It’s hard to underestimate the confidence knock that British business has taken following first the less-than-optimistic Autumn Statement from George Osborne and then last week’s unseemly debacle in Brussels. An end-of-year double-whammy. Over the Channel things look equally tricky with rumours now swirling that a European bank might fall within the next few weeks. It could even, perish the thought, be German.
It’s at times like these, when heads risk falling that one is justified in asking what would Churchill have done. There’s no shortage of encouragement from the ghostly aphorisms of the man often dubbed the greatest of all Englishmen. You could derive succour from “if you are going through hell keep going”. Or equally you could cling to “courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others”.
Confidence is a vital quality and absolutely vital for business to take place. Conducting business with confidence is literally to do it with trust. If you are numbed with anxiety, focused on paying down debt or simply stuffing your available cash into the mattress, you are likely to be in no mood to take even the smallest risk, trust anyone or anything. Even someone trying to sell you a collateralised debt obligation. You batten down the hatches. If we are not careful the current funk has the danger of becoming paralysing.
It’s important to remember that opportunity remains out there. Even when an economy is shrinking there is always a slice of the pie that can be grabbed. Just look at the recent CampdenFB list, supported by Ernst & Young, of the fastest growing 50 family businesses. There was no lack of confidence here; indeed it revealed a sector flourishing. The top spot was taken by Argentina’s IMPSA, a manufacturer of renewable energy technology. A Brazilian company took second place followed by a British construction company, Willmott Dixon.
Building is one of the diciest games of the lot. Indeed, you could argue that a surfeit of ‘irrational exuberance’ in construction – for which read insane confidence – lay at the heart of the US property crash, which initiated all our current woes. But Willmott’s have been building since 1852, so they have been through a few downturns and emerged intact. Group chief executive Rick Willmott is the fifth generation of the Willmott family to lead the business.
What they’ve shown over those 160 years is that classic family business mix of endurance, flexibility, realism and steadiness. Considering the company’s history, one sees numerous examples of this. The 1970s were one of the UK’s direst decades – especially for those in construction – but Willmott Dixon by careful acquisition, risk spreading and a steady hand on the tiller increased its turnover from £2.2 million to £29.8 million in the ten years to 1980. (A healthy dose of inflation will have helped this sum.) From the fact that in the early 1980s the firm purchased a Winnebago motorhome in order to conduct board meetings on the move from office to office, you can see they were willing to do things differently. They put their toe in the water in Portugal and even Egypt.
They were also willing to accept, when it came to how to run a business well, that they might not already know everything. The first family member Ian Dixon was sent to business school in Harvard in 1976. Now they’ve become one of the UK’s leading social housing constructors turning over a shade under a billion pounds a year from their base in Letchworth Garden City. Next year they will celebrate their carbon neutrality.
What they’ve done is keep it in the family and keep, in Churchill’s words, buggering on. More power to their concrete pourers and angle grinders. A pat on the back for individuals and organisations should never be underestimated at the best of times. When things are not going that well, the need for encouragement and the celebration of successes is even more vital. With knockbacks frequent, the morale levels in business are not high and every little bit of praise and spirit-lifting counts, helping organisations pull together. It doesn’t take much to say “well done”.