The decade that turned Norway upside down

After eight years of purposeful, sober building through the seventies, there was hardly anyone in ‘Stillasservice’ who was prepared for what the eighties would bring about regarding industry changes, political storms and economic ups and downs.

History does not work for ten-year periods isolated, but the eighties are still a special period in Norwegian history. For a few years apparently, all arrows pointed to the sky, driven by economic deregulation and great optimism before the champagne gallop ended in an economic storm.

Such is the myth of the eighties. The truth is, of course, that everyone who experienced this colorful decade did not notice this change from day to day how fast society changed.

‘Stillasservice’ management with Odd Strand in the driver’s seat must still have had a sixth sense of development. The company worked intensively to become a subcontractor to the oil and gas sector, with the result that cyclical fluctuations in the shipbuilding industry did not have a detrimental effect on the company. Strand also remained wary of wild media corporations and other stock bubbles. Thus, it is not said that Odd Strand was a stranger to taking chances, on the contrary. He trusted the instincts.

Sober operations and good instincts

But now we anticipate the events, and for oil and gas-related industries, the key words at the turn of the century were first the oil crisis in 1979, the tragic capsizing of the ‘Kielland’ platform in 1980 and the election of the conservative government in 1981.

The subcontractor ‘Stillasservice’ basically performed business in the early eighties as a continuation of the 1970’s practice. The largest single change from the 1970s was that ‘Stillasservice’ received its first long-term agreement for scaffolding services on Statfjord A. This agreement continued until 1987.

-We had a total of 150 employees and moved from the slaughterhouse to Minde to the yellow brick house we bought in 1982. Then we also got an agency agreement with Llentabhallen as supplier of aluminum storage halls, which was a major side activity for many years, says Odd Strand.

-In 1980, we also got work on a steel undercarriage at Aker Verdal, and were up to 80 men in Trøndelag in periods. We were told to demobilize sixty men on Stord, but Friday at half past five the same week, we received an order for 40-men to Verdal. Thus, we avoided layoffs, Odd Strand remembers.

The Verdal jobs resulted in the establishment of a department in Trondheim in 1981 and entering the construction industry scaffold market in the region. The department was in operation until 1989, when the construction industry collapse made it impossible to continue operations.

So StS was not hit by the shipbuilding crisis?

-We noticed this to a small extent, in addition to recruiting good people from the shipyards and from construction sites. For example, I mentioned that we received big assignments from Kværner Egersund with scaffolding on three of the Valhall gas modules and had a rigging assignment for Kværner in Gothenburg. In addition, we had many men at Kårstø in 1984 and later the Mongstad development project. Stord Verft was also an important customer regarding Gullfaks and Oseberg, and eventually we passed 500 employees.

Expansion in several directions

In 1982, ‘Stillasservice’ established ‘Becon Industries’, which supplied iron and metal and welding services, and in addition, educated welders. The sister company had many employees for extended periods before it later merged into the main company. Also in other sectors, the company landed important assignments, such as the work at Glomfjord factories in Nordland, and in the mid-80s, the surface treatment jobs also appeared, first at the bridge over Glomma in Fredrikstad.

-This was in 1986. The company that was going to paint the bridge had gone bankrupt, but we had set up the scaffolds and got an appointment to finish the job. This triggered several bridge assignments, the roads office in Østfold was very pleased with the work.

Organizationally, this became important year. In 1981, Odd Strand took the initiative for the establishment of the Scaffolding Association, where he served as chairman for five years.

This formalization is part of the industry development and is based on the first scaffolding agreement in the late seventies, says Strand, who was the initiator of the Scaffolding Surveyor’s Measurement Office in 1987. The office made sure that scaffolding firms in Bergen were given equal terms and still maintains its activity today.

-In 1984, I was also included in the reference group for scaffolding regulations in the governmental Labor Inspection agency, a task that brought together people from all parts of the industry with the aim of improving scaffolding regulations, including better training. ‘Stillasservice’ was later considering whether scaffolding would be a separate subject, and this was also a collaboration between trade unions and industry organizations.

Have you deliberately tried to go into the most possible industry organizations?

-No, but with previous experience from such work you are asked more often to participate. If you have answered yes once, you will be asked several times later.

Were you also involved in the conflict regarding the lockout that NAF introduced in 1986?

For the first time during the conversation, Odd Strand becomes sharp in his voice, apparently, he is still upset by the memories of drama 26 years ago:

-In my opinion, the entire working committee of the employers’ association should have retired at that time. You should not kick out the workers as part of a conflict. The workers have the right to strike, that’s part of the game, but you do not lay off people just because they do not do as you say!

The end of the good years

Why is this event so important? Well, the lockout is an ominous omen. Now the downturn is serious – and this time the oil industry is not shielded. Oil prices have fallen to less than ten dollars, and trust between workers and employers is at the bottom. Two weeks after the lockout, the Willock government goes off after asking cabinet questions about increased petrol charges. Gro Harlem Brundtland becomes new prime minister.

A problem that Odd Stand struggled with in the middle of all this is that he has big orders at ‘Llentabhall’. The order is placed in Swedish kroner and he is genuinely worried about a devaluation. The bank does not believe that Brundtland will devalue, at least not below the wage bill, but Strand believes that this can happen. He buys 18 million Swedish kroner. This earns the company 600,000 kroner when the crown is immediately written down by 12 percent.

The currency purchase will be a small but important win in a tough time, but it will become even tougher.

Oil prices remain low, loan growth is enormous and wages are sky-high, especially in the construction industry. In 1987, the stock market crash in the US and banks are having serious problems.

The happy eighties are over?

Yes, we experience a sharp decline in the late eighties, we went from 500 to 30 employees in a short time! Interest rates were up to almost 25 per cent, there was a standstill in offshore development, no construction anywhere on land and many of the companies we had delivered services to went bankrupt before paying us. Well, we still operated with a profit, but with such huge losses on receivables it became tough to pay VAT.

Instead of striking the company bankrupt, as many others did, Stillasservice received a payment plan with the Ministry of Finance.

-I would have the company on track again without taking shortcuts. This gave us goodwill among banks and authorities, something we have benefited from further on. But now we move on to the story of the nineties …

Either way, the eighties must have been both fun and frustrating?

– It was exciting year, laughs Odd Stand.