Drainage Contractor

Features Guest Column
U.K. Update: Pandemic and plows

Reflecting on business resilience in times of crisis.


May 22, 2020
By Rob Burtonshaw
Rob Burtonshaw

Topics

I write aware that by the time you read these words at least a couple of weeks will have passed and at the moment it seems like quite a while away. We are working day to day, and have learnt that time moves at a different rate during a pandemic. It seems to be moving faster, the situation changing every day.

I hope the situation will improve, but as I have written here before, predictions are a fool’s game. Perhaps I should write about something else but to do so would be to ignore what appears to be the greatest issue the company has faced for many years, perhaps the greatest in its 75-year history. Our staff level is currently around 40 percent of what it was two weeks ago, we are running as best as we can but the world has turned upside down. Jobs have been delayed or cancelled and some of our suppliers have closed. We have a plan in place and with the assistance being offered to us by both our bank and the U.K. government, I remain optimistic.

Perhaps I should write about something else but to do so would be to ignore what appears to be the greatest issue the company has faced for many years, perhaps the greatest in its 75-year history.

However, this tested the company like nothing before, especially following an extremely wet winter which left us unable to work for long periods. So far the business has proven robust enough to cope with what has been thrown at it, which is in part down to luck and partly to planning. We have also tried to spread the economic risk by working in multiple industries. Our work load is split between construction – mainly cross county pipelines – sports field drainage and agriculture. Many other contractors have specialized in one of these sectors which has advantages and limitations too.

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Creating a robust business is an easy phrase but one with little meaning. Everyone would like a strong business, the question is: what practical steps can be taken to achieve it? I’m sure the only answer is profit. Profitable business which carry little debt and own the space they work out of can survive the troughs and hope to take advantage of the peaks. Those already struggling to create regular profit will falter. Profit is king and you cut costs or earn more money.

Well I’m afraid I’m a cost cutting sceptic. I understand the argument, and trimming fat from the bone sounds good. But the only way to make significant savings is to cut expenditure on either materials or labor. From my experience, poor quality materials and poor-quality people just add to the cost, on top of adding stress. Cut either and eventually it will come back to bite you.

From my experience, poor quality materials and poor-quality people just add to the cost, on top of adding stress. Cut either and eventually it will come back to bite you.

I see no alternative to earning more. Generating more sales is the key. Time spent creating work is always time well spent, whether that be submitting estimates or attending farm events. It is easy to sit back and wait for the phone to ring, rather than being proactive. Trying to make sales can be, let’s be honest, daunting. Striking up conversation with strangers or people you hardly know is not easy for most people. However it is effective and over time, with practice, it is possible to improve and, what is more, most people in this world tend to be polite and excuse your clumsiness.

The silver lining to the coronavirus outbreak so far has been the reaction of people. On a whole, government guidelines have been obeyed and a spirit of community has developed. People are eager to help their neighbors and those less well positioned to withstand the outbreak. Here in the U.K. over 750,000 people volunteered to help the NHS (National Health Service) following a government request which originally asked for 250,000 volunteers. In trying times people have come together and I think that is worth remembering. From my experience I’m happy to declare that our industry will offer help, whether it’s calling friends who live alone, collecting groceries for those in need, or rising to the occasion when we’re asked to. During my Nuffield Scholarship travels in 2013 I met with more than 50 contractors throughout the world, and without exception, all welcomed me warmly and offered sincere assistance. I’m sure all will do so again to others in need at this time.

Editor’s Note: This column was written and submitted in early April in order to meet the print deadline for Drainage Contractor’s May 2020 issue.