Does Carillion Ring any Bells?

I’m not going to cover the details of this topical case, because they are fast-moving, not entirely clear yet, and covered in more detail by specialists elsewhere. What matters more is that a distressingly small proportion of comentators, let alone ordinary business-owners, know very much about what happens when a business becomes insolvent, and, more to the point, goes bust.

I am going to look at a few hard truths.

The Background

The brief outline, for the sake of people reading this piece in years to come (if any) is that Carillion was the product of a merger between a number of well-known companies in the construction and facilities-management sector – part of Tarmac Construction, Mowlem, Alfred McAlpine, and part of John Laing, plus some businesses in Canada and elsewhere. It divided its activities between facilities management (eg maintenance of prisons, and railways), large constuction projects (eg hospitals and part of HS2) and mining and mineral extraction abroad. It was the second largest construction company in the UK.

After a number of apparently good years it issued a profits warning in July 2017 recording a downturn in its construction division of some £845m. The share price crashed from 192p to 45p by the end of August, resulting in the loss of 5 directors and frantic searches for refinancing or a buyer. These were scuppered at the end of September when it was revealed that the business had lost £1.15bn in the 6 months to 30th June 2017. Two further profit warnings were issued, and eventually all the options ran out and the company was placed into compulsory liquidation on 15th January 2018. The business owed some £900m, plus a £580m deficit in its pension fund.

Somewhat controvertially the Government, who had a high proportion of Carillion’s business, continued to award it contracts throughout this period, including the amazing award of a substantial share in the HS2 scheme a few days after the first profits warning.

The Outcome

The business apparently had assets worth just £29m when it closed. These would all be charged to its bankers, and although the head office in Wolverhampton may be worth something, the claims for payment on the various construction contracts are likely to be worth very little because of the counterclaims the employers are likely to raise arising out of the additional costs caused by the failure and various “defects in construction” which will come to light over the next few days or weeks.

The facilities management in the state sector – the prisons and the schools – will continue, initially funded by payments to the liquidators to cover the cost, and no doubt in due course the staff will be taken in-house by the clients, or the contracts will be re-let to other contractors, and the staff will, to the most part, be able to follow the work. There will be very little change, although the future cost will be higher because the cause of the failure was taking on contracts at unrealistically low prices in the first place.

The construction in the state sector – building the hospitals for instance – will also continue, after a bit of a hiccup. The hospital will need to be completed and the contract will have to be awarded to another contractor. This may take a bit of time, and will cost more (obviously) but there is every chance that the staff will be taken on by the new contractor, who will suddenly need just the number of workers who are working on the project when it failed, and although there will be some shaking out, and the replacement of key managers, things will continue. And hopefully some lessons will have been learned so that next time the contractor manages to finish the project intact.

The private sector work will be more difficult. Some facilities maintenance work will be taken in-house, with or without the workers, and the construction projects will continue, but after what could be a significant pause. There are likely to be more losses of employment, as new contractors bring in their own teams.

HS2 and the A14 road improvement projects are special cases: they are joint ventures between a number of contractors and they have guaranteed to take over the projects in the event of a failure such as this. Subject to their own financial stability, the survivors are likely to take over the existing staff and continue as before.

But there will be casualties – employees not taken over, pensioners and sub-contractors

The Victims

Although there has been a lot of fuss about them in the media, the employees have various sources of compensation. If they lose their jobs they will get statutary redundancy payments from the government, plus up to 8 weeks’ wages at up to £489/wk, and holiday pay, sick pay and notice pay. It may not be everything but it will be most of it, and few employees will be owed more than a few weeks at this point. And there is a good liklihood that they will be taken on again by whoever takes over the project.

Pensioners also have some protection from the Pension Protection Fund. Those receiving pensions will continue to do so at the same rates, although the rate of increase for future years will be restricted. Those who are below the scheme’s retirement age will get 90% of the pension that they would otherwise get, and subject to a cap (of some £38,500 odd for 2017). Again future rates of increase will be restricted.

It is sub-contractors, suppliers, and their employees, who will take most of the hit. Any company in Carillion’s position will have become very slow in paying their bills and the amounts that are owed will be considerable. I have heard talk that some were operating on payment terms of 120 days, or even 6 months, and for a small business this level of exposure is likely to be fatal. Even if they are taken on by the new contractors they won’t be paid for the work that they have done up until 15th January, and few businesses can afford a hole of this magnitude in their cashflow. They are unlikely to have insurance cover, and factoring won’t save them because the factor will just deduct payments from future invoices until they have been reimbursed.

If you are say an electrical contractor, if you fail then not only do your employees lose their jobs, but your suppliers, your landlords, your contractors and even (God forbid) your lawyers and accountants will miss out. To say nothing of any guarantees put up by directors or shareholders. It will be very grim.

And finally, there are the banks. There is something in the region of £900m owed to RBS, Santander, Barclays and HSBC and a few others. They will get very little of this back, and, although they won’t get much sympathy, that is money that they can’t lend to the rest of us, that can’t be invested in the economy, and we will all suffer as a result. Plus RBS still belongs to the government, and we will lose that way as well.

What can we learn?

Any manner of things:

  • Bigger is not necessarily better.
  • There is no point in bidding for a contract that has such a slim margin that the slightest problem makes it run at a loss.
  • Big construction projects used to lose money for the government because of cost and time over-runs. That is why they were put out to tender. They can still lose money for a private contractor too.
  • It isn’t always best to take the lowest bid – will the bidder still be around when the project is completing?
  • Just because the government continues to employ a company doesn’t mean that it is financially secure – so make your own enquiries.
  • Being a sub-contractor or supplier in these circumstances is risky, and this needs to be factored into your price, or indeed your decision on whether to do the work at all.

I won’t even begin on the activities of the Carillion directors, the payment of dividends when the pension funds were in deficit, the vast salaries and bonuses, and the apparant failure to see the writing on the wall. Or indeed on the government’s involvement in things. These are matters for another day.

And I am not covering the question of whether governments ought to out-source activities in this way. Again, something for another day

It is a sad time for a lot of hard-working people. We all need to learn a few hard truths.

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Author: Coventry Man

A perspective from a litigation lawyer in the Midlands. After many years in Coventry I am now with David Lee Solicitors in Kenilworth, helping people with all sorts of litigation, especially property and landlord & tenant problems.

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