David Keane might steady the NFDC ship; but can he fix the holes below the waterline?
In the period from its formation in 1941 to its 70th anniversary in 2001, the National Federation of Demolition Contractors had 31 presidents. Although the figures are queered slightly by the fact that Sidney Hunt Snr returned for a second stint in the role, that equates to roughly a president every two years.
Since the beginning 2017, the Federation has had two presidents, a pair of caretaker presidents, and now an acting president who will attempt to steady the ship until the scheduled annual general meeting in March 2019.
During that time, the Federation has seen its membership dwindle to an all-time low, a process that could gain pace with recent company acquisitions and closures. And its influence has waned amidst prolonged and protracted in-fighting and political jostling.
That jostling ousted one passionate but divisive president – Paul Brown – earlier this year. And now in a case of “hoist by their own petard” writ large, it now seems to have robbed an eminently qualified and committed man – Martin O’Donnell – of the chance to take up a role he has earned over the past decade.
The return of David Keane as acting president is not entirely surprising. Keane’s name – together with that of another former president David Clarke – was bandied about as a potential temporary stand-in when Paul Brown was unceremoniously handed a sword upon which to fall earlier this year. And, in many ways, he is the ideal candidate.
Keane is widely respected and he is seen as one of the Federation’s last true diplomats and statesmen. He will need all those powers and a good deal more if he is to steady a ship tossed by waves of self-inflicted disorder and rocked by adversity.
But for all his qualities, the odds are stacked against Keane being able to turn around the Federation’s fortunes in the nine or so months he is expected to hold the role. Because while the focus has been on the revolving door to the president’s office, the real malaise runs considerably deeper and will be significantly more difficult to fix.
In recent years, the Federation – together with its training arm the NDTG – has pursued profit over influence. It has used weasel-worded advertising to suggest that NFDC members are – universally – the industry elite, even though evidence proves that they are every bit as prone to accidents and every bit as predisposed to financial troubles as the rest of the industry. It has attempted to shore up a dwindling corporate membership with more associate members and an erosion of the rules that had formerly seen drilling and sawing companies and plant hirers as possible competitors rather than fellow members. And it has pursued, largely in vain, an attempt to encourage members of Build UK – an association of the UK’s largest and most influential main contractors – to work only with Federation members.
Most unforgiveable of all, the National Federation of Demolition Contractors has failed to provide value to its members, the very people it was created to help and whose needs are the very reason for the Federation’s very existence.
I sincerely hope that Martin O’Donnell is granted the opportunity to become president. He has earned the right. I sincerely hope that David Keane’s acting presidency is successful. Accepting such a potentially thankless task is the mark of a true Federation man.
But the president is not the problem. The members are not the problem. The industry, which is enjoying a period of almost unprecedented stability, is not the problem either.
And until the wider membership recognises that, the problems that have seen the Federation have a decades’ worth of presidents in less than two years will persist.