Comment – Harmony restored…

The NFDC has a new president; and a positive outlook to go with it.

Day and night. Black and white. Chalk and cheese. And now to this list of polar opposites we can add the 2018 annual general meeting of the National Federation of Demolition Contractors and the 2019 annual general meeting of the National Federation of Demolition Contractors.

This time last year, the atmosphere at The Rosewood – the chosen venue for the NFDC AGM – crackled with discord and dissatisfaction. The whiff of rebellion hung heavy in the air even as the incumbent NFDC president clung on before finally surrendering his position a month or two later. This year was markedly different, however.

Acting (and outgoing) president David Keane has spent the past nine months pouring oil onto troubled waters (metaphorically you understand; no modern demolition man would risk such an environmental catastrophe by using real oil on real water). The result was not just an improved atmosphere but something close to a rebirth.

This annual general marked the day the National Federation of Demolition Contractors crowned its first-ever female president. Keltbray’s Holly Price takes the top job on merit and as just reward for her tireless commitment at a period in the Federation’s history when it might have been easier to throw in the towel. Her appointment is not mere tokenism. It is a reflection of what appears to the Federation’s new face. Time will judge the success of her presidency, of course. But with her demolition and training bent, she already feels like the right president for today. And in Cawarden’s William Crooks, Price will have the support of a well-respected vice chairman to help her push her agenda and shift the NFDC even further into the 21st century.

History might recall this AGM as the day upon which the NFDC elected its first female president. But the meeting heralded much more besides. Cantillon’s Elpida Christodoulou was named as demolition manager of the year, proof positive that the women are coming at long last. (The NFDC website will, I am sure, contain full details of the winners of the NFDC awards).

Yet for all the positive embracing of femininity that saw the planet align on International Women’s Day, I will remember this particular NFDC AGM for a whole host of other reasons.

I shall remember this year’s AGM for the sheer class displayed by KDC Contractors’ Martin O’Donnell who – but for a strange quirk of employment would have been sporting the president’s chains of office rather than Holly Price. O’Donnell handled himself with dignity throughout what must have been a day of bitter disappointment. That dignity remained when he received a standing ovation from the assembled members. That is the mark of the man. The fact that the standing ovation was instigated by Holly Price is the mark of the woman.

I shall remember this AGM for the very faint but unmistakable crack in David Keane’s voice as he prepared to hand over the reins to Holly Price. He admitted that he had twice turned down the job before finally riding to the rescue in the Federation’s hour of needs. The fact that he was reluctant to leave a job he had tried to avoid says much about his commitment to the Federation. The fact that he was honoured with an award in recognition of his achievements during his brief nine months in charge was totally justified and universally applauded.

I shall remember this AGM as the day upon which the NFDC made it officially acceptable to talk about mental health issues in the demolition industry. Of course, the Federation has been talking about this for some time now. But it has now set in place a framework to help its members help their employees to tackle a scourge that is claiming the lives of as many as two construction and demolition men each week here in the UK. That announcement may be lost amidst the news of a female president. But make no mistake. Addressing mental health, depression and suicide within the sector might prove to be the most important revolution since the adoption of hard hats.

I shall remember this AGM for the fact that the industry’s new-found openness about mental health allowed a well-known and much-respected demolition man to literally cry on my shoulder over a recent suicide of a young colleague. I respected him before. I respect him even more now.

But, when all is said and done, I shall remember this AGM for a single moment that probably lasted less than a second and which was likely seen by no-one other than myself.

Holly Price had already received the chains of office during the morning session (surely the first time an outgoing president had welcomed his successor with a kiss rather than a hand-shake) and had spent the remainder of the morning and lunchtime receiving congratulations. In fact, she had been president for a few hours when the NFDC Awards compere Gyles Brandreth called onto the stage “the new president of the National Federation of Demolition Contractors”.

There was a nanosecond of hesitation before a smile of pure pride spread across her face as she realised that Brandreth was talking about her.

Of course, Holly Price’s presidency starts now and she will be under no illusions about the challenges ahead. But this feels like a new Federation; a Federation equipped for the 21st century.

As I walked away from The Rosewood, I looked back over what had been an enjoyable day spent with an almost universally harmonious membership. Through Holly Price’s presidency, Martin O’Donnell’s quiet dignity, David Keane’s emotional pride and that new-found openness about mental health, I found myself thinking for the first time in a good many years: “This is a Federation I could get behind”.