Construction company powers through Covid-19 after learning resilience through recession

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Andrew Jay, Group Managing Director of Anderson
Andrew Jay, Group Managing Director of Anderson

This country is not new to a crisis. But those that build battle-style plans into their armoury following upheaval are the ones who suffer less war wounds in future. Here Andrew Jay, Group Managing Director of Anderson, one of the UK’s largest contractors and property developers, explains how the 2008 credit crunch and subsequent recession laid the foundations for their Covid-19 approach.

Coronavirus has sent the global economy into a tailspin and businesses of all shapes and sizes are struggling to keep their heads above water.

None of us know how long this will go on for – or indeed how deep the impact will be. But in the absence of a crystal ball we can look to the past to know that recovery – although hard work – is possible.

During our 33-year history we have seen seven Prime Ministers, the death of Princess Diana, same sex couples given the right to marry, the millennium, the burst of the dotcom bubble, foot and mouth disease, a number of terrorist atrocities, the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and the war in Afghanistan.

But the most significant event to affect our sector happened a little more than 10 years ago when the world entered the Credit Crunch in 2008.

As a business we had to learn a lot very quickly to cope with this downturn. We sold off £12million of assets and still lost £6million in the crash. We also downsized as house building stalled.

Total construction output fared poorly and the private housing sector saw a severe decline with house price uncertainties and stricter mortgage lending halting sales.

The industry is still suffering the consequences of the Credit Crunch – including the well-publicised skills gap, caused by the large number of older people leaving the industry and a lack of training provision and apprenticeship schemes offered to replace them with new blood.

But one positive thing to come out of this bleak period was that businesses learnt resilience. Those that were particularly forward-thinking also learnt how to plan for worst-case scenarios.

Over the last decade a lot of my contingency planning has involved “what ifs”. We agreed that if we could measure the potential impact of another crisis, we could manage it so we looked at what might happen if turnover dipped by 20%, 30% or more and how we could tackle shortage of stock or supply chain issues.

From this work, we managed our assets to make sure we could manage these different possibilities building, buying and selling to ensure effective control of our business.

Of course, despite our very best attempts at foreseeing every possible scenario, we didn’t plan for a global health crisis. I’m not sure anyone did.

But the financial crash informed our disaster planning sufficiently that we knew immediately how to act when, in March, the UK went into lockdown.

Turnover reducing to 50% was the worst-case scenario we had been planning, but with the reality of the situation before us, we took the decision to sell surplus items of plant and make use of the Government-backed furlough scheme. This provided us with an extra buffer, stemming the risk of large-scale redundancies, although in the end we had to make some.

To be honest, this fiscal stimulus actually made the initial Covid crisis easier when compared to the 2008 recession simply because we could protect our most valuable asset – our people.

And that is still where we are channelling our efforts post-lockdown.

Our company is successful because of the people who work with us and protecting them has been of paramount importance – not just in terms of keeping jobs but in terms of their health and wellbeing too.

As an industry we are used to mandatory PPE to keep people safe. We all wear hard hats, steel toe capped boots and high visibility jackets so accentuating this has been simple enough.

We have worked hard creating Covid-safe sites, with social distancing mandatory, sanitation stations everywhere with the installation of outdoor sinks and the introduction of Covid marshals.

We spent £100,000 on safety equipment and re-inducted every single member of staff back into the workplace so they understood the new rules and how to abide by them.

While the new measures affect delivery and output is down significantly, productivity has never been higher and the attitude I promote has been one of positivity and resilience.

There’s no point pretending we won’t face further hurdles with a second lockdown and that coronavirus continues to bring challenges to the workplace, but I think everyone in our business feels reassured that we have a strategy for survival and growth.

This is a strategy we created by looking to the past, after all, it is history that offers hope.

From the Black Death came the Renaissance. World War I helped accelerate change in how societies perceived the role of women. After World War II we founded the NHS. And in the wake of the 2008 crash we made laws to make markets safer and more transparent.

From serious crisis has come innovation: we have learnt and we have adapted, and all of that is born from optimism.

We will get through this and we will get through this together and, as has become something of a mantra for our business recently, this is because we are: “Fit for today. Ahead of the game for tomorrow.”