‘The writing was on the wall – I was about to become unemployed’

At the annual surveyors’ dinner, SCSI president Micheál O’Connor spoke candidly about the toll the property crash took on him and his family

Micheál O’Connor, president of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, addresses attendees at the group’s annual dinner last week

Micheál O’Connor, president of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, addresses attendees at the group’s annual dinner last week

Thu, Feb 13, 2014, 00:00

This is an extract from the address made by Micheál O’Connor to 1300 guests at last Thursday night’s Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland annual dinner in Dublin’s DoubleTree Hilton Hotel.

“Rather than getting into a detailed speech on statistics and figures about our industry and the economy, I wanted instead to take this opportunity to frame the context of where we now find ourselves within the property and construction sectors.

“There is common consensus now that we have turned a corner and that we have begun to experience tangible signs of recovery, both within the construction and property sector and the broader economy. And while I am both encouraged and relieved to finally experience the uplift, I also believe that we should never forget where we have been in recent years so that we can better appreciate the opportunities that lie ahead.

“It has been suggested to me that my own experience in recent years mirrors the cycle we have just come through and that my story may well reflect the experiences of many of you here tonight.

‘Soft landings’
“I was fortunate in the mid-noughties to work with one of the largest house builders in Ireland at that time. I had a good job with commensurate income. Life was good and more was never enough.

“The culture was to drive on, build more and make more, always in an attempt to beat last year’s targets. Indeed, this culture wasn’t unique to my employer, in fact in the overall scheme of things it was probably one of the more conservative developers.

“Then reality began to dawn but we did not believe it. We spoke of our ‘fundamentals being sound’ and of ‘soft landings’. We believed our own hype and we suffered as a result. Just how much we were going to suffer didn’t become apparent at first, but then reality began to bite.

“Pay cuts, draconian pay cuts that, at first you begrudged but, as time moved on you were very grateful for. Your colleagues began to disappear and those things that one time you wouldn’t even have given a second thought to – stationary for example, paper for the photocopier – these also began to disappear.

“You soldiered on in the hope that things might improve, ultimately working for nothing – no pay cheque at the end of the month.

“Then eventually for me the writing was on the wall – I was about to become unemployed. It was helpful to phrase this as ‘you are between jobs’, but down deep you knew what it really meant.

“Then came the experience of visiting my local welfare office, researching entitlements, medical cards, and so forth. Research, frankly, I never thought I would ever have to do. Site feasibility and profit margins were now a distant thought.

“A particular aspect of this that I struggled with was that one of the welfare offices in my area of Cork, in Crosshaven, was directly adjacent to a primary school. I would go there early, before it opened, to avoid lengthy queues. But arriving at the welfare office in the morning before it opened meant that I, and many others like me, were queuing up outside as children were going to school.

“Parents walked their children into school with their heads down, afraid to make eye contact with you – they were embarrassed, we were all embarrassed. The odd child would ask the awkward question, and they would get a hushed response.

“And this inevitably led to a sense of guilt, guilty that you were in this position and guilty that you had let down those who love you and rely on you. But you had to remind yourself that ‘this will pass and things will get better’. They did, thank God, for me and I know for many others also.

“I eventually joined Jacobs Engineering and working with Jacobs has given me a totally new and broader perspective and has highlighted for me the opportunities that exist for Irish people and Irish firms beyond these shores.

“Certainly our industry’s reputation has been dented, but for every high profile failure or bad project, there are tens of others that are a success and have provided a better environment for people to work and live in.

Fundamentally, our industry is made up of good people; people with pride, integrity, courage and vision and we must encourage and harness these attributes, so that together we can improve our future. . .

“It is crucial for all of us, members of the Society, the broader industry, business leaders, politicians, and so forth, to make absolutely sure that we learn from the bitter experience of the recent past. If we never forget where we have been, we will be better able to appreciate the opportunities which lie ahead.”