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Picking the bid teams for Bilfinger Berger

PROFILE - Bilfinger Berger is a giant in European construction, so why has its UK arm moved away from building to focus on PFI bids? Nick Dawson explains the strategy to Steve Menary

NICK Dawson is in a curious position: after a quarter of a century in contracting he is in the business of recruiting other main contractors, despite working for one of the biggest construction names in Europe.

Mr Dawson worked mostly with Wimpey and Carillion before being offered a chance to join a relatively new UK operation set up by German construction giant Bilfinger Berger.

The German group, which is quoted on the Frankfurt bourse and turns over nearly £5 billion a year, had set up Bilfinger Berger BOT to bid for UK Private Finance Initiative work.

'Two things attracted me: I wanted to run my own Build Operate Transfer business but the main thing was the commitment to the PFI sector from Bilfinger, ' Mr Dawson says.

'They were a bit late to take to PFI globally and my appointment in the UK was part of a worldwide move into this sort of investment project.'

Mr Dawson, who travels to Germany about once a month, decides which projects to bid for and how Bilfinger Berger BOT assembles the bid teams.

So far his business has had no involvement in prison, waste or social housing but that is more due to a lack of opportunity than choice and he would consider bidding for all three given the right prospect.

'Having made the decision to come, I'm pleased that I've been left alone to run it, ' he says.

Since Mr Dawson came on board Bilfinger Berger has started up similar operations in Australia and Canada but there have also been more changes in the UK.

Having entered this country working as a contractor on the building side, the Germans have had their fingers burnt and are beating a retreat, with this operation being wound down and no more than a dozen employees finishing off jobs.

The company's main presence in the UK now is as the leader of PFI-style bid teams, but not as a contractor, more as a business in the style of the rump of John Laing Plc.

As a result, Mr Dawson has to find contractors to build out the concessions he is adding to the trio already won by Bilfinger Berger before his arrival in 2002 - a schools project in North Wiltshire, a women and children's hospital in Hull and another health scheme in Gloucester.

His first four successes - a schools job in Bedfordshire, Lift health schemes in north London and Liverpool, and an education scheme in Coventry - all featured the same contractor, Galliford Try.

'That was building on an existing relationship, ' says Mr Dawson, who sees the opt ion of choosing cont ractors depending on their regional presence as key to his success rate of winning every other PFI deal that his team has so far priced.

'We like to have an edge before we star t, ' he adds, 'and either be in a good relationship with a contractor or the client already.

'Contractors need to be a good fit and have good local connections. There's a downside in not having an in-house contractor but the upside is that you can chose companies with good regional connections.

You don't have to shoehorn a Carillion building into a region where they don't have a presence.'

Last year, Bilfinger-led teams bagged a hat trick of PFI concessions: another schools scheme in Kent, the second phase of the north London Lift scheme and a road project in Northern Ireland.

The Kent project saw Bilfinger link up with Costain and Verry, a £100 million-turnover privately-owned contractor from London. Galliford Try returned for the second Lift job but the £142.4 million West Link Road project in Belfast saw a new arrangement.

Bilfinger Berger may have quit building but still has aspirations to be a UK civil contractor and is operating in this fashion in Belfast in a three-way team with local outfits Graham and Farrans.

Mr Dawson explains: 'My remit was to be a pure developer and there was no pressure to use them, but technically difficult civil projects are what they are good at. That's why we're not on the M25 widen ing. That was going to be a very t ight, diff icult competition and difficult for us to get any leverage. If there had been some bridges, maybe we'd have been interested.'

With the construction industry st ill buoyant, Mr Dawson needs to find a way to bring in the right contractors to his bid teams and sees Bilfinger Berger's approach as key.

'It's a difficult market at the moment. The people in yellow vests are very selective about who they work with, ' he says.

Typically, a consortium on a PFI-style deal will put up 10 per cent of the cost, with the banks providing the remainder.

Mr Dawson tries to make his business a more attractive bid leader by encouraging the contracting par tners with which he is mak ing in roads to take equity stakes.

'We give equity to people that add value to our bid, ' he says. 'We're more than happy to give away 25 per cent of a stake.

'When we get down to 50 per cent it's a fairly marginal opportunity for us but our average stake is 75 pe r cent .

'That's what generally differentiates us from the other UK cont ractors, wh ich tend to like 50 per cent stakes. Our way allows us to bring in the smaller UK businesses.'

Bilfinger Berger has £630 million-worth of assets under management in the UK and three more schools concessions at preferred bidder stage in Clackmannanshire, East Down & Lisburn and in the Scottish Borders.

Scot t ish outf it Ogilvie is the contractor in Clackmannanshire, while Graham is working in the borders and also in Lisburn in conjunction with local outfit O'Hare & McGovern.

Unlike some of the financial institutions that provide equity to consortia on a passive basis, Mr Dawson sees Bilf inger Berger's role as an active one. 'Active equity is how we brand ourselves, ' he says.