Carillion: Incompetence on an Industrial Scale


Well, I’ve been through the post three times – yes, home and work. Checked my e-mails. Facebook, obviously… And it’s not arrived. Clearly an administrative oversight. Can’t get the staff I expect. So for yet another year I won’t be going to the World Economic Forum, the annual meeting of the great and good in the Swiss resort of Davos.

But tempting as it is to write about it instead – to spend the next 800 words with Theresa May, Donald Trump and Elton John’s speech on ‘5 Leadership Lessons from my Darkest Hours’ the real story right now is the collapse of Carillion.

Carillion

Like all big companies, Carillion had a strap line: ‘Making tomorrow a better place.’ As everyone now knows, the company went into liquidation last Monday with debts of £1.5bn and a pension shortfall of at least £600m – so for Carillion, there is no tomorrow. For the handful of hedge fund managers who made millions out of betting against the company tomorrow may not be a better place but it will certainly be a richer place.

But for the thousands of Carillion staff, and many, many small businesses, tomorrow looks anything but a better place. I have absolute sympathy for every single member of Carillion’s staff – with the exception of the directors – but in this article I want to concentrate on the 30,000 small businesses that will be impacted by Carillion’s collapse.

Carillion was created in July 1999 by a demerger from Tarmac (which was originally founded in 1903). With the Governments of David Cameron and Theresa May continuing the Blair/Brown practice of using the private sector as the supplier of services to the public sector, Carillion was effectively the Government’s ‘go-to’ contractor.

And yet there was plenty of hard – and anecdotal – evidence that the company was in deep trouble. In 2017 it issued three profit warnings: there was also plenty of gossip.

I have not previously used the comments column of the Daily Mail as a source, but two replies to a recent piece on Carillion are worth repeating:

Carillion have been shaky for ages. We were asked if we would undertake a multimillion pound project [for them] as a sub-contractor. Based on some reliable info we said no – thankfully, or their crash and non-payment would have taken us down too.

[They] have been using ‘dodgy’ business practices for years. Undercutting on quotes to the point where competitors know the figure is unsustainable. Writing that piece Mail City Editor Alex Brummer called Carillion a ‘giant Ponzi scheme…’

Effectively Carillion was using the cash flow from their latest contract to paper over the cracks – or fill the black hole, choose your metaphor – from the previous contract. Ultimately – like Mr Ponzi’s investment scheme – that was unsustainable.

Did anyone pay attention to the profit warnings and the dark mutterings? Yes, the hedge funds did. Carillion was ‘the most heavily bet-against company on the stock market’ and the hedge funds will apparently profit to the tune of £300m from the company’s collapse.

Sadly, Her Majesty’s Government did not pay any attention. Despite the profit warnings and the gossip the Government continued to award contracts to Carillion. For example, a week after the first profits warning the Department of Transport announced that Carillion would partner another construction company on a £1.4bn contract as part of HS2.

There was another profits warning in September of last year – swiftly followed by another key infrastructure contract, awarded at a time when Carillion’s CEO and finance director were both leaving. The Government may not be to blame for Carillion’s collapse but it has left senior ministers looking at best naïve and at worst incompetent.

It has also left them with the lot of explaining to do to the owners of small businesses. ‘It’s got 450 Government contracts, the company must be alright’ is a not unreasonable deduction to make.

But now one industry group estimates that up to 30,000 firms are owed money by Carillion, with the firm having spent £952m with local suppliers in 2016. Clearly many small companies will face uncertain futures and/or will need to consider laying off staff to reduce costs. Carillion may have employed 20,000 people in the UK but the 30,000 firms owed money will have employed considerably more. There are real fears of a ‘domino effect’ among smaller companies, with liquidators PricewaterhouseCoopers saying they will not pay any bills for goods or services supplied before the liquidation date of Monday January 15th. Carillion’s creditors have already been warned in court documents that they are likely to receive less than 1p for every pound owed to them.

Bluntly, that is a disgraceful state of affairs. I am trying to keep calm about this but Carillion captures so much of what is wrong with British business – and which the Government could so easily put right. It’s not just the continuing award of contracts, there is also the small matter of Carillion’s terms of business – 120 days.

I’ve used this line before but it bears repeating. When the boys were little they’d occasionally do something and we’d say, “No, you can’t do that. It is just plain wrong.”

That’s how I feel about 120 day payment terms. It is just plain wrong. At best it is asking small business to finance big business and at worst it is pure and simple exploitation. ‘Do the work in January, send the invoice at the end of that month and we’ll pay you at the end of May.’

Back in September 2016 I took Liam Fox – the Secretary of State for International Trade – to task for his description of small business owners: ‘fat, lazy and off to play golf.’ No, Mr Fox, they are anything but ‘fat, lazy and off to play golf.’ They are trying to plug a hole in their cash flow that your Government could fix with one simple piece of legislation. And some of them are wondering how they’re going to save the business they’ve built from the effects of a corporate crash: one that could have been avoided by a Government with an ounce of business acumen.

Some of the smaller companies affected by the debacle will be TAB members. Carillion will unquestionably be one of the problems brought to future Board meetings.

But amid the rubble there is a silver lining – and that silver lining is the meetings of The Alternative Board, and the accumulated wisdom of your colleagues round the table. ‘We’re thinking of signing a contract with X’ is a phrase I’ve heard any number of times. And on a few occasions I’ve also heard that intake of breath and seen the slow shake of the head – the one the garage mechanic used when you asked if your first car could be fixed – and every time it has proved invaluable.

You’ll never be able to take out insurance against the greed of big business and the incompetence of the Government, but your colleagues around the TAB table are the next best thing.

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