How Britain's oldest builder survived the recession

By Jonty Bloom
Business correspondent, BBC News, Brasted, Kent

image captionDurtnell built Poundsbridge Manor in Kent in 1593; the building still survives

Nestled in the lovely Kent village of Brasted, just off Rectory Lane, is the headquarters of R Durtnell and Sons.

The family-owned-and-run building firm was founded in 1591, making it the oldest building group in the country. By definition, therefore, it has survived more recessions than any other.

One way that Durtnell has survived is to turn its land into offices to rent. What was once the builders' yard with stores and scaffolding stacked everywhere has now been turned into office buildings.

It also helps that Durtnell specialises in the kind of building projects in south-east England that have been least affected by the downturn - churches, private schools, art galleries and luxury houses for foreign millionaires who are still snapping up property in London and the South East.

But there is more to it than that.

John Durtnell, the former chairman who ran the business for 40 years, says that unlike some of his rivals who have gone to the wall, he always put money aside in the good years. Even so, staff have had to take a pay cut of between 10% and 15%.

image captionMore recently Durtnell built the Turner Contemporary in Margate, Kent in 2011

"The severity is not so damaging, it is the duration," he says. "Most people understand that if things go wrong, there is a bitter pill to swallow and some pain.

"People will accept that providing there is a dawn tomorrow, but if tomorrow never comes then people get traumatised, they get demoralised.

"They worry about their jobs, their mortgages, their prospects, and that is terribly wearing and depressing."

image captionAlex's son William could become the 14th generation to run the firm

Durtnell has also had to get rid of staff. In its joinery business, which specialises in high-end shop-fitting and office refurbishment, that has had to be quite brutal.

"Before the recession in the joiners' shop we had 17 to 18 guys, now we have 10," says Martin Cheeseman, who runs the joinery business.

"We have one man in veneering and we used to have three. In our spray shop we have one chap, we used to have up to five, and in the machine shop we have four rather than seven or eight."

But even in the construction industry, which has been hit harder than most, there seem to be signs of better times ahead.

Alex Durtnell is the 13th generation to run the business and he believes that new orders may be on the way.

"Our tender list is on a sheet of A4 paper and normally it is on one side or one-and-a-half sides, showing that we have probably 10 or 12 jobs being priced by our estimating department.

"Recently that has been down to half a page, but yesterday I looked and we are back up, over the page. And they are all decent jobs with good turnover - I think that is a positive sign."

Those green shoots of recovery will be welcome news even for a business as old and well-established as Durtnell. This has been a long and deep recession.

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