Wednesday, February 8, 2017

‘The excavation was a financial success’ | Irish Commercial Archaeology in 2015

Screenshot of the Tableau Dashboard. Available [here] and at the end of this post
Background
Archaeologists are supposed to be rather good at digging … out in the field it’s quite a bit of what we do. When I left field archaeology in 2011 it was, I suppose, inevitable that I would find something else to delve and dig into. One of the topics that has engaged my attention in recent years is the reconstruction of the financial histories of individual archaeological consultancies to create an impression of the sector as a whole, based on a few publicly available ‘Key Financial Indicators’. The process started with an examination of Northern Ireland’s four archaeological consultancies for the period from 2007-2013 [here] and, while imperfect, was sufficient to plot much of the post-2008 collapse of the industry, even if the 2013 data was only for a single company. A second post [here] updated the dataset with the 2013 financial details of two further companies. My original point in this was to demonstrate the financial fragility of the sector and underline the dangers this posed for excavated archives, should one or more company declare bankruptcy. The approach proved popular with many archaeologists (though perhaps not with the company owners themselves) and I was prevailed upon to extend my analysis to companies in the Republic of Ireland [here]. At that time, the data ran from 2001 to 2014. It was at this point I also introduced the use of Tableau dashboards that allowed the user to interact directly with the data and create their own dynamic visualisations. An advantage of this was that it allowed the user to replicate and interrogate my methods, along with allowing them to drill down to the information most pertinent to their own interests. In a further post [here] I updated the Northern Ireland story to include 2014 data. I then took the decision to pay for access to the Summary Accounts submitted by individual companies to Companies House. Although relatively expensive, the access allowed me a more granular view of the individual accounting categories that made up the high level KFIs. It also gave me the opportunity to extend the historical view back to 1998 (and for one company, up to 2015), thus charting the rise of the commercial archaeological sector as well as its fall. My most recent work on the topic [here] has expanded the Northern Irish dataset to include 2015 results for two further companies. For this iteration of the report I was persuaded to drop my earlier attempts at obfuscation and name actual companies. All this concentration on the Northern Irish scene has reminded me that I have neglected the financial landscape of the Republic of Ireland. This post seeks to remedy that situation.

What’s New?
Following the precedent set in the last update of the Northern Irish data, this iteration of the dashboard will no longer use a Three Letter Acronym (TLA) to obfuscate the names of the companies. The actual company name will appear in the Company Name filter, if occasionally shortened to fit the space available. The list of Key Financial Indicators has been expanded from four to eight, the same as the NI dataset. While I felt that there was much to recommend the graph of Average Values, it was very small and difficult to read. For this reason I have dispensed with it entirely, to free up space for the expanded data table. The Data Points graph, indicating the numbers of accounts submitted per year, while valuable, didn’t need quite so much space to be effective. It has been moved to the bottom right-hand corner, again, to provide more space for the data table. The calliper filter to select the Year, and the dropdown to switch between the active and inactive companies (or both together) remain. However, a new Living Wage filter has been added. This allows the user to exclude/include companies that have agreed or refused to sign up to the Living Wage initiative. A third category exists for companies who have yet to be contacted for a response. Finally, available accounts for the Galway-based Arch Consultancy run from 2005-2103, but were not previously in the dataset. Previous iterations of the dashboard have been confined to a single tab, but here I’ve added a second (termed Mega-fauna) to examine the unequal value of One Company against Everyone Else in the sector.

The 2015 Data
Some 20 companies submitted 2014 accounts that are available to me. For 2015 this number dropped to 18. Four of these companies did not (or have not yet) submitted 2015 accounts: Lane Purcell Archaeologists; Association of Archaeological Consultants of Ireland; Eachtra Archaeological Projects; Moore Archaeological and Environmental Services. Of these, Lane Purcell Archaeologists have submitted a Request for a Voluntary Strike Off and may be considered to have ceased trading, though they have not formally been dissolved. The Association of Archaeological Consultants of Ireland company have now been dissolved. In the previous iteration of this dataset, 2013 was the last year I had summary accounts for Moore Archaeological and Environmental Services. This has now been updated to include 2014. Interestingly, this company was dissolved in May 2016, but applied for restoration in July 2016. Two further companies submitted their first sets of accounts in 2015: Shanarc Archaeological Consultancy and Archaeological Service Providers.

Archaeological Development Services last submitted accounts in 2012 and have a number of documents on file regarding the liquidation of the company. However, for whatever reason, they appear to still be considered as active by Companies House and I have (not without reservations) mirrored that designation. The previous version of the dataset contained 2015 accounts for Valerie J Keeley and these (obviously) are retained. This company too is listed as Active, but the documentation includes notices of Voluntary Winding Up and the appointment of a Liquidator.


Analysis
As there are too many companies in the RoI dataset, I don’t propose going through them one by one, as I did for the NI consultancies. Instead, I want to look at overall figures and trends about how the sector is performing as a whole. Anyone interested to examine the changing fortunes of any company at an individual basis will find the tools to do so on the dashboard.

