“The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. The challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime.” So said Barack Obama as he became president-elect of the United States of America on Wednesday.
Not in recent history have so many hopes hung on the qualities and vision of one man, as he promised a “new dawn of American leadership”.
Builders large and small on these shores now battling against the credit crunch will be hoping that part of this new dawn involves steering well clear of sub-prime mortgage lending. Forever. The hope has to be that the recent actions taken by president George Bush and prime minister Gordon Brown to save the financial sector will work, so that by the time Obama takes office in 10 weeks’ time he may be able to put into action some of his “new leadership”.
This has resonance for the UK construction industry, as decisions taken now with an eye to the hoped-for recovery in 2011/12 will determine who sinks and who swims over the intervening years. Companies need to implement clear, consistent strategies as they batten down the hatches. We could do worse than look to the example of Ian Tyler at Balfour Beatty who has, so far, calmly steered his business through the credit crunch while keeping staff and investors on side. If any reminder was needed of how important it is for a leader to keep surprises to a minimum, just ask Garvis Snook at Rok who saw 50% wiped off the value of his firm on Wednesday when he issued an unexpected profit warning.
Decisions taken now with an eye to the hoped-for recovery in 2011/12 will determine who sinks and who swims over the intervening years
On a brighter note, the work being undertaken by John McDonough, Carillion’s chief executive, through his leadership of the new Construction Council under the auspices of the CBI has started off in the right direction. The plan to let the government know exactly where money brought forward from public spending budgets could best be used is sensible. So, too, is the work of Nick Raynsford, the chair of the Strategic Forum, in establishing a construction taskforce to keep the government posted on how the credit crunch is affecting firms in the industry. As managing directors and chief executives make decisions on cost-cutting and redundancies, the knowledge that everything possible is being done to fight the industry’s corner in Whitehall is reassuring.
In this context, it is unfortunate that the Construction Confederation is expected to wind down from next year. It is to be hoped that McDonough and Raynsford’s work will ensure that the industry’s voice continues to be heard clearly. This means the role of the National Federation of Builders (NFB) and the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) in representing the needs of the embattled SME sector is more important than ever. As we report on page 12 and 13, the lending squeeze facing small builders is forcing many of them to the wall. The NFB and the FMB need to ensure they do not take their eyes off the ball as they reportedly immerse themselves in merger talks. SMEs need them to be at the forefront of efforts to secure help – starting with getting fully involved with the work being led by the Federation of Small Businesses.
There is an adage that any fool can make money in a boom. Now, as the economy dives, leadership will be tested as never before – and it will be the firms with astute, visionary teams that will make the running and turn times of turbulence into an opportunity.
Denise Chevin, editor