If we want to make it through the recession with our highly trained staff intact, we have to carry on doing what we do well, and start doing a lot of things that we don’t
I recently stumbled upon this quote by a little-known author called Dave E Smalley: “The survival of the fittest is the ageless law of nature, but the fittest are rarely the strong. The fittest are those endowed with the qualifications for adaptation, the ability to accept the inevitable and conform to the unavoidable, to harmonise with existing or changing conditions.”
The reason I mention it is that I think it perfectly sums up the situation that my firm, as a specialist subcontractor, is faced with. Traditionally we are brought in to advise on the type of stone selected by the architect and client. We consult with both to ensure that the selected stone can tolerate the loadings and, in the case of flooring, the foot traffic for a particular building.
We work out where the movement joints should be located and we calculate the thickness requirements based on the design and tolerance of the stone itself. In addition, we ensure that the quality is consistent and the supply of the material can be provided by the quarry. To do this we have to visit each quarry to ensure that the supply risk is minimised and we then set about designing and making the product. Installation naturally comes last and its success is reliant on the preparation that has gone on before.
In today’s environment this is not enough. We have to adapt and get involved in more trades that interface with us. Today our role is changing and it needs to if the company is to survive. The next couple of years are going to be as tough as hell.
We have now started providing a total facade management package. We are getting involved in providing, for example, the Metsec, insulation and dampproofing as well as the stone on the outside. In the past we would not have dealt with ceramic tiles and the likes, but we are definitely interested in tendering for this type of work these days.
Furthermore, we are looking at new methods of installation, such as lightweight cladding structures and raised stone flooring to provide alternative specifications.
It is critical that the management of our company hangs on to our highly trained staff – many of whom have been working here for years. To continue to do this we have to have adapt and become a jack of more trades.
The fittest are those endowed with the qualifications for adaptation, the ability to accept the inevitable and conform to the unavoidable
In many ways, specialists are finding themselves in the same position as the UK car industry. However, the lobbyists and unions representing car making have been more successful in getting the government to provide incentives to stimulate the market. Alistair Darling is offering motorists £2,000 to sell their old car and buy a new model. The scheme follows similar moves by European countries, such as France and Germany.
The case for helping Britain’s car industry is straightforward. In the main it is profitable, with a strong product. But today the industry is in the red because of market collapse, particularly for the sort of high-value vehicles produced by Jaguar and Land Rover.
However, demand for new cars will undoubtedly resume once the world economy recovers. And when it does, Britain needs to have its iconic brands in place to respond. That means keeping factories open and our skilled workforce in employment. Anything else means that the demand will be met from other countries and a huge number of manufacturing jobs will be gone for good.
In the case of the stone masonry business, our staff’s skills are not so easily met by a foreign workforce – installing and hand setting stone takes years to perfect and the UK has some of the most qualified masons in the world. We need to ensure it stays that way.
As I have said, we are embracing the idea of diversifying our service offering to clients. As Dave E Smalley would advocate, we are accepting the inevitable and conforming to the unavoidable but when the market does return we will need to have those trained masons on hand to start working on buildings that will help protect London’s, and the UK’s, status as a leading commercial centre.
Greg Verhoef is director of Szerelmey