As I have done before, the discussion will include data only from companies still considered commercially active. Although I recognise that this somewhat limits the full historical perspective, it does have the advantage of centring the discussion on only those entities actively excavating sites and providing employment. In terms of Fixed Assets, 2015 saw a slight decrease in value from €1.13M to €941K. It is broadly in line with the €911K recorded in 2013, and while it represents some form of short-term stability and continuity, it is indicative of a lack of recovery from historic highs of €6.9M recorded in 2007. The Stock/Other category includes investments and works in progress and can incorporate some rather disparate assets that are hard to otherwise categorise. That caveat aside, it is clear that this category has shown a remarkable increase to €1.06M in 2015, up from €0.5M the previous year, and the historic low of €343K in 2012. Once again, the figure is well below the historic highs of nearly a decade previously when the total hit €3.2M in 2006. Debtors also show a healthy increase in 2015 to €1.86M, from a 2013 low of €1.21M. This is well below historic highs of €9.98M and €10.3M in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Debtors are an interesting and, potentially, double-edged category as the figure records work billed for, but as yet unpaid. It’s money that (all things being equal) is coming your way, but you don’t actually have it in the bank. In a healthy financial environment, this should be only a minor consideration, but in less certain economic times it is eminently possible that such funds may never materialise. This may be either be through the debtor being unwilling or unable to pay, leaving the company with a reduced cash flow and, in turn, unable to pay their own debts. I will return to this point in due course. For the moment, looking at Cash at Bank, 2015 appears to have been a relatively successful year with a total of €2.83M recorded, up from €2.10M in 2014, and broadly comparable to 2013s €3.08M. While a strong performance, the figures are well down from historic highs of €5.12M in 2007 and €6.52M in 2011.

One of the advantages of access to the summary accounts, rather than just the high level KFIs, is that it allows us see how creditors can be broken out into two sub-categories – those that are payable within the coming year and those that are payable within a timescale greater than one year. The Current Liabilities payable within the coming year were recorded at -€2.05M in 2015. This is an improvement on the -€2.18M from the previous year, and significantly better than 2007s historic highs of -€9.75M. Creditors to be repaid outside of the current year usually includes business loans and the like. In 2015 this figure was recorded at -€571K and has remained relatively consistent since 2011s total -€712K. These figures represent a significant recovery from the high of -€3.4M returned for 2007. Gross Current Assets would, ostensibly, read like a good news tale of recovery in 2015 to €5.73M from a low the previous year’s total of €4.05M. It may even be hailed as the first step back after a seven-year decline from 2007s record €17.75M. But that’s not the whole story. As noted in previous posts, this figure is in part composed of the monies owed to the companies by their debtors. It bears repeating that this is work that has been carried out, but has yet to be paid for, and in uncertain financial conditions may never be paid. For this reason, I’ve introduced a simple calculation to demonstrate the percentage of the Current Assets that are composed of unsecured debtor value. Of the 19 companies who submitted accounts in 2014, and are still listed as active, this figure ranged from 0% to 189.16%, with the mean being 55.18%.  This may be compared to the 18 Active companies who submitted 2015 accounts. Here the figures ranged from 0% to 97.62%, with an average of 47.48%. While still relatively high, the situation does appear to be improving in this regard. The final KFI is, of course, the summed Net Worth of the sector. The 2015 figure is €3.07M and it is the first time since 2008 (€12.51M) where it is an increase on the previous year. While it may be seized on as a positive sign, and an indicator of steps towards prosperity, I would caution that it is a single year’s results that could yet go either way.

Mega-fauna
Taken together, the KFIs are mostly going in the right direction. Net Worth, Current Assets, etc. are all improving, while levels of debt appear to be under control. Probably even more importantly, the average percentage of Debtor value that makes up part of the Current Assets calculation appears to be at manageable levels and has decreased since last year. This looks like an industry on the cusp of a full recovery. Even the fact that there are 18 companies dividing the sector between them appears to give the impression of vibrancy. But that’s not really the case. In my previous post on the financial histories of the Irish consultancies I noted that the years 2008 and 2009 would appear to be “nothing less than an extinction-level event for the Irish commercial archaeological sector”. In that time a significant number of the large consultancies either shut up shop, or were vastly reduced in their circumstances. While some of smaller companies have emerged and adapted to fill the financial niche, the sector is still dominated by a just one “great predator”.  To give an indication of how much this one company (who I shan’t name, but we all know which one it is) dominates the Irish scene, I have reconfigured the datasource to show all the other currently Active companies combined into a single entity. You’ll find the dashboard under the ‘Mega-fauna’ tab.

