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Ray O’Rourke’s shot at changing construction

Is there another company that gets talked about in construction as much as Laing O’Rourke?

The fact that the UK’s largest privately owned contractor is run by a notoriously media-shy chief executive in Ray O’Rourke means the answer is probably no.

Mr O’Rourke will forever be known for pulling off the coup that shook the industry when he bought Laing Construction for a pound 16 years ago.

But in three years’ time, he tells me, he will walk away from the group he built to pursue other interests. He’s afraid to “be a ghost walking around” the company he turned from a formwork and concrete specialist founded in 1978 with his brother Des into an empire.

It’s an empire that has shown signs of strain recently, most notably in the shock £245.6m loss announced in December.

Succession planning to date has failed, while a series of events served to undermine the group’s first attempts at modernising the construction process more than a decade ago.

But Ray O’Rourke is upbeat. Over the course of an hour at his Dartford office he is amenable company and relaxed, despite occasionally bristling at the questions.

With blue-chip clients in talks to back his advanced manufacturing vision with long-term commitments and parties interested in taking a stake in a new facility at its Explore Industrial Park, this feels like a renewed shot at changing the industry for good.

Events conspired to rip apart that vision first time around following the global financial crisis, but change feels like it is coming. A development head at a major UK client described this to me recently as a “burning platform”. The government wants greater productivity, there is a shortage of labour and widespread recognition that there has to be a better way.

Overseas companies such as China National Building Material Company and domestic firms like L&G are investing in offsite manufacturing on these shores. Last year’s Farmer Report, Modernise or Die, has also helped propel the issue back into the forefront of the industry’s consciousness.

When Mr O’Rourke speaks, the industry sits up and takes notice. My perception of the 70-year-old is that he sees an open door at the moment, and meets enough clients, financiers and peers to know that this feels like a tipping point for the industry.

There will be plenty of change at Laing O’Rourke in the coming years. But what won’t waver while Ray O’Rourke is in charge is his focus on people and the industry doing things a better way.

 

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