Cleveland Bridge is falling down

Photo by Scott Hunter

Darlington-based structural engineering firm Cleveland Bridge has collapsed into administration, it has been announced. Its entire workforce of 230 is now under threat of redundancy. The firm, in existence for 144 years, has been owned by the Saudi al-Rushaid group since 2000. The crisis has occurred despite the firm having a full order book.  So, what’s gone wrong?

The administrators‘ view on Cleveland Bridge

Construction News reports the view of the administrators: 

“Martyn Pullin, a partner at administrator FRP, explained: ‘Cleveland Bridge UK has been a flagbearer for cutting-edge British engineering for more than a century. But no business is immune to the far-reaching impact of the pandemic, which has delayed major infrastructure projects around the world and put significant financial pressure on the teams behind them.’ “

While The Times reports that millions are owed to suppliers, and offers the opinion of one employee of the firm, “that the company had suffered from “colossal” underinvestment and had fallen behind competitors using more automation technology”.

Unsuccessful negotiations

Several sources have reported the firm’s negotiations with its parent organisation.  Thus, Tech Gate:

“Cleveland Bridge … was in talks with its owner, Saudi Arabian Al-Rushaid Group, to secure an extra £6million of funds but this was unsuccessful”

Papering over the cracks at Cleveland Bridge

So has it been a victim of the pandemic? One employee, quoted by The Times, explains further,

“The underlying business here in Darlington has been inefficient and unprofitable.” He said that a 2015 contract to supply hundreds of bridges to Sri Lanka had “papered over the cracks” in the balance sheet, but when that work stalled last year as a result of the pandemic, the company’s liquidity “immediately evaporated”.

It would appear, then, that the company’s problems are of longer standing than the administrator has indicated. Yet reported losses are relatively small as New Civil Engineer explains

“Latest company accounts for Cleveland Bridge filed in December 2019 show that the firm slipped to a loss of £457,000 for the year, compared to a profit of before tax of £1.17M in 2018. Revenues had however grown to £47.9M, up from £36.8M in 2018.”

Joint statement from the Conservatives

A joint statement on the crisis has been issued by Peter Gibson (Darlington, Con), Paul Howell (Sedgefield, Con), and Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen have issued a joint statement:

“Our number one priority right now is making sure that Cleveland Bridge’s 200 members of staff, and their families, are supported at this difficult and uncertain time, and we will be working with Darlington Council and Government to ensure they get whatever support they need.

“Cleveland Bridge is a business with an amazing heritage that has been responsible for some of the world’s most iconic structures, including the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Shard skyscraper in London.

“The skills of its workers are second to none and have led to the company having an enviable global reputation.”

Cash cow

The reality of this is that no amount of wailing and lamentation about the fate of the ‘second-to-none-workers’ will have any real impact.  Here is yet another example of an important company becoming a commodity to be traded on the open market. The opinion of the single employee who claimed that the company was “inefficient and unprofitable” is borne out by the fact that it had been trying to obtain £6 million investment from its parent company. Why refuse to invest in a company whose products, on the face of it, are in high demand? If Cleveland Bridge now needs infrastructure investment, it is al-Rushaid group that has, over two decades, failed to maintain it. During that time, Cleveland Bridge has been a cash cow for al-Rushaid, to resource to be asset stripped and then passed on.

Whether a buyer is found or not, Cleveland Bridge will remain a victim, not of the pandemic – that was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back – but of the lack of regulation that persists in this country that allows asset-stripping to flourish.  The full human cost of that is felt in areas like the Tees Valley, where crises like this occur over and over again.  Is there really a world of a difference between what al-Rushaid is doing at Cleveland Bridge and what Greybull Capital did at British Steel?  Or EEW did with the OSB  plant Haverton Hill?

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