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We are not builders!

it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

So the good people at the Office of National Statistics have finally listened to the construction industry and revised their output numbers. Upwards. Which is nice.

But it does make you wonder why they downgraded it in the first place. Could it, perhaps, surely not be, because construction doesn’t really hold that great a space in the heart of the great and the good of our nation. That is despite the fact that construction turnover is over £100bn a year and represents 10% of GDP, despite the fact that every £1 spent on construction brings in £2.84 of total economic activity.

And where construction does have a profile, it’s invariably ‘building’ – the wider media and the government tend to think of construction as the guys on site with big cranes or building houses. Occasionally, if they are financially minded, they might think about the results of some big names – Wolseley, Marshalls, etc. But by and large the construction industry means cranes and cement and blokes in hard hats and hi-vis vests doing things with both.

This was brought home to me the other day when I watched the View from the Top video on FT’s TV channel. Geoff Cooper, chief executive of Travis Perkins, was being interviewed on why the construction industry thinks that the ONS figures were falling short of what was actually happening.

As usual, it was an admirable performance: eloquent, erudite, to the point and hugely informative. There was just one thing bugging me. The headline on the story attached to it said “Builders attack figures”. Builders. Not ‘builders merchants’. Not ‘the construction industry’, but builders.

It reminded me of a previous interview with Cooper in one of the big broadsheets some time ago, I think when TP were planning their rights issue. The article started out with: “Geoff Cooper doesn’t look like a builder.” No, I’m sure he doesn’t. Neither do Peter Hindle, Gavin Slark or Ian Meakins. Nor, for that matter do Dennis Smith, Jeremy Burden, John Parker, Angela Rushworth or David Kilburn. I’m fairly sure that there aren’t many CEOs of million and billion-pound turnover companies that do ‘look like a builder’.

What is it with this world that it cannot get its head round the fact that there’s a billion-pound industry that exists purely to get building materials from factory to building site and one that does that job pretty damn well.

I’m starting to think that the problem with the merchant industry’s perception by the mainstream media (and by extension probably the government) is that they really do see it as a bunch of builders. To the mainstream media, a builders merchant seems to be simply a builder who got tired of working outdoors in all weathers and plumped for a nice little job behind the trade counter instead.

Wouldn’t it be good if merchanting had the sort of respect and profile in the wider world which mean that Cooper (or Hindle, or Slark, or Meakins) had the same kudos and immediate recognition as Tesco’s former chief Sir Terry Leahy or pants-and-socks-seller-in-chief Marc Bolland?

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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