It’s been almost two months since I last posted here. It’s not that I didn’t have time, or that it flew by, or that I didn’t want to.It’s just that I wanted to say something that I wasn’t ready to say, and until I said what I wanted to say I didn’t want to say something else.
I wanted to look back at events of the early summer, but I was still “in them” and had no distance. Now we’re deep into autumn. The long hot summer is long gone. I’m far enough way. Enough distance.
The summer wasn’t really so long, but it was hot, and for me, and for the people of South Mountain Company, it was hard. In late June, after a protracted period of evaluation of our condition – our personnel, our changing work mix, our position in the new economy, our aspirations, and our values – we decided we needed to decrease in size and change the mix of personnel.
We did this by laying off four people, by agreeing to an early retirement for another, and by hiring a young architect we had been interested in for some time (earlier, at the beginning of June, we had hired building performance engineer non-pareil Marc Rosenbaum, a move that had been in the planning for a long while, and which has been a godsend that surpasses even my wildest expectations).
Before we did the layoffs, we had made big moves – furloughs, wage cuts, major marketing, new skill-building – to avoid them. Layoffs were unthinkable. But as we made our way through the evaluation process we came to realize that we wanted to get smaller even if we didn’t absolutely have to.
There were many reasons:
• To decrease the need for such a high volume of work – the pressure is too great in these difficult times;
• We no longer have the backlogs we had grown accustomed to in years past; this creates a constant sense of uncertainty, and it’s better to be uncertain about a smaller group of people;
• There were people in the company who were in the wrong jobs for them, and we didn’t have the right jobs;
• There were people who were underperforming and/or not fully accountable; this is not good for the morale of those who are;
• Our work has shifted into smaller jobs, more renovations, and more energy services – this means more jobs, more complexity, and more difficulty giving great service with a larger company;
• We have a strong group of second generation employees and we owe it to this younger crowd to pass on a leaner company.
After two years of constant company change due to the dramatically different economy, we found that we needed to change even more. I’m not altogether unhappy that we have been forced to change. And I am thoroughly happy that, when forced by circumstances to do so, we were moved to tackle it vigorously, thoroughly, and as humanely as we could imagine.
I’m not proud of what we have had to do, but I am proud of the process that led to it. It was wounding, wrenching, and heartbreaking – to ourselves as well as those who bore the brunt – but it was necessary. The medicine tasted bad but the patient needed it. The risk of not taking action was clearly greater than the risk of taking action.
If some have suffered from our actions, I have come to accept that it is our failure – that somehow we were unable to find the right place for some people, or unable to help some people to thrive and grow, or unable to create enough opportunities for everyone.
But we tried.
For 35 years South Mountain Company has been made up of a gradually – very gradually – changing cast of characters. Some of us have been here for all or most of that time; others have entered, contributed, and left over time. There have never been more than 34 employees at any one time, and I would estimate that there have been about 100 individuals employed all told. Amazing people, one and all.
I have always felt a sense of pride about the people who are this company. But never before have I felt as I do now.
We’re a bit smaller, but not much (given the departures and the new arrivals, we end up 10% smaller). The 29 individuals who are employed here right now are uniquely suited to continue our journey. Whether that consists of slogging through a swamp, head down and determined, or gleefully bounding over obstacles, or both, this is the group that can do it. We have greater capacity than we have ever had before.
From trials and tribulations come big steps forward. The Great Unknown, however, is whether the work ahead will support even the smaller – and more effective – company we have become.
We can’t predict the future. But there are some things we know. During the past several years we have greatly expanded the breadth of the work that we do. We have not abandoned anything – we are still doing everything we used to – but we are doing new work that we haven’t done in the past. This creates difficulty, because there is so much to learn. It also creates opportunities and diversifies our potential market and our potential accomplishments.
There are questions.
Will the economy come back? It can’t become what it was, at least not long-term. We should expect an increasingly different future.
Will there be work if it doesn’t? Yes, unequivocally, because the place where we primarily work – Martha’s Vineyard – has a tremendous amount of high-value property which will need maintenance and change, and it is perceived as a good place to live, as well as to vacation.
Will we get our fair share? No way to know. People have more options than in the past, they’re hunting for bargains, and there are plenty of low-overhead young-and-hungry-operations who may not do what we do, but they do what they do for cheap and how are people supposed to know the difference?
How will we counter the perception that we are too expensive? We must convey that it’s not us that’s expensive – it’s what we do. When you work with us you’re getting something fundamentally different and of greater value.
Will we get the work we want? Maybe, maybe not. We will have to continue to aggressively pursue, not passively wait.
Can we continue to rely on the client referrals that have sustained us in the past? Our client base, which has been by far our largest source of referrals, is aging. Can we reach the next-generation client base? I don’t know (but I’ll talk more about this in my next post, which won’t be two months from now).
Uncertainty? Yes, still plenty. Two year backlogs? Not in the cards. It’s different now – very challenging. We’re in-between trapezes, having let go of the first one and hoping the next one will appear as needed.
But I like us. I like where we are now. We may be a bit worn out – and still smarting – but we’re excited about the future, ready for whatever may be in store, and working hard to chart a successful path forward. But as Roshi Joan Halifax told a group she was leading on a pilgrimage in Tibet: “The itinerary is subject to reality.”