she says proudly. “Being a family business and both of us being licensed builders is something that’s not common in our industry. There are other husband-and-wife teams, but the wife is not usually a qualified designer and builder.”
Charmaine credits her husband with providing her with coaching, encouragement and support as she pursued her dream. “Phillip started in the building industry when he was 15 and he’s taught me everything he knows. With his wisdom and determination, he pushed me to become what I am today,” she smiles.
“He is my mentor and he made me believe that a woman working in a traditionally male field can achieve absolutely anything.”
While the industry was dominated by men when Charmaine started her career, she says there are more women today – but not enough. “We need more female carpenters, plumbers, painters and electricians,” she says. “I love the industry – it’s challenging, exciting and there’s never a dull moment. I believe a woman in this industry can do anything a man does.”
"I believe a woman in this industry can do anything a man does."
Even after almost three decades in the industry, Charmaine hasn’t lost any of her passion and enthusiasm. She admits she still gets a thrill when she helps make her clients’ dreams come true.
“Building a house is the biggest and most expensive decision of these people’s lives, so I try to make it a stress-free and enjoyable experience. I still get a buzz when a client signs up – I’m as excited for them as they are for themselves,” she grins.
“Phillip and I try to deal with our customers’ homes like they are our own or belong to one of our family members.”
There’s no doubt this family approach has contributed to the strong relationships that Austart Homes has with its customers and suppliers. “Our customers feel secure knowing we’re husband and wife. We don’t hide behind a desk – we’re out there mixing with everyone onsite,” Charmaine explains.
“Our suppliers also think highly of us due to the longevity of the business and our knowledge of the industry.”
She believes that maintaining close ties with local suppliers is important for both her business and the region’s economy.
“We have worked with some of our local suppliers, including Status Plus, Dynamic Timbers and Johnston Joinery, for 20 to 30 years. You always want to support your neighbours – it keeps the money in our town, promotes regional business growth and employs more people from the community."
Charmaine adds that she considers all Austart Homes’ subcontractors and suppliers to be part of its team. “We sell our homes at competitive prices so that we can generate work for our suppliers and contractors – our business is their livelihood,” she says.
"We sell our homes at competitive prices so that we can generate work for our suppliers and contractors – our business is their livelihood."
“We are happy to decrease our own profit margins to sell more houses, which then gives more work to our suppliers and subcontractors. Why be the most expensive builder and only do five homes a year when you can be competitive and work on 40 to 50 homes a year and support everyone, including the economy?”
As Charmaine and Phillip look to the future, their vision for Austart Homes is to continue building quality homes for their customers at competitive prices. “Phillip and I are very proud of where we are today – we have a great company built on love, passion and determination,” she says.
“All our hard work pays off when we see a happy customer moving into their dream home and we know we were part of that dream. I always say never give up on your dreams, because they can turn into reality with hard work and determination.”
“My mottos is ’never lose sight of your goals’. Every year, I write my goals on my ensuite bathroom mirror in red lipstick. I write down what I wish to achieve in my life, whether it’s emotional, physical or financial. In the past 10 years, everything I have written has come about. If it didn’t happen that year, it stayed on the mirror until it did happen.”