The Merry Month: Robert Merry has some tips for taking the goodwill of the festive season into the year ahead
‘Tis the season to be jolly. But you might be wondering what there is to be jolly about.
If you won an award at the Stone Federation’s Natural Stone Awards at the beginning of December then perhaps you will still hold on to a feeling of joy about that. The recognition of excellence is always rewarding.
Or perhaps you were involved in one of the many projects recognised in the Chartered Institute of Builders’ annual Construction Management awards. Congratulations to one and all who were.
So... what can we aspire to in 2023? From what can we take sustenance to last us through January and February – those cold months; those short days?
New Year is a time to reset the clock; take-off in new a direction. Or even slow down.
A long-time associate and occasional collaborator of mine, Mark Aldridge, is retiring in December.
Mark is a fine, old-school draughtsman who has worked with many of us in the stone industry over many years.
He told me that after bobbing along from job to job since the pandemic, suddenly, when he announced his retirement, everyone needed him. Work flooded in. He turned down most of it because the decision had been made. Enjoy the retirement, Mark.
And no, I’m not intending to announce my retirement in the hope that work floods in. Although I could simply announce I had to postpone retirement because of new commitments, followed by another retirement date and so on and so forth until the lights go out or they turn off the life support.
The pension fund needs time to recover from a near death experience in September first. It has the added problem of currently growing at a rate of less than inflation. It has an uncanny similarity to my IT skills and the growth of new technology.
But assuming you’re not retiring anytime soon and have a stone business to run, here’s a few facts and tips for 2023.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) there are more than 340,000 construction companies in the UK, of which 336,000 employ fewer than 25 people.
Small to Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) turn over £56.7billion, which is slightly more than a third of the total for construction. Lots of small portions of the sub-contractor’s cake to go round.
Construction is tough and supply chains can be long. Getting paid takes longer and the 1% of big companies that control two-thirds of the money in construction apply a tight contractual and ‘friendly’ hand around the money supply throat. Neither do they have any qualms about tightening their grip when they need too.
The majority of companies in the stone industry are SMEs. Learning to build a business beyond a SME is a skill on its own and not many of us possess it. Smaller companies often revolve around one passionate, hard-working individual.
If you’re one of those individuals it might be worth ‘sticking to your knitting’ – in other words, stay true to the skill that drove you to set up in the first place and get some help with stuff like growing the business, selling, marketing and whatever. You can’t do everything.
But where can you get that help?
Many local authorities have business hubs dedicated to supporting SMEs. They support and nurture local enterprise with grants, reduced rates and targeted support. The government claims to cover 100% of the UK with its new Growth Hubs initiative.
Build your network. Get involved in your trade association. Stone Federation, Tiling Association, Chartered Institute of Builders, Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, Royal Institute of British Architects... they all hold events on a variety of topics with non-members welcome. Widen your contacts and use the resources available to network, learn more, meet customers. Find support for insurance, contract disputes, learning and development – all available from member organisations. Find out what’s available for free, such as from Future Learn, part of the Open University. It offers free business courses online that you can complete to your own timescale. There are 47 business strategy courses alone. See www.futurelearn.com.
Develop relationships. Talk to your supply chain. Visit them. Talk to your customers. Visit them, too. Keep dialogue channels open. It’s not a race to the lowest price. Add value instead – knowledge, service, reliability, dealing with problems efficiently. It’s easier to buy from those you know and trust.
Get involved. Visit exhibitions. The Natural Stone Show takes place in London in June. There’s also London Build and UK Construction Week. You might have your own favourites.
And there is now a particular emphasis on diversity, mental health and sustainability. And rightly so. Focusing on these three elements alone will strengthen your workforce and connect your business, ultimately moving it forward.
So yes, there are reasons to be jolly this festive season and to take some of that cheer into the new year.
Best wishes for 2023.