Friday, October 31, 2014

Trouble ahead, Trouble behind | The fall and fall of commercial archaeology in Northern Ireland

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Regular readers of this blog may remember that last February I posted a piece about the financial statuses of the four main archaeological consultancies in Northern Ireland, based on their Annual Returns to Companies House in Belfast. At that time the 2013 returns for only one company had been posted. In the intervening period, the 2013 accounts summaries for two further companies have been added, so I felt that it was an appropriate moment to reexamine the current state of commercial archaeology in Northern Ireland. As before, I will go through the companies from the oldest (by date of incorporation) to the youngest, followed by an averaged summation of the state of the industry.

The first company on the list was incorporated in 1990. At the time of the last post, accounts were only available up until 2011. At that time Current Liabilities were reported at £590,987, against Current Assets of £553,797, and a Net Worth of -£37,190. However, additional breakdowns of these figures are publicly available at Open Company, allowing a greater level of granularity in terms of the Current Assets. Here we can see that only £27,300 are described as Tangible Assets, with the vast majority being the distinctly more dangerous asset of monies owed by Debtors: £526,497 - a whopping 95.07% of the company assets.

1990 Company 2007-2011

The second oldest company, incorporated in 1997, now has key financials available up until 2013. At the time of my last examination of the company they had three directors, though they appear to have shed one and gained one, with a new company director being appointed on June 1st 2014. Overall, it has been a poor year for this outfit. While company assets now stand at £99,059, an increase of £18,183 on the previous year, the rest of the key financials aren’t looking so encouraging. Cash at bank is down to £325, a fall of £8410, or 96.28% - the lowest it has been since 2011. While cash flow can be relatively volatile, it is the Net Worth and Current Liabilities that are most worrisome. Liabilities now stand at £76,771 a rise of £42,320, or a 122.84% increase. Worst of all is the estimated Net Worth – in 2012 this was estimated at £14,221, up from an all-time low the previous year of -£23,735. However, in 2013 this slipped back into the red to -£6,443, a fall of 145.31%. Again, using the Open Company data, we can see that the Current Assets are actually composed of £2,862 of Tangible Assets, £23,987 of Stocks, and the £325 in cash. However, the largest proportion of the company assets - 73.34% - are in the form of outstanding debts owed to the company: £74,747. 

1997 Company 2008-2013

The next company on the list was founded in 2002 and retain the same two shareholders as before. In much the same way as the previous company, 2013 was a remarkably tough year. Cash at Bank is recorded as being down to £2,382, a fall of £7,744 (or 76.48%) from the previous year, and the second lowest amount for which records are available. It is certainly a startling fall from the all-time high of £50,812 recorded in 2009. Current Liabilities remain relatively steady at £105,036, a modest decrease of £8,172 (or 7.22%) from the previous year. Here the most worrying issues centre on the Net Worth and Current Assets. The Current Assets are assessed at £27,269 in 2013. This is down £77,159 (or 73.89%) from £104,428 the previous year. As may be clearly seen from the graph, this is part of a much longer downward trend from a high of £376,007 in 2008 (the earliest date that records are available) – and overall fall of 92.75%. However, the most concerning figure here is the Net Worth. It parallels the broadly downward historical trend of the Current Assets and for 2013 is estimated at -£70,144. This is a significant decline from even the modest positive Net Worth of £1,759 recorded the previous year, and especially the all-time high of £258,932 for 2008. In this instance, the Open Company data is only relevant to the previous year, 2012. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that it here too the vast majority (82.02%) of the company's Current Assets are in the form of Debtors: £94,302. The remainder was made up of £10,540 in Tangible Assets, and £10,126 in cash.

2002 Company 2008-2013

The final company, founded in 2005, recorded their best year in 2013. At that time their return could be broken down into having £85,858 as Cash in Bank; Current Assets of £151,755; and Current Liabilities of £90,585. Taken together, this amounted to a company Net Worth of £61,611. As they have already been discussed in the previous post, I don't intend to dwell on these figures other than to note that the Open Company data gives a slightly adjusted figure of £152,196 for the Current Assets (difference: £441). This is broken down into Tangible Assets to the value of £441, the £85,858 in cash previously mentioned, and £65,897 of outstanding debt owed to the company by Debtors. In this instance, the value of the Debtors contributes a significantly smaller percentage (43.30%) of the overall company assets than in the previous examples, though this is not an insignificant amount to be owed!

