Comment – The year of giving up

Most will look back at 2020 as the year of the Coronavirus. Some will remember it as the year of giving up.

Last weekend I was perusing my LinkedIn feed while I was socially distancing in a queue at my local supermarket when I came across a post from an Australian demolition man that had been a guest on the DemolitionNews LiveStream show just a few months ago. He had taken to LinkedIn to announce the fact that he was walking away from the demolition business.

This was not a retirement – The man in question is young, dynamic and has plenty of good years ahead of him. But the stresses and the strains of working in demolition – which had previously caused him to voice his personal mental health struggles – had finally taken its toll. And while the COVID-19 pandemic and localised lockdowns across Australia had been the straw that finally broke the camel’s back, there was no question that demolition itself had long since fractured the poor humped creature’s spine.

I switched on my computer this morning to be greeted with the news that house builder Redrow was quitting the London market because “making acceptable returns in London has become increasingly more difficult in recent years.”

These two stories are entirely unrelated. One involves a demolition company; the other a house-builder. One story comes from Australia; the other from the UK. One is a decision based upon personal feelings; the other follows a strategic review and is apparently entirely driven by economic forces.

Yet despite their many differences, these two stories speak to a single solution to a singular problem. The fact that one company has chosen to walk away from a specific geographic market and one man has chosen to step away from a specific industry points to a wider issue that has been building and accumulating for a number of years. And the chances are that these two stories will not be unique.

According to the Redrow statement announcing its abdication from the London house-building sector: “There remains downward pressure on the London market created by weak overseas demand, shifting social trends, which suggest many buyers are now looking to live and work outside the capital; and a convoluted two-tier planning system that has not responded to any of these changes.”

Against that background, Redrow’s decision should come as no great surprise. Nonetheless, that decision is bold. According to market intelligence provider The Builders’ Conference, the London house-building sector was valued at around £9.0 billion in the past 12 months; and one of the UK’s leading house-builders has elected to walk away from a slice of that substantial pie rather than continue to be embroiled in the capital’s bun-fight.

Meanwhile in Australia, a man has decided that the stress, struggles and sleepless nights that accompany the running of a demolition company are simply too high a price to pay for the diminishing rewards.

His decision is every bit as bold as that taken by Redrow here in the UK. And, if anything, it is a decision that is easier to explain and easier to understand.

Running a business is always a balancing act in which we each weigh the trials and tribulations against the potential returns. All the time the rewards outweigh the problems, a business is worth pursuing. And if those rewards are sufficiently large, they can often erase all thoughts of the challenges entirely. We can all take a degree of grief and hassle if we’re being sufficiently well paid to do so.

The problem arises when that balance is reversed; when the risks outweigh the rewards; when a work/life balance becomes a work/life imbalance.

The demolition industry, along with large swathes of the construction sector, has been participating in a race to the bottom for a number of years now; a zero-sum game with significantly more losers than winners.

As an industry, demolition invests billions each year in its people and their training, in legislation compliance, in technology and in the latest equipment. And then, when the time comes to bid for work, all of that considerable investment is set to one side while we each try to figure out the lowest possible price we’re willing to accept. Of course, the pressure for that lowest price bid comes from above; from clients and main contractors looking to swell their profit margins by diminishing ours. But for far too long, we have been willing victims. We have been the architects of our own downfall; caught in a spiral of doing ever more for ever less. We have whittled away our own rewards whilst accepting greater risks. And that, in turn, has set in motion a domino effect of wider issues.

We are working for ever-thinning margins and accepting longer and longer credit terms from those that owe us money. We have a legal system in which the stupidity or loss of concentration of a site worker might result in an accident that could send the company owner or directors (or both) to jail. As an industry, we are burdened with bureaucracy and hampered by legislation. We have embraced a complex and convoluted system in which we now require dedicated individuals and even whole departments to keep on top of training matrices. We have stood idly by while the odds have been stacked against us to the point that stress and sleepless nights are now as much a part of the demolition trade as a hard hat.

Stefan Sciessere’s decision to quit the industry he has loved since he was a child and about which he remains passionate to this day is, therefore, as understandable as it is sad. It is hard enough to attract dynamic young people into this industry of ours without then losing some of them because we have collectively allowed the pendulum to swing away from reward and heavily towards risk.

No-one joins the demolition industry because it’s easy. It isn’t. But, by the same token, no-one joins the industry to ruin their own lives either.

I sincerely hope that Stefan’s departure from the industry is temporary and that he will return with fresh ideas and a fresh perspective. I hope he will take the time away to focus on what is truly important – Himself, his family, and his friends and colleagues. But more than anything, I hope he returns to find an industry that has redressed the risk/reward balance; that has finally recognised its own value; and that has at long last placed its own needs above those of clients, contractors and other stakeholders that have dragged us down and held us there for far too long.