Last December, Leeann McCallum surprised some of her colleagues at Beca when she showed up at the company Christmas party as the ‘balloon twister’.
McCallum, group IT infrastructure manager at the engineering consultancy, donned her apron with pockets bulging with balloons. She inflated the balloons with a small pump, and transformed these into different shapes.
McCallum became a balloon twister four years ago when she was looking for a hobby that she can share with her twin children, a boy and a girl, then aged five.
One day she strode to a $2 dollar shop to buy some presents for a child’s party. She espied a pack of 20 balloons and bought it. “I went through that pack in a day, then bought another one,” she says. That weekend, she ordered “proper balloons” from TradeMe and became engrossed in her new hobby, with her children and husband joining in. She enjoyed it so much that sometimes she would sneak into her car on lunch breaks “to make a few things”.
Some people call it ‘balloon sculpting’, says McCallum of the process, wherein she fashions several small balloons into a range of interesting shapes.
“My husband does not enjoy it too much now because of the squeaking and popping,” she says, smiling. Her daughter, however, aims to follow her footsteps. “She wants to be a ‘twin twister’.”
The weekend activity became more than a hobby, to a point where she stored balloons in the family fridge. “The fridge is the best place, because the latex likes cool areas,” says McCallum, who now keeps the balloons in an extra fridge.
Next: The ICT connection
McCallum joined Beca a year ago, her second stint with the company. She was on the IT team of Beca for eight years, seven years of which she was infrastructure manager. She left and worked at Genesis Energy, Auckland City Council and Pumpkin Patch.
In her current job, she has a team of nine direct reports, with a “dotted responsibility” for Beca’s business hubs in Australia, New Zealand and Asia. Thus, she travels every two to three months and works in these hubs for a few days.
“It is really to keep in contact and continue building the relationships we have with our IT team over there, understand what are some of their challenges and how we can support them.”
These days, however, she finds her weekends “pretty full” with bookings for balloon twisting. These range from children’s parties, to corporate events, church groups and family gatherings.
The business grew by “word of mouth”, she says. “I started off with doing my kids’ parties. Some of their friends would take my balloon business cards.”
Then, she set up a website and emailed friends about it. Or, what she describes as “unabashed, shameless advertising for people I knew”.
One weekend, CIO New Zealand saw McCallum working on her craft at a party for a community organisation.
“What I really enjoy is it is creating and transforming something for the kids or the clients,” she says, as she takes on continuous requests from the children for different shapes – flowers, dogs, robots, cartoon characters.
She finds a “loose parallel” between her full-time role at Beca during the weekday, and as a balloon sculptor.
“Kids can be quite specific on what they want,” she says. “They want this colour and they want this loop around there. I try to make it for them, and tell them what I am doing so they feel involved, and they have a sense of ownership.”
It is the same with IT, she says, as she holds up one of her creations, a bright orange balloon shaped like the cartoon character Nemo. “Our clients know what they want. I just think it is important to involve them along the way so they own it and they have skin on the game.”
“I find the adults are just as excited about the balloons as the kids,” she says. But the adults seem to “challenge her a little bit more” with their requests for more complicated designs. “They like Eiffel Towers.”
There was one time, however, when her balloons failed to elicit a smile. This was when she was making balloons for the residents of a rest home. “It was quite a hot day and a couple of balloons were popping.”
One of the residents, “must have got a bit of a fright”, she says. “When the balloons popped, he said: ‘It is just like being in the war’… So I left him alone.”
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