HOW MANY more savings can be squeezed out of the construction process?
'Clients want 20 per cent more building at 20 per cent less cost, ' says John Frank iewicz , chief operat ing off icer of Willmot t Dixon's construction operation.
'If you boil it down to its lowest level, you're governed by the market rates.
'A bricklayer costs X amount in the south-east and Y amount in the north and you can't get that below cost.' Despite this gloomy prognosis, Mr Frankiewicz is convinced that savings can be made, but not by hammering specialist contractors at every turn.
Instead, he wants clients to spend less on outside advice and start using contractors for much of that role.
'Get t ing in early' is a f requently heard mant ra in the industry these days and Mr Frankiewicz wants to get in early and ahead of the consultants that he thinks are depressing main contractor's margins.
'The pre-construction side is one area that the clients can lighten up on; the number of consultants and the duplication of what they do, ' he explains.
'The clients have to consider how they select their teams for the procurement routes and there are eff iciencies to get out of that process.
'Every process needs some good project management, a robust project manager at the front end, and consultants do have a place. We can't create a building because we're not creators.
'The biggest effort has to be on the preconstruction and to squeeze the costs out of that construction phase before you begin.' Having progressed to his present post working on the project side (see box), Mr Frank iewicz knows that he needs specialist contractors perhaps more than he needs consultants to meet his own ambitions for Willmott Dixon.
'The supply chain wants certainty and to be t reated well, ' he says.
'Br ick layers should be able to pr ice work on a schedule of rates and agree that work so that they can make a margin.
'We've also got to support them in safety and training. We carry a lot of overheads and they should be afforded to the specialist contractors so they can share our services.' Mr Frank iewicz's business should tu rn over £300 m illion this year and he is hoping that work load will hit £400 m illion inside the next fou r years.
A renewed focus on the two and three-star hotel market and more supermarket work, plus jobs in the leisure sector for key clients such as David Lloyd and Roko are part of that ambition.
Achieving that objective is likely to be through purely organic growth.
Willmott Dixon's construction operation employs 550 staff at four main offices in Cardiff, Cobham, Hitchin and Birmingham and another four satellite bases in Bristol, Manchester, Nottingham and Leeds.
The outposts in Leeds and Cardiff both came via acquisitions ? E Turner and Wimpenny respectively ? that were the last Willmott Dixon's construction arm made.
The deals were done before Mr Frankiewicz's time and both worked out, but he will not be following a similar route to achieve his target of raising turnover by a third.
Mr Frankiewicz's aim is to take on 120 people a year and he has already recruited more than 100 people so far this year with a new recruitment portal on the internet proving a useful tool.
People interested in working for Willmott Dixon just send in details and they are then contacted when a relevant job crops up.
'We're getting between 20 and 30 people a week registering to be alerted for new jobs here, ' says Mr Frank iewicz.
All the new recruits are seen individually by Mr Frankiewicz and chief executive Rick Willmott so they can see what the company's values are.
'It takes a lot of time, ' says Mr Frankiewicz, 'But it's worthwhile. It's about keeping the same culture ? the company is still a family business.' The company's target for maximum staff turnover is 10 per cent but only between 7 and 9 per cent of staff leave each year, which he finds satisfying.
Another introduction at the firm has been account managers, an idea that is run-ofthe-mill in industries such as advertising, but less common in construction.
Mr Frankiewicz explains: 'We only have five people but they are not sales, they all come from a technical background.' The account managers work with regular clients, which, like many of the f irm's peers, are the mecca for Mr Frankiewicz's business.
'All clients are not equal, ' he continues.
'We tu rn away clients that do not share our ideals, particularly one-off clients.
'The more educated clients look to drive the process themselves from option agreements to a greener brief.' And this process, Mr Frankiewicz insists, can make his own business better.
Education provided more than half the division's turnover in 2004 and Mr Frankiewicz wants to both learn himself and educate his own clients.
He cites the firm's work with the Corporation of London building the City Academy in east London.
Mr Frankiewicz says: 'We affected each other.
They had a huge inf luence on us and I'd like to think that we had a similar effect on them.' Since joining the construction industry three decades ago, he is convinced that the 'I built that' factor has gone and needs to be replaced by what their project achieved.
He explains: 'When I joined the industry, people used to look at a building that they had worked on and say 'I built that' and it gave them a sense of pride.
'Now, I think people are thinking:
'What are we doing to help the client?' 'We're on a prison framework for the Home Office so obviously you've got to stop people escaping, but we also have to think: 'What can we do to stop these people re-offending?'' That is a big challenge for an industry that used to be about just bricks and mortar, but Mr Frankiewicz wants the chance to see if he and his business can do it.