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McDermott in training for the Olympics

CONCRETE - McDermott Bros has shot up from small beginnings to become a £13 million-turnover outfit. With the Olympic Games set to take place in their back garden, the growth looks likely to continue. Alasdair Reisner reports

STANDING at the top of one of the towers his firm uses to support its concrete pumps Dermot McDermott can see both his past and, he hopes, his future.

To the south of McDermott Bros' Canning Town office lie the towers of Canary Wharf. In 1992 this was the site of the McDermotts' first job. From that £1,200 project to rebuild a wall, the firm has grown into a £13 million business.

But if Canary Wharf represents the beginnings of the McDermott Bros' business, Mr McDermott merely has to look over his should to see where he thinks its future lies.

For the offices are sited at the bottom of the Lower Lea Valley, the planned home for the 2012 London Olympic Games. McDermot t Bros is going to be closer to the games than any of its rivals in the concrete pouring business.

'The Olympics are going to be in our back garden, ' he says. 'Every thing that will be needed to enable those games to go ahead will be built near us.

'While not every project will suit us we are certainly looking to identify key projects that match our profile.

There are, or should be, enough jobs to go round.' With figures up to £12 billion being bandied about for the cost of building the Olympics and the surrounding infrastructure, it is not hard to see why Mr McDermott is getting excited by the prospect of the Games.

'You've got between £2 and £6 billion to be spent on the Olympics but you've also got the Stratford City development, the regeneration of Canning Town and the Royal Docks. I think the Olympics have been a catalyst for a lot of schemes that have been sitting in the pipeline for a number of years.

If this doesn't k ick them off, then noth ing will, ' he says.

Mr McDermott says that, following a poor year last year when the collapse of a client saw profits tumble into a £300,000 loss, McDermott Bros is now on a steady course and should hit a turnover of £20 million this year. He doubtless sees the Olympics as a major stepping stone towards the firm's plans to hit £60 million by the end of 2008.

Talking of a premier league of concrete firms such as Laing O'Rourke, PC Harrington and Byrne Bros, Mr McDermott is happy to admit that his outfit is still just one of a number of first division teams. But he says that the Olympics should offer the chance for promotion to the big time.

'It could be the thing that takes us into the premier league, ' he says. 'It is all about getting the right contract.

The Olympics will be great news because we all know the industry goes in cycles. I think in the next year we will be coming to the end of one of those cycles.

'What the Olympics have done is give us another seven years of continuity. If you are in a growth plan that is precisely what you need. I wouldn't be arrogant enough to say that it is going to rocket us but I would say it is fantastic that it has come along and it enables us to keep up with our plans.' But is there not a danger that the premier league firms will park their tanks on the Olympic lawn, shutting out smaller outfits by providing the Olympic Development Authority with both the capacity and techniques not offered by smaller outfits like McDermott Bros?

'I don't think so, ' he says. 'The design requirement of the Olympics will be lef t with another organisat ion, be that Atk ins, A rup or whoever. They will come up with a plan that will suit the Olympic Development Authority's requirements. All specialist contractors, whether small, medium or large, have to do is comply with that plan.

'The products and the ability are there to put this on site. The big two or three are not coming up with any groundbreaking technology in the use of concrete. As an industry we are just following trends that Europe has been adopting for years. I don't think anyone is moving the earth or is that far ahead of the rest of the sector.' But if Mr McDermott doesn't see his rivals as a hurdle between him and his Olympic dreams, the same cannot be said of the labour market.

'The biggest wor ry in ou r indust ry is that it is dependent on people. Our labour is not coming from the traditional sou rces that it used to come f rom f ive or 10 years ago.

It is now coming from central and eastern Europe.

'That is a good thing. These guys are highly skilled, intelligent, hard-working individuals. There has been a lot of negative press about foreign labour but we must take our blinkers off because our traditional labour force has dried up. You hear talk about a move to off-site fabrication but you still need a team on site to assemble it, ' he says.

'We can't look a gift horse in the mouth. These guys are com ing with there sk ills and we need to help them adapt.' But with Eastern European dialects beginning to outstrip the Ir ish accent on UK sites, concerns will clearly r ise about whether the new workers understand the safety rules.

While no contractor can ever lose sight of the importance of safety, McDermott Bros has more reason than most to take the issue ser iously.

In December 2000 Vincent Dooley was working for the firm on the 208 Bishopsgate office scheme in London.

While striking out shuttering Mr Dooley fell through a hole in the freshly cast concrete. Though he only fell 4 m Mr Dooley suffered fatal head injuries. McDermott Bros was fined £150,000 for failing in its responsibilities.

'It is something that remains with you and all the directors of the firm. When it happens to you ? and I'm very passionate about this ? you do take safety on board.

You don't pay lip service to safety like a lot of people do.

'When you are staring that stark reality in the face it really brings it home, ' he says.

Mr McDermott adds that his firm was already involved in a fundamental overhaul of its health and safety practices at the time of the accident. The firm now has a threeman, in-house safety depar tment that car r ies out week ly checks on each of the firm's sites looking for hazards.

'We rigorously police our workforce and our projects at least once a week. A lot of people say they do that but its bollocks. With us it is a fact, ' he says.

'I know for a fact that we are now one of the safest concrete firms. I'll tell you why I know this. When we get new operatives that come across to us f rom other f irms the f irst thing they do is complain about the rigorous safety standards that they have to adhere to on ou r sites. They say they didn't have to do it on previous jobs for other contractors. You would be surprised by the names of some of the companies.

'Our attitude is fine, but you can't do that here. If you don't want to be safe the site gate is over there.' McDermot t Bros is also tak ing steps to insulate itself f rom a future skills crisis by investing in training for its workers.

Trainees at the firm are being put through a variety of BTEC, HND, HNC and degree courses to provide the firm's surveyors and engineers of the future.

So it appears that McDermott Bros are already well into their warm-up in its race for the Olympics.

Maybe the only risk now is that one of its larger rivals might see the firm and its excellent location as a draw, winging in with a takeover bid.

'I'm not under the impression that anyone is trying to take us over. There certainly haven't been any formal approaches and we wouldn't be in the market place to sell our business, ' warns Mr McDermott.

Instead he says that the only real threat on the horizon seems to be the possibility that McDermott Bros may at some point in the future find their own offices subject to a compulsory purchase order as the regeneration of the Lower Lea Valley gathers pace.

That would be the only Olympic legacy that Mr McDermott would be keen to steer clear of.