BACKFILL: It’s just an opinion but …

Until recently I hadn’t found anyone who was looking to have a fire sale and downsize or get out of the business. It could have been denial caused by the lingering after-effects of a prolonged economic high, but somehow I don’t think so.At worst, in card playing parlance, a few were going to sit on their current hand and see what their competitors did rather than raise the stakes, and that was probably not a bad way to go. After all, if the economists couldn’t pick what is happening, what chance did a poor contractor have?I had been pleasantly surprised by how little negativity I encountered from people I had spoken to. Some were seeing a slowdown as a necessary breathing space, giving business owners and managers the opportunity to fix, rather than continue to paper over, some of the cracks that appeared during the overheated activity of the past few years.Such issues might relate to being able to get equipment up to the standard they aspired to, where previously pressures to keep it working meant problems were deferred that would normally have been addressed. It might come down to tightening up systems, or conducting training to address issues that became apparent during the “all hands on deck” times. A number of owners of project equipment such as large crawler cranes had told me they were uncomfortable with the abnormally high utilisation factors of the last couple of years. There wasn’t the normal time in the yard between projects to allow a major inspection and maintenance regime to take place. However it didn’t look like that sector of the market was going to be idle any time soon. Someone in Western Australia told me: “If you didn’t read the papers, you wouldn’t know there was a recession on.”However that changed when I heard a couple of stories about projects in the resources sector being cancelled or deferred in WA. That’s like being told the pope is an atheist or Madonna is a natural beauty.Then it struck home – the next year is going to hurt quite a few people. But it doesn’t have to hurt everyone, and how badly it hurts can depend as much on mental attitude as on actual circumstance.When equipment was hard to get, there were people putting in orders for equipment they didn’t have an immediate need for, knowing that if they didn’t need the equipment they could on-sell it for more than they paid for it.In the current climate they would be unlikely to get a premium. In some instances they might struggle to get a sale, and those providing finance are getting increasingly nervous. There’s one thing many people will enjoy: hanging up on or showing the door to salespeople who, when it was a seller’s market, blew them off or forgot about customer service and adopted an arrogance that was at odds with their ability and experience. The square-up won’t be pretty, but a few people have been salivating over the opportunity for a little while now.The next year actually represents a great opportunity for many people. It mightn’t be a vintage year for outright results, but fortunes are cyclical and those who are smart will make sure that they are better prepared for the next up cycle than they were for the one that has passed.Perhaps the most positive thing that could be done is to ensure that skill is not lost to the industry, and that those who have had to learn on the run in the past couple of years get the opportunity to round off the rough edges. The “need for speed” on projects probably meant that in a lot of instances the level of resources thrown at a task was in excess of what was really required. We need to claw back an understanding of efficiency that has probably been dented – particularly on government infrastructure projects that were rushed because of poor forward planning. We can’t afford to keep splashing dollars to make a problem go away, particularly when the dollar has lost more than a third of its value.That need to rediscover efficiency has to come on some other fronts, but maybe it could best come by getting the mix of book and practical learning right. The beauty of an apprenticeship is that you learn on the job. Inexperience or lack of a practical approach from relatively new people in a supervisory or management role is something that a number of subcontractors have been complaining about during the “good” times. There seems to be a school of thought that the level of concern about an issue can be judged by the thickness of the reams of paperwork created, and by the cost imposed on others when they jump through hoops to do business with you.Hopefully tough times will force a focus on paperwork warfare. Endless checklists and reams of documentation do not automatically make a good occupational health and safety environment. Some forms should come pre-printed with ticks because it’s unrealistic to expect that each question gets serious attention in a pile of paperwork that could choke a horse. Keep it simple, and remember that ultimately safety is an individual as well as a collective responsibility.With the myth of deregulation and the efficiency of market forces debunked during the financial meltdown, it’s time similar myths in our industry were debunked. For all its shortcomings, compliance inspections give people a better idea of where they stand, and are a better chance to catch those deliberately taking shortcuts than waiting for them to have an accident, and then climbing over the bodies to throw the book at them.If you have ideas on ways to increase efficiency, they are good ideas whether the business climate is good or bad. It might be a way to maintain profits when there isn’t a lot of scope to increase or even hold rates. You might even find that suppliers and others have more time to help you turn your idea into reality. One man’s roadblock is another man’s opportunity. The guys waiting at the roadblock will be left behind.

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