9 min read

what happened in 2008?

A roofer from Spain talks about how the Great Financial Crisis changed his life.

My dad was in real estate. He had lots of builder friends and contacts. And every time I was a naughty boy, my punishment was so many hours on a building site. Long story short, I was a little shit, so I was always on a building site. The minute I left school, I went into building. And by the time I was nineteen or twenty, I had a group of us - me and five other guys. Then by 25 I had an actual limited company with about twenty-odd people working for me. And then by the age of 35, I had about 45 teams directly employed by me.

In Spain...I loved restoring. Getting an old, real derelict house and making it beautiful, still preserving its integrity, its rustic look, but giving it its underfloor heating. Mix modern with old... I used to love that. And then it got to a point where the Germans and English bought up every pretty much every house. Every house you could restore was restored.

Then I started building replicas of old houses. I would go around looking for old materials. I'd even go as far as buying the stones on farmers walls that would divide their land. I'd go into the land registry office: this farmer owns this land that once upon a time used to be five bits of land, and it has four walls going through it.

I'd go and find him.

"right, so you can plough easier, can I get all these stones off you for free?"


Then I'd end up with truckloads of stones I could use for cladding a house to make it look like it's really old.

And then 2007 came [he laughs].... The recession hit.

At that moment, it was as good as it could get. We had a contract building five replica houses on a historical site. The holy grail. About halfway through - we'd done two - that client pulled out, so we lost three of them overnight. That's pretty much half my team without work. And I felt really responsible, you know, because they were desperate. After having seven houses on the go, it would be one or two on the go, and I was very quickly down to my core team, which was about 10 people. But it got to the point where it was it was really bad.

A guy in our town walked into a cafe and with a shotgun and blew the bank manager's head off while he was having his coffee, because he wouldn't give him the money he asked for.

One of our lawyers jumped off a building. I thought, shit! If lawyers are jumping off buildings... normally, when there's a recession, they deal with bankruptcy. They're making the money. Yeah, that's not good.

I will never forget when I was literally at my doorstep handing out bags of rice that I had, handing out rice and noodles and milk to Moroccans. They used to work for me, begging me for something. And it was really, really tough...

There was only two industries, and that's tourism and construction. If you're not a hotel owner or a waiter, you're a builder or a labourer. The moment it hit us, it was like driving off a cliff. Seeing 80% of businesses around you collapse, friends killing themselves, and then people fighting - it was chaos. That's why I chose booze: just put a big happy cloud over the whole thing and just forget about it.

I lost my family. I lost my job. I was pretty much going down the drain. Have you seen Leaving Las Vegas with Nicolas Cage? Well, I was doing that. Drinking myself to death.

I just... I gave up when my ex left. It was quite abrupt. I mean, I understand, because I was hitting the bottle a lot.

She left and I just had nothing to live for.

There was a little footpath over a stream. It was summer. I was very, very drunk. I was in my hat, my [motorbike] leathers and all that. I ended up stuffing myself under this footpath thing to get out of the sun. I was really drunk, could barely walk. But I remember being pulled out by two policemen and I was surrounded by locals looking down at me. Someone thought they'd seen a body under the bridge. They thought I was dead. That's why there was a whole throng of people and cops and everything. They pulled me out and were like, "what the fuck?!".

And that sort of sums it up. They thought I was a corpse, and that's pretty much how I felt...I didn't think of ending it myself, but I just didn't care. I'd quite happily drive drunk on a on a mountain with no guards... it didn't matter to me whether I fell off a mountain or not, you know, it was like a passive suicide.

And then I met my wife. She was holidaying. Somehow she fell in love with me instantly, which still to this day I have no idea how or why. She said, "why don't you move to England?" and it was like a light went on in my in my head: "wow, England. I never thought of that." And I did move to England.

I went from turning over maybe £100,000 a month with my business to working for £8 an hour. £8 an hour doing DIY stuff in England. It was humbling. I was still a lot on the booze. I was a raging alcoholic when I arrived. We got rid of that eventually... she was weaning me off it.

It was interesting. A new arena, new materials, new techniques, new everything. I'm a grafter; I went from £8 an hour to £10 to £15 to £20. Then I'd finally make some connections and contacts, get other people working for me, and I thought, right, I'm gonna start a new building company. I started doing it and I thought, You know what? no! - suddenly I remembered: it's so incredibly stressful to be in charge of 45 families. It's not just the people, it's the whole family, their kids and their wives. They depend on you. And I thought, I don't know if I can do all that again.

I liked fixing things and doing things. It was more a journey for my soul. I was fixing myself as I was doing all this work... I spent a lot of years working for not much money.

