A Woman in a Mans World
By Trevor Ledger
Women in Golf Autumn 2002

When Ingrid Eichler was at school in Daventry, Northants, she wanted to be a vet: now, Eichler is the only woman to own and operate a golf course construction company (Contour Golf Ltd.) in the United Kingdom, possibly the world, and she's rather good at it. So what was the spark that illuminated this particular career path? "I couldn't be a vet because I didn't get good enough 'A' levels so I went straight into civil engineering. It was definitely second choice but it made some kind of sense because the only things I was good at were maths and physics."
Loughborough University was the next short and tentative step - it proved decisive: "I very soon discovered that civil engineering was not for me and I moved over to agricultural engineering after the first term." It is here that the first clues to Eichler's success story are revealed - it seems that it was the frustration at not being top of the tree that were the real motivating factors in her decision to change tack. "I always used to be top of the class at school, it was basically a competition between me and another girl in the class as to who would be top. When I went to university to do civil engineering I presumed it was going to be the same - it wasn't. For some reason, even though I was working hard, I just couldn't get to grips with it. I just wasn't used to coming close to bottom even though I was really trying." Maybe one could view such an honest assessment as petulance, thankfully her tutor did not and a shrewd, snap decision has proved, ultimately, to be Eichler's making.
"One day I went up to my tutor and just came out with it; 'I'm leaving'. He didn't try to persuade me otherwise but did invite me to come up with an alternative career and I flippantly suggested agriculture. It was the first thing that came into my head." Chance, fate or the intervention of God - call it what you will - threw Eichler a lifeline. The tutor was just about to visit a colleague at the National College of Agriculture and Engineering (NCAE) and within two days Eichler was enrolled on the B.Sc. course in Agricultural Engineering. Although she didn't know it, this was the best possible training for a career in golf course construction: indeed Eichler knew next to nothing about golf, let alone that it was a possibility for her to earn a living from it.
The NCAE course was much more suitable and Eichler began to shine, being from a rural background the Agricultural implications of the topic made much more sense. "Before I started at Loughborough I never realised what civil engineering involved but, as soon as I started with agricultural engineering it just seemed so relevant, everything could be applied to my own experience of the countryside and it all just fitted into place." In a nutshell, the difference between these two fields is in the attitude towards the land. Civil engineering deals with building onto the landscape whereas agricultural engineering applies skill and knowledge into working with the landscape. At NCAE, Eichler was again the 'curiosity' as the only female in her year out of about fifty or so.
Graduating with honours from NCAE, Eichler again continued to build a useful portfolio for golf course construction, albeit unknowingly. Two stints with voluntary projects overseas, one in Northern Nigeria and one in Pakistan, taught her invaluable lessons: "In my final year I had specialised in soil engineering and drainage (luckily both very relevant to what I do now) and these enabled me to be useful. I was involved in setting up projects which employed 'appropriate' technology for the local communities. These projects used simple irrigation techniques to increase yields for the local farmers. This experience emphasised how a simple, low cost and low maintenance technique could be used to great effect. It certainly taught me how to make the most of what was available. Northern Nigeria is in the Sahara desert, there's not a lot of choice and even a simple conversation might involve an eight hour drive - there were no phones and the post was non-existent."
Although Eichler had furthered her education during these periods of voluntary work with the completion of an M.Sc. in agricultural engineering, she was unable to find work upon her return to the UK. When she finally did so - perversely in civil engineering - it soon became apparent that her skills were drastically under-utilised and after six months her request for more responsibility was refused, this was the final straw. For the first time it seemed that being a 'woman in a mans world' was working against Eichler although she doesn't cite it as the obvious reason for her failure to progress: "Possibly it would have been different if I was a man. What I have found is that sometimes there is an invisible brick wall which I just cannot break down. In this instance I was one of two females in the office - the other being a young girl fresh out of school - and I realised very early that I was just not going to progress with this company."