In terms of Fixed Assets, the One Company had €235K in 2015, as opposed to €706K for the rest. This is hardly surprising as each of the smaller companies have to provide their own premises, vehicles, and digging equipment etc., resulting in significant duplications. Again, in terms of Stock/Other assets and investments, One Company has a 2015 result of €70K, far below the €997K of the combined others. The breakdown of the Debtors is interesting – this One enterprise returned a 2015 total of €908K, not far below the €958K of Everyone Else. To put that another way – of all the money that is owed to Irish archaeological consultancies, almost 49% of it is owed to this One Company. This One Company has a 2015 Cash at Bank total of €1.87M, in stark contrast to the €965K of Everyone Else – that’s almost exactly two-thirds of the current Cash holdings belonging to a single entity. When it comes to the Current Liabilities payable within one year, this One Company returned a figure of -€523K, against the -€1.53M for the combined rest of the sector. Again, putting that in context, of all the short-term debt in the sector, this one consultancy holds slightly more than 25%. The situation is even starker when we examine the figures for Creditors to be paid back at a term greater than one year. The 2015 figure for Everyone Else is -€571K, while the One Company has no long term debt, and appears not to have had since 2009. The gross Current Assets show this One group with a total for 2015 of €2.85M, just behind the €2.92M for Everyone Else. Again, this shows that 49% of the total value for the sector is tied up in one company. It is also worthwhile noting that the percentage of the Current Assets made up of Debtors is 31.9% at this one firm, very slightly better than the 32.8% for the combined remainder of the sector. Finally, the Net Worth variable indicates that one company recorded a value of €1.58M in 2015, slightly ahead of the €1.49M for the combined rest of the companies. Think about that for a second – just over half (51%) of the Net Worth of the entire sector is held by a single entity. My original comment from when I first examined this data was that “In short, this one company is the most cash rich, is worth more, has more assets, and fewer debts than the rest of the sector combined.” In the time since I made that statement the only thing that has changed is the relative value of their Fixed Assets. One other point that I’d like to draw from the relative Net Worth graph is how this one company has fared in relation to the rest of the sector. The Everyone Else line shows Net Worth rising to a peak of €11.3M in 2008, and falling every year to €790K in 2014. Thus, 2015s total is the first time in eight years where their Net Worth actually increased over the previous year’s result. By contrast, the trajectory taken by this enterprise is one of steadily increasing Net Worth from their first available set of accounts in 2006 (€405K) to a peak of €1.77M in 2012. Their results in the years since are all comfortably in the €1.5M range. The implication to be taken here is that when the rest of the sector was doing well, they were too. But when the sector went into post-2008 freefall they managed to effectively insulate themselves from it. When everyone else is either a dinosaur that evolved into birds, or furry little mammals filling the vacant spaces, this is the dino that ducked the meteor.

Net Worth for One Company vs Everyone Else. Tableau Dashboard [here]
Right … let’s get something straight here. I want to make it abundantly clear that this company employs many highly-skilled and respected staff – many of whom I regard as among the best in the business – and that all comments offered here are not about them as archaeologists, but about the behaviour of this company as a corporate entity. In particular, I bear no ill will to this enterprise for their success. If anything, the financial stability they have achieved indicates that the archaeological artefacts and archives in their care are unlikely to come under threat – at least in the short term. They have done well and whatever happened – luck or strategy – that kept them not only from extinction after everything went to pieces after 2008, but largely financially unchanged, they are to be respected for it. However, this is the main company that has refused to sign up to the Living Wage agreement for their staff. This is also a company that was among the vociferous opponents of the Unite Union’s attempt to get a Sectoral Employment Order (SEO) for commercial archaeologists in the Republic of Ireland. This would have set appropriate wage levels and standards for the profession, helping ensure that skilled staff received fair remuneration and that all companies operated on a fair and level playing field. The defeat of the SEO application at the Labour Court allows this group and some of their principal but smaller competitors to continue to undercut other firms, continue to offer wages that are less than just to their employees, and continue to unfairly shape the sector to their wills. While I may not resent them their financial success, I do resent the fact that this has been achieved from the dedication, skill, and hard work of a workforce that has been – and will continue to be – undercut, underpaid and under respected.

When faced with a large beast marauding the landscape there are two routes that are available to the individual. You can stay on your own and you will, in all probability, get devoured by the creature. The other option is to band together for mutual protection and defence. We know that in the past this included digging ditches, putting up banks and palisaded fences, but we don’t quite need to do that today. Instead, I have a simple plea to all current or aspiring archaeologists in Ireland – both north and south – if you’re still working in the field and would like to see the profession continue your choice is simple: go join the Unite Union. The Facebook page Unite Archaeologists - Digging for a Living Wage is your best starting point and will guide you through the simple process of becoming a Union member. It is only when members of the profession stand together that they can protect themselves from the predations of large companies that control the market and ensure that a healthy and fair profession develops. Once people are organised and motivated – with palisades built and ditches dug – that’s when they go hunting for monsters …

Notes

For the best viewing experience of the Tableau dashboard, I would recommend going to Full Screen mode (F11) … there will be less scrolling needed!

Access the dashboard directly at the Tableau server here.

The first part of the title of this post is taken from the song ‘Dig’ by NOFX from their 1994 album Punk in Drublic. But, of course, you knew that.