This is a message of optimism and hope, of an opportunity long awaited that is finally set to arrive. But you need to read to the end to get to the positive, encouraging part. The next two paragraphs are not comforting at all. If you are already feeling redlined trying to chart a course for your practice and the staff who look to you for leadership, skip a bit, brother, and pick up when I get to the exciting part about Adam Smith and 18th Century economic theory.
The Bad News
In a few short weeks the coronavirus pandemic has overwhelmed our healthcare system and crippled our economy. We lack test data, making predictions imprecise, but infections are likely to peak in mid-May. Last Sunday, 8 weeks before mid-May, the Fed flattened interest rates to zero. The stock market in two weeks has effectively given back three years of impressive gains. Nobody is going to start new projects during such uncertain times, regardless of available cheap funding.
There are 8 more weeks, about, until we see evidence that economic activity is getting back to normal. Tax revenue will fall in a way that makes airport expansion projects and new container wharves at the Port of Honolulu unaffordable. I’m not an expert, but I suspect it’ll be August before goods and services are changing hands in a way that allows long-term investment decisions, the types of decisions that put engineers and contractors back to work. Our engineering industry is going to have a lull. Whatever shall we do?
The General Solution
I have a suggestion, but you’ll have to bear with me while I delve briefly into 18th-century economics. Specifically, groundbreaking thinking in Adam Smith’s classic “The Wealth of Nations.” This is a thick book, a veritable tome. It comes bound in 3 volumes. I’m sure the binding cracks softly when opened to exude a lovely old-book smell. But some of the ideas in it are just as fresh now as they were at the beginning of England’s Industrial Revolution. These ideas are the key to our success as we enter this long-awaited lull. In March 1776, Adam Smith published the general solution to a problem that we all are just about to experience. The details, like every good professor, he left to the reader. But he certainly told us what we need to know in order to do well on the upcoming test.
The key premise is that wealth is created by reinvesting accumulated capital. This applies to your company and to your individual practice just like it does to your nation. As a man of his Industrial Revolution times, Smith focused on reinvestments in labor-saving equipment. He offered as a practical example a hypothetical pin-manufacturing enterprise. By investing some of your pin-selling profits in a better pin-sharpening machine (or whatever, I know nothing about sewing notions), you would be better-faster-cheaper in all of your future pin-making. Thus, your invested capital yields greater wealth. The wealth of nations grows by reinvesting their accumulated capital in ways that achieve greater efficiency.
The pivot from manufacturing to services requires a little discussion: Knowledge-based companies increase their wealth when they reinvest surplus capital in greater knowledge and efficient service delivery processes. Simply hiring more people grows your top line, sure, and some of that revenue usually flows through wages and benefits to land on your bottom line. Often you can do this through buying a rival firm. The efficiency benefits in these investments are vanishingly small. Some engineering practices, particularly the very large AE’s, then prioritize distributing the slightly expanded profits to shareholders. They do not invest accumulated capital to improve their enterprise. They do not build wealth in the way that Mr. Smith recommends.
Here’s where this arriving lull transforms from an economic hardship into a rare business opportunity: Because knowledge and efficiency investments require the knowledge worker’s time, such investments are only economical during a lull. Sure, during fat times we specialist consultants buy new trucks and maybe one of those neet-o robotic total stations, but really, wealth grows when we invest in our staff. We have an opportunity to do that this summer. We can use the slack time during this lull to build shiny new pin-sharpening machines, or whatever. The question that we face, now or in May, once we get our long-awaited slack time, is how best to reinvest so that we increase our wealth? What efficiency improvement should we acquire through judicious application of our time? What pin-sharpening machine (or whatever) will help us deliver services in 2021 better-faster-cheaper than we did through mid-March 2020?
Me? I finally will learn to draw. I’ve been left behind as CAD morphed from a documentation requirement into a communication and collaboration space. I’m like that old executive we all make fun of, the guy who has his secretary print out his emails and dictates his responses. I’ve been aware of this for several years, but lacked bandwidth to act. I owe Keith MacKenzie at Weeks Marine a debt of gratitude for demonstrating the power of communicating with sketches, and also for treating me kindly when we both realized just how far behind I had lagged. The whole crew at VAK Construction Engineering sets the standard in this kind of collaboration.
By the end of the year I’ll be able to sketch-and-share a pile test setup, a trestle concept, or a dewatering array with clients who are already working with information-dense, collaborative 3d drawings. I will have reinvested some of Atlas’ retained capital in an efficiency improvement that grows our wealth, an investment that I can only afford to make during a lull. A lull is a precious opportunity to finally fulfil Adam Smith’s promise of prosperity through reinvestment. So that begs the question: how will you invest your lull?
The Shared Experiences
You’re going to have slack time; the rest of the year will not resemble the beginning. Just because you lose buyers for your labor does not diminish that labor’s value. Put it to work for yourself and your crew. You will be working for the next few months at growing your future practice. About 25% to 35% of your week will be in service to your future prosperity. Do not waste this lull.I would love to hear back from everyone what investments we make. Better cost tracking that tightens your estimating system? Finally, tearing down and rebuilding that venerable Delmag D30-32 hammer so that it’s more reliable when it goes back to work? Maybe just take a bit of a breather and come back feeling refreshed? The possibilities are endless. The coming lull is real. So is the opportunity to invest in our practices. Do not waste this lull.