Contractors feeling optimistic despite COVID-19 setbacks

By: Shannon Williams, Photography by: Supplied

A new report has revealed that the NZ construction sector may be in better shape than expected following the fallout of the pandemic and ongoing lockdowns

The February 2021 Tradify Pulse Report found 53% of Kiwi tradies have a positive outlook for 2021 and believe business conditions will improve during the year.

"Tradies are just as busy as they were six months ago and don’t see any signs of slowing down," the report says.

Bevan Harper, owner and operator of Element Landworks in Whangarei, says the pandemic is not as bad as he was expecting, having only one day off since COVID-19 hit.

Bevan Harper

"Because we specialise in mulching and orchard work, we could work through the lockdowns, as it was food production," he says.

"I was booked up for three or four months in advance, so I just kept working through. I would have been one of the lucky ones​​ because there would have been a lot of people who wouldn’t have been able to carry on working."

Bevan says 2021 is looking positive, with bookings around four months out.

"People are doing more work around their homes this year, spending money on renos because they’re not going on holiday, spending money on what they’ve got rather than going overseas. It’s kind of cool for New Zealand," he says.

Not all rosy

Anthony Renshaw

According to the report, most New Zealand tradespeople believe that general business conditions will improve over the year. However, 13% of Kiwi tradies believe things will get worse—more than triple compared to tradies in Australia.

"While it’s good to see most Kiwi tradies feeling positive about the year ahead, let’s not sugar-coat the future: the long-term effects of COVID-19 are still unknown. Some trade businesses are struggling and may continue to feel the pinch."

The majority of tradies have a positive outlook for 2021, or at least believe conditions won’t get worse. Builders and HVAC specialists feel especially positive. Most landscapers, however, believe things will stay the same.

And while many feel optimistic, the report shows there are groups that aren’t so sure. Roofers have the least positive outlook for the year ahead, with only 25% believing business conditions will improve this year.

Back on the earthworks front, Anthony Renshaw of Wellington’s Renshaw Civil, said COVID put him behind a lot.

"We were humming along nicely before COVID; we were making some really good money and were just starting to climb up that ladder of jobs, but then the pandemic stalled all that," he says.

"Towards the end of the year, our phones stopped ringing."

Anthony says it wasn’t just workloads that were affected but importing machines and materials too.

"COVID put me behind a lot. I’d been waiting for a brand-new digger to turn up.

It was supposed to be here in May 2020 but it didn’t show up until September, so I had to hire a digger for another few months, and it cost me a lot of money," he says.

"And trying to get ​​speciality materials is really hard because it’s still sitting on the water.

"The work was there, but it cost a lot of money having to hire more gear to cover a machine that you were meant to have."

Anthony says after the lockdowns, business remained slow up until a few weeks ago.

"Now it’s picked up again and we’ve got really busy again.

"Things are starting to shape up and get a bit more positive. We ended up being in a bit of a financial hole after all that but we’re climbing out of it. Things are starting to look really good.

"If COVID hadn’t happened, I’d be sitting sweet now, but that happens, you can’t do much about it. It’s called character building; it’s a good lesson to learn."

Flow-on effects hitting construction

Ethan Anderson

The trickle effect of COVID from other sectors is also starting to show its head, with work in the Mackenzie district picking up after an initial slump due to the downturn in tourism. Ethan Anderson of High Country Earthworks, which covers the Mackenzie and South Canterbury, says they’ve been one of the fortunate ones, having quite a bit on before COVID hit.

"We probably lost half of our work, but after three or four months, half of that again came back online," he says.

"Some of it was delayed, but we’ve been flat out right through since level three. We went straight back to work and haven’t stopped since."

However, he says things are beginning to change.

"We were diversifying before COVID actually happened, because if the building industry down here slowed down, we’d be in trouble, so we had scaled up, bought some bigger gear, and started getting into local council work among other things," Ethan says. "A lot of our work is in Lake Tekapo, and with tourism on hold, Tekapo itself has slowed down. There are a few new builds but not much is going on here. It’s just taken this long for that to finally flow through.

"We’re lucky we’re busy and we’re still ticking along. We’re just finding it’s a very volatile market."

Ethan says bigger companies are busier than ever because of the Government’s shovel-ready projects but that didn’t help the smaller and medium-sized companies.

"Looking ahead, we are optimistic with plenty going into council for consents, council infrastructure work keeping many busy and having diversified early on, we don’t expect to slow down anytime soon."

Looking ahead

Daniel Smith

The report says looking ahead through 2021, Kiwi tradies were mostly focused on managing staff, finding work, and growing their business.

Daniel Smith of Auckland’s DK Smith Excavations says while the first level four lockdown caught him off guard, level three was surprisingly beneficial.

"If anything, it was better for us because there’s less traffic on the roads, and we still had a big workload," he says.

"Level four was obviously an upset, but with level three, if anything, it helped us with our productivity."

Daniel says the level four lockdown was a definite "muck around" but allowed the company to rejig everything.

"It’s definitely not what you want to wake up to, hearing that you have two or three months of work cancel overnight because the country is going into a lockdown. It’s an unseen obstacle but everybody had to deal with it at the same time," he says.

"We did manage to rebook our cancellations, and everything carried on as normal the second we were allowed to go to level three."

He adds that looking forward, things were looking extremely positive.

"Auckland is just crazy, to say the least. Everyone thought it was going to slow down, but it hasn’t shown any signs of that yet. Everyone had six weeks at home to kind of figure out what they wanted to change and make better, and they’re not spending their money going travelling so they are bettering their property," he says.

"There is definitely a lot of work; it’s on par with other years. There are definitely some people that are struggling with what is going on, but you just have to want to push forward. 

"Everybody has to up their game and pick up their work ethic a bit and just try and strive on."​

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