A warning from the past
As potentially recessionary clouds gather over the UK construction and demolition sectors, a message from 2014 offers solace and some valuable lessons from one of the longest and deepest downturns in recent history.
“Is the UK construction sector heading for a recession?” The simple answer to this question is, of course, yes. It always is. Any time the sector enjoys a peak, it pays to scan the horizon for the trough that will inevitably follow.
The eternal cycle of “low follows high follows low” is so predictable that — back in 2014, just as the world finally shook off the after-effects of one of the longest and deepest economic recessions in history — I actually wrote an open letter to the industry and I called it: “To be opened in the event of a downturn”.
After a great deal of searching through the archives (this was three computers and six external hard drives ago) I managed to find the article. I am sharing it now not to demonstrate my prescience but because so much of it still rings true.
Dear Construction Industry
If you are reading this, the chances are that you find yourselves staring down the barrel of what us old-timers used to call a “recession” (you might have coined a politically correct new phrase for this by now; if so, I hope it’s something fluffy and less filled with foreboding).
Regardless, the important part of the word recession is the “re” at the beginning; you know, like repeat, reimagine, regain. In other words, it refers to something that has happened before. (That said, I don’t think we called the first industry downturn a “cession” but I digress).
You have probably been told by now that your industry is cyclical. But, in truth, the industry behaves far more like a rubber ball dropped from a great height — Each low is followed by a high, which is followed by a low, which is….well, you get the idea. And if history has taught us anything it is that the more things change, the more things stay the same or “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” as they say in France. Yes, France, that slightly odd-smelling country the other side of the tunnel boarded up when The Grand Wizard Farage swept to power in the great UKIP uprising (or not, as the case may be).
In short, what I am trying to say to you from beyond the grave/care home perimeter wall is that the darkest hour is just before the dawn. Things might look bleak now but you are almost certainly just weeks/months/years* (*delete as applicable) from the next upturn.
Until then, there are just a few things you can do to make the transition from recession to recovery just that little bit smoother:
Do your best to maintain training levels — The first thing you are going to need when the upturn comes are people that can actually do the work.
Keep your systems up to date — Assuming that computers haven’t been replaced just yet, keep your software up to date. Computer systems have a nasty habit of becoming obsolete while you’re worrying about where the next cheque is coming from.
Nail your cash-flow — As cash has probably been replaced by plastic/hologram by now, this may sound like an archaic term, but the rules still apply. The first sign of a true recession is that formerly reliable payers become less reliable. (For the record, the second sign of a true recession is that even those that have no intention of paying will stop buying).
If the recession means you’re not working for your business, work ON your business — Experience tells us that those most likely to survive a downturn are those that are lean and mean, quick to diversify and to seize opportunities as they arise.
Don’t trust the political classes — Assuming that Russell Brand turned out not to be the new Messiah and that his revolution began and ended with a book of that name, you probably still have to toil under politicians. If yours are anything like ours, they know nothing. The only time they have ever set foot on a construction site is to deliver a scripted sound-bite whilst wearing a hard hat (you still have those, right?)
I realise that this will be of scant consolation to you right now as you struggle to afford your next loaf of 3D-printed bread/economy flight to Alpha Centauri, but things will get better.
Oh, and just so you know, yes, there really was a time when a nation of millions used to huddle around a plastic box to watch other people make cakes; there was a time when there was real music made by people that could sing or play musical instruments, not just that prescribed by Cowell the Merciless and Omnipotent; and there really was a time when West Ham (the football team that played at the Olympic Stadium before it was turned into Virgin Galactic’s spaceship dock) were fourth in the Premier League.
They were simpler times.
Mark Anthony is the founder of DemolitionNews.com