Jo Balmer, associate principal at Arup, has worked in many industries throughout her career but her goal has remained the same: getting things right the first time.
“I haven’t been in construction all of my career, I’ve worked in a number of areas, but the thread that’s gone through all of them has been seeking a right first-time approach, so understanding that if you have the efficiency and you do things right you don’t have to rework it and it helps to make things more efficient,” said Balmer. “That’s something that’s come all the way through regardless of whether it’s construction or not.”
Balmer leads the consulting practice in Arup’s Montreal office. Over the years she has been involved in some big projects including leading the owner’s engineer team for the new Samuel de Champlain Bridge project which opened in 2019, quality manager for the teams that delivered the bridge’s preliminary design, the Autoroute 30 detailed design and the Docklands Light Railway Car Enhancement.
She now leads the team in the Montreal office.
“My day involves mentoring my team, supporting them as needed, making sure we have the right resources on the right jobs at the right time. I do my own project work at the same time, looking at pipelines and opportunities and speaking with clients and potential clients,” said Balmer. “No day is the same and that’s one of the things I enjoy about it.”
Growing the Montreal office
She was also instrumental in growing the Montreal office.
“There was no office here in Montreal when we arrived,” Balmer noted. “Our office in Montreal grew off the back of the Champlain Bridge project. There were four or five of us before that and now we’re at about 60 people, so for me that’s been a really big success is just the growth of the office.”
One of the highlights of her career was seeing the opening of the Champlain bridge. The bridge was built through a public-private partnership (P3) between the Government of Canada and Signature on the Saint Lawrence Group. Arup was the owner’s engineer.
“Arup had been working on that project since 2012 and I started on it in 2014. Seeing it grow and come to fruition was a really great thing to see, not just for me but for the whole team,” said Balmer.
“We felt like we were more than a company working for a client, we felt like there was a real partnership there and we worked with them to find the right solutions to be able to realize what they wanted.”
Another large P3 project she was involved in was Highway 30 in the city.
“That was different because for that we had the design going on in numerous offices around the world so we had the bridge designed out of New York, another bridge designed out of our Hong Kong office, we had work done out of the U.K. and we also had local subs working with us here in Montreal, so it really was a global team,” Balmer recalled. “I was part of the co-ordination team here in Montreal. We were working in different time zones with different teams all around the world.”
Where it began
Balmer completed a chemical engineering degree in the U.K. and part of that was a co-op program.
“Being a student I felt it was a great way to learn and to understand what I enjoyed and what I didn’t,” Balmer explained. “I spent my year in a combustion engineering consultancy and when I graduated their was a job offer for me from them which was great but in the year that I went back to do my final year in university a recession hit and I didn’t have that job.”
Over the next few years she worked in a number of industries including manufacturing and gas.
“After 10 years in the gas industry and having moved into more financial side of things I was desperate to get back into a more technical role. That’s when I joined Arup in 2007,” said Balmer. “Eighteen months later an opportunity came up in Montreal for the Highway 30 project and that’s when I came to Canada.”
Woman in construction
Balmer said being a woman in the construction industry has never been an issue for her.
“I’ve always been treated as an equal which I appreciate, and I think if you do the job the best you can people respect you for what you do,” Balmer said. “I don’t think it matters whether you’re a woman, it’s just the right people to do the right job with the right attitude.”
“There are issues with Indigenous communities as well. I don’t see it as just being a female thing. I think it’s more of an equality thing,” she added.
Arup has an equality, diversity and inclusivity committee and the Montreal office has a relatively high female to male ratio.
“I think at one point we were about 30 or 40 per cent, which if you consider there is only 30 per cent of graduates in engineering are women,” she said, “that’s a positive thing.”
Balmer’s story provides a sneak peek into some of the articles that will be highlighted during the DCN’s Women in Construction feature, which comes out June 25.
Follow the author on Twitter @DCN_Angela.