In the 1980’s and almost 18, Helen Richards was contemplating education and career options.
“My parents encouraged me to get some experience with interviews. One was for quarry surveying; I had never heard of that before,” Helen says. “It sounded quite interesting to be sent to college, work and train for four years, and be paid. My parents said they could not tell me which way to go, that I’d have to make my own decision.”
As Helen notes, the field at the time was obviously male dominated. But the reception was mostly positive. “The people at the quarries were lovely, but not always so with management—the higher-ups.”
She recalls one of the relatively few negative incidents: “I had only been on the job for a few weeks—it was my 18th birthday—and I was sent up to our largest quarry in Leicester; in the Midlands. I got introduced to some of the managers, and the director came in—he would not even look at me and didn’t want me there.” This, she says, was the worst incident. Being the only female was not a problem for most people, though some found it a bit of a challenge to get used to. “Most people were either very helpful or found it a bit funny.”
Helen completed schooling, worked with surveyors and geologists for 13 years, and steadily rose in the ranks to lead the department. But by the late 1990’s, the industry experienced some big changes.
“We were made redundant, the engineers went, we all did,” Helen says. “I set up my own business, carried on with some local quarries, and sort of branched off from there.”
When the downturn in the quarries happened, Helen was pregnant with her eldest son. “There was no maternity scheme or anything like that, so I had to come up with something. I thought, ‘well, get on and do it,’ and just set up my company. It evolved into many aspects of land surveying.”
Benchmark Surveys has become a bit of a family affair. With help from her husband, Helen was also later joined by their eldest son James, who initially pursued becoming a professional footballer and later chose surveying (though he still plays as a semi-pro). More recently, their youngest son Sebastian joined Benchmark as a trainee surveyor. What aspects of surveying inspire Helen?
“I've enjoyed the challenges, all the way through. I thoroughly enjoy cartography, because you've drawn the plan with your own technique, your own sort of design. I particularly enjoy doing measured building surveys, especially if it is a complicated building.
“It’s been great to move through all the different evolutions of survey equipment—drones, total stations, and all the new technology. Obviously, we did not have computers when we started at school, so I find it all quite fascinating. We started off with manual instruments, and then moved on to using software and semi-auto total stations, where you still had to key in all of your angles, etc. Now we are trying all sorts of new kits. I think scanning can be quite boring, but I do love it when you have a fantastic point cloud, and you can cut through it—you can see the layers of a building—that's quite fascinating.”
Helens’ vision for Benchmark is simple: “We try to provide the best service that we can. With just seven of us, we’re not very corporate so we try to have nice relationships at work and want everyone to get along. And we try to enjoy our work the job and provide for each individual client the best way we can.” For Helen, the journey to today’s success was interesting to say the least. “The few bad experiences seemed to inspire me,” Helen concludes. “And it is great to see so many women in surveying now.”