Golf finally introduced itself into Eichler's life following three years with the Ministry of Agriculture as a soil and drainage engineer where she again picked up perfect experience for building golf courses . During this period Eichler was introduced to landscaping issues at landfill sites and this, inevitably it seems, has helped: "This was the first time I had come across heavy machinery which was the final piece of the jigsaw for me - along with soil laboratory experience at Bicester, Oxfordshire. While I was doing this I came across an advert for a contracts manager with Southern Golf. The experience they were looking for - drainage, machinery, soil and water engineering - was ideally suited for me, everything the advert said was me down to a tee. Finally I had found golf, or it had found me. I was encouraged by the shapers [bulldozer drivers who create the shape of a course] to get involved with the machinery - to give it a go. This was fantastic for me, I gained hands on experience of what is actually involved." This was in 1990 and the first four jobs that Eichler worked on reads like a high class golf compendium - Wisley, The Oxfordshire, Golf D'Apremont in France and Fota Island in Ireland. "I was dropped right in the deep end and it was a case of sink or swim. I loved it and began to make a bit of a mark - for example I introduced the 'laser level' to the company, until that time no one had much idea about levels." When all the contracts came to an end, Eichler was laid off - such is the golf industry - but, the die had been cast.
"I thought, 'what else can I do? What else do I want to do? Golf encompasses everything that I've trained to do - drainage, irrigation, soil mechanics, machinery, cultivation and maintenance. There was no other job out there that gave me the chance to utilise my skills and gain job satisfaction, so it had to be golf." The situation as it was meant that Eichler was virtually in an all or nothing situation, it was harder to sell her services as a project manager than it was to get contracts to build the entire course, therefore Contour Golf was born. "Both of my parents ran their own businesses so I was used to seeing that hard work for oneself was preferable to working for another company. My father came to Britain as a German prisoner of war and stayed here afterwards. He started a business as a motor cycle mechanic and my mother - herself a German who came over as an au-pair - started a news agency business. It just seemed natural to follow in their footsteps and start my own business." Contour's first break came courtesy of golf course architect Jonathan Gaunt who was so impressed by Eichler's nascent company that he chose them to build the much acclaimed Magnolia Park Golf Club in Buckinghamshire, a difficult job which other companies had claimed was impossible due to the nature of the soil. Eichler's wide ranging experience gave her the confidence to 'pick up the ball' and the results at Magnolia speak for themselves.
Since that time Contour Golf Ltd. has gone from strength to strength with such courses as Ring of Kerry in Ireland, Fota Island and Wigan Golf Club (where Prince Andrew is a member), being added to a bulging portfolio. Investment in new machinery exceeds 0.5m for Contour - a rarity in the age of 'hiring everything' - and this speaks volumes. If a job is to be done well the tools need to be reliable and available, by buying machines, this is guaranteed. Being a woman has not necessarily hindered Eichler's career but the fact that it is still very definitely a mans world has meant that she has had to prove herself time and again with the quality of her work. "Certainly I get noticed because I'm a woman but in the end it comes down to whether or not I do a good job. In the beginning I had to search for work but now I am being approached because of our reputation for quality. Contour growth has really taken off and I now spend less time on site and more in the office because I insist that we continue to provide a personal service while maintaining our reputation for quality and value for money." This latter point is likely to be the only inhibiting factor in Contour's future: "We would like to get more work in Europe, particularly the more prestigious jobs, but unlike many other companies we have little ambition to go global - if we did that we couldn't keep up the same level of personal attention that we do now."
Five years old, Contour are on a firm footing so what motivates Eichler now? For the time being it certainly is not playing golf! "I want to learn to play the game but like everything I do, I want to do it well. I know that if I take up golf I will spend too much time on it and that will take my commitment away from Contour, that isn't going to happen just yet, maybe when I retire." It is this personal strength that sets Contour aside from the crowd and pride in a job well done is paramount: "Every time I see Fota Island, for example, I feel great thinking 'I helped to built that', it will be such a thrill to see the 2001 Irish Open there."