2005 Company 2008-2013

Although data from the 1990 company does not appear to be available for the period after 2011, two other companies have added 2013 results. This, at least, allows us to attempt to rebalance the picture portrayed in February 2014 of a sharp return in profitability, based on only one set of data points. What we see now is that average Cash at Bank has risen to £29,522, an increase of £21,678 on the previous year (or 376.80%). Both average Current Liabilities and average Current Assets have increased slightly. Average Liabilities are up £37,505 to £90.797 (170.38%) and average Assets are up £22,495 to £92,694 (132.04%). These figures are down from, respective, historic highs of £626,202 and £705,774 in 2007. However, it is the average Net Worth that is the greatest cause for concern. This figure was at an historic high in 2009, when it hit £195,251. While it shrank to a low of £2325 in 2011, it had always remained above the zero-mark. In 2013, for the first time it dropped below this point to -£4,992. Considering the vastly different years that these three companies have had, this average masks some serious issues with the financial stability and viability in some cases. In my summation in February, I noted that despite the obvious caveat that the 2013 data available to me came from only one company, there was no reason to believe that the others didn’t have a broadly similar return to financial health. We can now see that, with the addition of two further data sets, this is not really the case. Average Current Assets and Liabilities are both up – though the second is not always a cause for concern. While average Cash at Bank and Net Worth are not at their lowest recorded levels (2011), both are down on the 2012 figures – and this is worrying! My words of February last are as apposite now as then: ‘In these figures I think we can see the true fragility and ephemerality of the enterprise – a few poor years have drastically reduced the commercial viability of all of these companies.’

Average graph 2007-2013

Of course, the real point of this exercise is not merely to probe into the finances of these companies – as fun as that is. Private archaeological companies are in an unusual position in that the nature of their work entails the care and curation of an important corpus of culturally significant material. All the artefacts, samples, and ecofacts, along with the physical and digital archives of drawings, context sheets, etc. are of importance beyond their physical presence in these organisations. The material they hold has significant heritage value and belongs to the whole of society. Simply put, if one or more of these companies is forced out of business, there is a high degree of likelihood that this material will be lost. As I put it last time: ‘I could easily foresee the vast majority of archives – physical and digital – heading for the skip’. Such potential losses would rob us all. We know from correspondence with John O’Keeffe, Assistant Director/Principal Inspector of Historic Monuments at NIEA, Built Heritage, that while the possibility of such an event is on their agenda and they are formulating plans to deal with it, nothing is physically in place at this time [For an alternative view as to what can be achieved on a limited budget in  the Republic of Ireland see: here]. The sad reality is that eight months on from my initial assessment nothing has changed – the NIEA still don’t have a plan in place to save our shared cultural assets should an archaeological company fail. And yet, some of these companies are still in financial peril. Leaving aside the very profitable 2013 for the 2005 company, one consultancy has recorded their worst performance on record (the 2002 company), resulting in a New Worth of -£70,144. The situation at the third company for which figures are available (1997 company) shows that while 2013 was not their worst year on record (that would be 2010 or 2011, depending on your criteria) it did see a drop in profitability from the modest increases of 2012.

Not that anyone is paying attention to my suggestions, but I say let these companies fail. If they go under before the NIEA gets a safety net in place to rescue archives we will lose much data and large swathes of our physical heritage, but we know that there was never much chance of this material seeing the light of day as formal publications anyway ... but is that what we really want? I’ve said often enough that the most obvious potential solution to this issue is already in place – the Centre for Archaeological Research at QUB (just so we’re clear: I’m not affiliated with them in any way!). Their staff contain a large number of well-respected archaeologists with many years of commercial field experience, but their setting within the University sector has already paid dividends in terms of their significant output of publications – from peer-reviewed articles in academic journals to popular pieces for non-specialist consumption (see: here). They are, in my opinion, in a perfect position to take over from the failing archaeology-for-profit model and enter the commercial market to the benefit of all. Whether they would wish to take on such a role is another matter entirely (see: here)!

So … what can we do in the meantime? I honestly don’t know … even with safeguards in place to secure individual company archives, there seems to be little motivation to address the broader question of the flawed archaeology-for-profit model. If one poorly-performing company goes to the wall there is nothing to stop an equally ephemeral organisation from taking its place … at least for a little while. In the meantime we can only wait for the 2014 figures and see if genuine recovery materialises or the slow circling of the plughole continues.

In the original post I did not directly link any set of accounts to an individual company, referring to them only by their year of incorporation. However, based on the legal advice given to me, to allow for full clarity and fact-checking, I was advised to provide some degree of linkage between the two. To this end, I created a separate appendix where interested readers could investigate the figures I used and relate these back to identified companies. I maintain this arrangement for this post.

The title for this post: ‘Trouble ahead, Trouble behind’ is taken from the Grateful Dead song ‘Casey Jones’ [Video | Lyrics | Wiki] from the 1970 album Workingman’s Dead. The song was first performed in concert on June 22nd 1969 at Central Park, New York. The entire concert is free to download & stream: here. But, of course, you knew that!

**Since completing this post, I have been advised that one of these companies (1990 Company) has ceased to trade in Northern Ireland. Their Facebook Page has not been updated since the end of June 2014, their .ie website appears to have been removed, and they do not appear to be answering their phone. At the present time I am unaware as to the situation regarding their archives, but I am in the process of making enquiries and will post the results on this blog in due course**

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