How I lost my business home

The business centre where Financial Times columnist Jonathan Guthrie works has just gone bust. It's a story emblematic of the difficulties of small companies and branch offices everywhere.

I am about to join the ranks of the business homeless. Tottering under the weight of its losses, the company that runs the business centre where I toil has announced its imminent liquidation. We remaining shell-shocked survivors of recession could soon be on the street: Scott the executive recruiter; Percy the property developer; Calvin the telecoms entrepreneur and the rest.

Warwick House, the homely, crumbling Victorian mansion where we lurk, is in Birmingham, epicentre for the earthquake damage from the UK recession. While the south-east appears oddly unscathed, the West Midlands, with its low skills and high reliance on manufacturing, has been badly hit. Of course, none of the occupants of Warwick House are manufacturers. You could not squeeze a robot welder in through the French windows. But the lesson of recession is that when the executioner pulls his little lever we all swing together.

Warwick House’s travails are emblematic of the difficulties of small companies and branch offices everywhere, as confidence has slumped and trade contracted. The flat-roofed annexe here was, for example, occupied by the UK representative office of a Chinese shipping business. Framed photos showed mighty freighters forging through the oceans, decks loaded with containers full of consumer goods. But the lucky red lanterns hanging from the polystyrene ceiling tiles failed to avert the retail downturn. One day earlier this year, the annexe was empty. Only a chain-smoking manager stayed on to shut up shop, a captain going down with her ship.

Churn is always the norm at business centres. At Warwick House, skips filled with glossy brochures have marked fatalities among larger start-ups. Other companies relocated to swankier digs, such as the marketing consultancy subsequently poleaxed by the recession. Some tenants have moved on murkily. These included the electronics mogul who came to work in a different blingmobile every day of the week. He slipped away after carousel fraud investigators raided him, curious to know how he generated £20 million in annual sales from a two-man office.

What is new is that too few replacement tenants have come forward. The recession has depressed start-up rates. When Martha, a pippin of a lawyer, came in last week to close down her small practice, she had no problem parking the people-carrier into which she decanted her files. The car park, once jam-packed, is now half empty. Many vehicles are BMWs, Audis and Mercs. They are the rides of business owners who are still here, but whose runabout-driving employees have gone. "The last few months have been just horrible – laying people off, I mean,” said Pete, a recruiter who hires tradesmen to work on big building projects.

Pete and I had gone to view a business centre across the road. A bunch of us are thinking of relocating en masse. The self-contained offices we saw were clean, cheap and serviceable. There was even a Bisto-fragranced canteen. But we would miss leaky, louche Warwick House. I, in particular, would miss my chandelier. This improbable adornment lends my threadbare office the faded grandeur of a colonial-era hotel in Cuba or Haiti. In summer, the temptation to affect a Panama hat is almost overwhelming.

We all have our hang-ups. Pete wants to avoid working from home. He is a salesman and, in sales, psychology matters. He shares the nightmare that haunts many conscientious objectors to home working. It is as follows. You wake from a doze. You are on the sofa, wearing a dressing gown sprinkled with biscuit crumbs. The television is tuned to Countdown. The answerphone crackles with a client concluding " if you can’t be bothered to pick up, forget it!” Motivationally, you have died and gone to hell.

Tenants who never swapped morning greetings now stand chatting in corridors. Fewer secrets stay locked behind each office’s fire door. "I haven’t got a brass farthing left to scratch my backside with,” Scott confessed. Small business owners, the proverbial cats who cannot be herded, have discovered camaraderie.

Percy has proposed a tenants’ co-operative to take on the lease at a steep discount. Percy is old school. Even on days that he has no meetings, his suit is immaculate and his white hair is meticulously combed. He feels sorry for Warwick House’s three support staff, who face redundancy. There is also the conundrum of how to move the box files that line his office walls from floor to ceiling, a career measured out in ground plans.

The catchphrase du jour among the other company directors of no fixed abode is "keep calm and carry on”, uttered satirically. The sky has rained stones on the tenants of Warwick House since Lehman Brothers crashed. The only racing certainty ahead is the damage to business that a swine flu pandemic will cause. Yet, up on the third floor of Bisto Towers, as Pete and I inspected alternative accommodation, he turned to the business centre manager and asked: "Could I take on more space later if I needed to? I want to be positioned for the recovery, when it comes.” Thattaboy.

Some names have been changed.

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