I discovered how to do some basic roofing and I very quickly discovered that in England builders use scaffolding for anything. Ridiculous! Anything at all. I found myself being asked to point a chimney and I'd do it without scaffolding, because you don't need scaffolding for that. I'd charge £250 to point the thing and then I discovered that people were paying like £800 for scaffolding for this £200 job. I thought, I'm onto something here. I started advertising myself as a roofer or - not a roofer - but I fix leaks.

And I do not use scaffolding. That's my selling point. No scaffolding needed. I can still charge £500 pounds to point a chimney. I'm still saving the client money, and I'm making a lot, so win win.

I've got loads of ideas I want to patent... I've got one actually being tried in London. All it is: I found out when you're pointing in a chimney in England, you never know when it's going to rain. And you're doing all this pointing, suddenly it rains and then washes all your cement away. Bugger! It's a big bag to go over the top the chimney. That's it. A big bag with a zipper at the bottom. But this can also be used to cover your cement mixer.

Then I've got an idea for a suspended scaffolding where you don't need scaffolding. You get access with ladders. And the plan is to make a boardwalk thing along the roof. Somewhere you can walk along safely and clip to without using of scaffolding.

Generally for construction and things like that it's not really something you go to uni for, so a lot of the people are, for the lack of a better word, uneducated. And with a lack of education, I think, comes a lack of imagination.

I'm lucky... I've travelled a lot, I've seen and met a lot of people. I'm very open minded, you know, a lateral thinker. I read a lot in both languages.... I quite like to dabble... If I had more money, I'd be dabbling a lot more.

The hardest thing for any business is to keep your workers. If they're good, you have to keep them. Because normally they get poached - one of the guys I have, I poached off someone else. It's just a dog-eat-dog world out there, you know. What I've come up with, after having businesses and all that, I realised that you have to include them [your workers] in everything, be completely transparent with everything.

The way we have it now, we all share a Google Calendar. And on the Google Calendar, I'll put in all the jobs that are coming. I'll also upload the quote that I have given the clients so they can see it. On the quote is a description of the work, there's a link to a photo gallery so you can see where the problems are, there's a price. They are all on 30% of whatever the price is, that's their wage, 30%.

It's complete transparency. And they're part of the team. They're part of the system and they get a lot of money as well. It stops them from even thinking about going off on their own. Because they know when they see my quote they think "shit, I couldn't do all that." It's a very good system. It's working really well.

People in England do not want to work. And they wonder why there's foreigners, because foreigners do want to work and you just don't want to work - simple.

It has taken 10 years to find two guys. For one of them, I put an ad in gumtree or somewhere saying, "help needed - hard graft - don't call me unless you like these words".

This guy who answered this advert once had a fright... he had a harness, but he wasn't clipped on, and he had a roof ladder. He slipped next to the roof ladder. As he was sliding down, he tried to grab it. The rungs were moving fast and bouncing his hands off. He managed to grab it just before he reached the end. And that made him very, very skittish. I lost him for about a year and a half.

Now, I literally need all week to do the paperwork. And I'm still way behind. I hate it. I've always hated it. I'm really good on an Excel sheet. I'm very good at organising. But I can do it for a limited time and I want to get out.

There's one thing I do love: the detective side of it [finding leaks]. A lot of people say "oh, builder says it's that". And I'm like "er, really?" and then I always look somewhere else. And there's normally more than one thing. I love finding it. Finding that smoking gun. I love that. I want to find the dribble: "there it is! there it is!". It's just great. I still really enjoy that. But now I'm pretty much stuck doing paperwork.

When I started my business in Spain...I was brave and young... and very gung-ho with money.

It's different now. I'm a lot more calm. I think about things a lot more. Before it was all very flash the cash: I've got memories of me taking girls out... I remember once there was a wobbly table and I was like, "I'll sort this out!" I got a big wad of cash, folded it, and used that... I'm embarrassed to say it now.

Now, it's just a calm life - lots of love - and I enoy the simple things. Garden, friends, and good food. Weekends, phone goes off. Before it was all very much work, work, work and family was like the appendage. Now it's the other way around, and work is the appendage.

one final thing before you go

For anyone that's interested in the future of farming, the Institute for Government recently released their Agriculture After Brexit
report (thanks James Kane for writing it and drawing my attention to it!).

It's a good but quite depressing read. It seems there's a real risk that the government's bold plans (replace the CAP with a subsidy scheme that pays farmers based on environmental benefits) will run aground for political reasons - namely, that the government has failed to prepare farmers / consumers for this brave new world (p.64):

It has tried to please everyone for too long, deferring the difficult decisions and political pain that are inevitable as the new agricultural support regime is rolled out. By setting expectations so high – and making contradictory promises to different groups – the government has created a real risk that the new regime is viewed as a failure by some (if not all) farmers, environmentalists, taxpayers and consumers.

That's all from me. I'll leave you with the Drifters, 'Up on the Roof'

"When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it's peaceful as can be
And there the world below can't bother me
Let me tell you now

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