THE TOOL hire market is worth £1.5 billion, according to specialist analyst Catherine Stratton.
Ms Stratton, author of the Plant Hire Investment Report, found that the turnover of the top 10 tool hire companies, based on interim statements, is set to hit £730 million in the 2005-2006 financial year.
The leading firm, Speedy Hire, is projected to turn over £210 million.
The findings have surprised the industry as estimates had put the size of the entire tool hire market at £750 million.
Ms Stratton said: 'Extrapolating statistics is a hazardous undertaking, but it seems the tool hire industry is continuing to grow at a rate above that of the UK economy.' The estimate of £1.5 billion comes from a projection of the number of firms in the sector.
She said: 'Experience and observation over the years would suggest that the top 10 companies account for rather less than 50 per cent of the sector's revenue.
'We would stress that this is an estimate based on a narrow band of statistics, however.' The rise appears to have had two main factors ? the health of both the construction and refurbishment markets and the hirers' quest to expand beyond what was conventionally considered 'tools' into diverse ranges of equipment.
The buoyancy of the sector also gives the lie to forecasts that the national firms would eliminate competition from smaller independent outfits.
Kevin Minton, managing director of hirers' association Hire Association Europe, said:'We have 730 tool hire members, which is more members in that sector than we have had before.
'There has been a constant flow of newcomers. Ten years ago we were all told that there would be 20 mega-companies and nothing else. But that level of consolidation simply hasn't happened.' Barry Dean, managing director of independent hirers' networking firm Hire Network, said: 'For every national that acquires a firm, there seems to be a new firm starting up.'