In the past 18 months, a series of construction mergers have left plenty of people who have witnessed the iceberg effect. The acquisition of housebuilders Beazer and Bryant by Persimmon and Taywood respectively was followed by the purchase of Alfred McAlpine Homes by Wimpey. Ex-Trafalgar House staff who flew a Norwegian flag under Kvaerner swapped it for Skanska's Swedish one, and Galliford merged with Try. Then there was a host of smaller deals as the big consultants snapped up niche businesses.
Where mergers are a glove-like strategic fit, with little overlap between business specialisms or geographical coverage, the unseen effects on individuals can be more positive than negative. They might include a wider range of promotion prospects within an enlarged company, favourable perks and benefits with the acquiring company or a new reporting structure that might treat your talents more favourably.
Robert Wallace, senior vice-president of Skanska Construction, says that ex-Kvaerner staff are finding their career prospects are widening, particularly on Skanska projects in the USA. "There are opportunities for people with an appetite for them," he says. "People tend to have trepidations at first, but they should remember that companies can always be strengthened by an injection of good people."
But, as mergers are often a boardroom response to overcapacity, a more typical scenario – as with Persimmon and Beazer, where 800 were sacked – is that the combined business will suffer from overcapacity and that redundancies will follow.
While in theory many employees might welcome a change of direction, most will not enjoy being forced to make a detour. Recruitment consultant Hays Montrose has seen a flood of job-seekers displaced by the industry's wave of mergers. According to senior manager Chris Cheetham, there is no set pattern to individuals' reactions. "Some are shattered, some bounce back quite quickly. Perhaps, a year later, people will say 'on reflection, it was a good thing'. But very few will say that at the time."
So, what's the best way of coping if your company has set course for a merger? The advice from careers advisers and industry professionals is that you have more control over the situation than you might think. Those in charge might be plotting the macro-strategy elsewhere, but you can still influence the merger's micro-level effects on your department and your career.
In the first place, there is often a lengthy period of limbo between the announcement that a business is being sold, and the deal being sealed. When BAe Systems' Project Management International was put up for sale in October 1999, it took a full year before a deal was concluded with Osprey Project Management, a subsidiary of QS Franklin + Andrews.
Keep your wits about you
"The atmosphere was unsettled; people were worried about their jobs and some decided to leave," says marketing assistant Avis Donaldson. But these months are a breathing space that should be used wisely. Siobhan Hamilton Phillips, a senior psychologist with consultant Career Psychology, advises trying to predict which areas of the new business will flourish and which will wither away. Clues can often be found in a close reading of press releases, or in directors' comments in interviews. For instance, Persimmon made clear from the outset that it saw no future in social housing, an unmissable signal to staff at Beazer social housing arm Beazer Partnerships to update their CVs.
When you have an idea of which direction the new business might take, consider grooming your CV to match. That might mean simply putting your experience in a slightly different light, or taking the initiative by signing up to extra training. As well as evening courses, you might consider crash-courses in your holidays or internet-based distance learning.
Once the deal has been concluded, you may find that your working life continues much as before, although with the complication of new bosses and a new reporting structure. On the other hand, if redundancies and reorganisation are on the cards, then it's time to play your winning hand. In either case, the experts agree that the first post-merger weeks are the ideal time for blatant self-promotion.
Sherridan Hughes, a consultant psychologist at consultant Career Analysts, says that the doctrine of honest hard work being rewarded simply does not apply in modern mergers. "It might be the case in an ideal world, but I think you need to stick your head above the parapet. Everyone else is too busy to notice someone working with their head down," she says. "A merger means massive changes. Someone needs to manage them – that person could be you."
Perhaps, a year later, people will say ‘on reflection, it was a good thing’. But few will say that at the time
Chris Cheetham, Hays Montrose
Fran Wilson, an adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, makes a similar point. "Volunteer for as many teams as possible, and try to make yourself visible for maximum impact." For instance, at Kvaerner, a small team of people was put together to negotiate on perks, benefits and other issues. Galliford Try set up a series of working groups to streamline the two companies' policies on issues such as procurement and recruitment.
But gimmicks are best avoided. Robert Wallace, senior vice-president of Skanska Construction, recalls that when Kvaerner acquired Trafalgar House in 1996, some keen swots started learning Norwegian.
The cool response from their Norwegian bosses was that they should stop wasting their time and start getting on with some useful work.
A responsible employer will try to ensure a smooth transition with regular update meetings to keep staff informed. QS Davis Langdon & Everest associate Emma Stephenson, personnel and training manager, has recently worked on the integration of specialist firms NBW Crosher and James and Schumann Smith into DL&E. Her advice, based on counselling transfer staff, is to "keep asking questions about how the merger will affect you. Different things worry different people, so don't feel your concerns are trivial even if your colleagues don't seem to share them".
If you're lucky, the end result will be a win–win situation for staff, as well as a more robust business for directors and shareholders. "There's definitely a lot more scope for gaining experience and promotion – Osprey and PMI have given each other footholds in the other's markets. There was a lot of upheaval, with everyone's workload reorganised to cover all the projects. But for me personally, it's worked out very well," says PMI Osprey's Donaldson.
But redundancies are often a by-product of mergers. In cases where the merger has left two individuals with the same job function, but only one job, the Employment Rights Act requires the company to interview both candidates. "It can be as gruelling as getting the job in the first place. They're not doing it to be nasty, but to get the best person filling the role," says the CIPD's Wilson.
If voluntary redundancy is on the agenda, the key is to ask yourself how well a move fits with your personal and family circumstances. Likewise, a relocation package can look attractive at certain stages in your career. "Ask yourself if you can you do with a breathing space in your life. Maybe a good redundancy package could help you set up as a consultant. But if you need stability in your life, don't apply," advises Wilson.
If redundancy is unavoidable, there is some comfort to be had in the words of Hays Montrose's Cheetham: "When redundancies happen through mergers and acquisitions, there is general acceptance that it's not a reflection on the individual's ability. In other situations, there can be a question mark over your CV."
Others use redundancy as an opportunity to train or set up in business, with the redundancy cheque as a means to pay for it. Outplacement consultant Ian Cooper recalls one engineer who retrained as a JCB driver, and a manager who became a court usher. Career Psychology's Hamilton Philips recalls a surveyor who "ended up setting up a business importing second-hand pianos.
It worked out very well for him."