The chairman of Wembley National Stadium Limited has broken his silence on the project, but don't ask him to take the blame for its troubles.
Mike Jeffries has been keeping a low profile for the past couple of years. As chairman of Wembley National Stadium Limited, he has watched quietly as crisis after drama after blunder has engulfed the project. He has read the endless articles, watched the rolling reports beamed from a TV news helicopter high above the stadium's landmark arch and held countless meetings with Multiplex, the stadium's contractor, to find out when the job will eventually be completed. But he has not given a single interview since work began to go wrong, despite being the man overseeing the nation's most notorious construction project.
Wembley is expected to be handed over to the Football Association at the end of September, nine months later than anticipated. Multiplex stands to lose more than £100m from the catastrophe, despite winning on points after a High Court dust-up with steel contractor Cleveland Bridge. Now, after a couple of public statements, the Australians are aiming their legal guns at their client, WNSL.
Jeffries, meanwhile, has decided it is time for his silence to come to an end, although he doesn't appear particularly embarrassed about the project's woes. Sitting in the FA's Soho Square offices in central London, the 61-year-old former Atkins chairman doesn't express any regrets.
He is comfortable in defending his position as the all-conquering client who secured the very best deal for the FA and the taxpayer in the form of a fixed-price contract. His tone is matter of fact and he won't be drawn on what effect the Wembley saga has had on the reputation of UK Construction plc.
But Jeffries and the FA may find themselves at the centre of a legal battle even more damaging than Multiplex vs Cleveland Bridge. He has, as yet, received "no formal legal claims" from Multiplex. It is clear that contractor and client are in the middle of a phoney war, which may end up in court once the stadium is complete.
Multiplex claims it cannot be held 100% responsible for the late delivery, because of design changes imposed by its client. Jeffries denies the allegations wholeheartedly and maintains that there has not been one significant design variation that resulted in an extension of time. "For example," he says, "there has not been one single change to the design of the steel superstructure of the stadium, yet that was still only completed after the handover deadline in January."
Jeffries maintains that WNSL has kept tight control of the processes, and illustrates his point with an example: two years ago, Jeffries approached Multiplex about the possibility of turning a planned 150-capacity restaurant into eight to 10 small executive boxes. Multiplex returned with a price for the works, as well as a request for an extension of time to the whole contract. "We looked at their offer but decided not to proceed," says Jeffries, hinting that the price was not acceptable. "But we also didn't want to lose time on the programme because of it."
So if Jeffries is confident in WNSL's ability to defend any claim from Multiplex, will he pursue the contractor for damages for the late delivery of the stadium and for lost revenues from the events that were moved?
"We will see," says Jeffries, with a diplomatic smile. He will not be drawn on the specifics of any future claims, but says his lawyers are on standby, as they have been - unsurprisingly - throughout the project. He is, however, hopeful of a settlement before any row results in legal proceedings.
No UK contractor would touch it, and the government would not give any more money for it, so it wouldn’t have gone ahead without Multiplex. They deserve credit for that
Jeffries wants to talk about the live construction project on site. "Currently, we are all pulling in the same direction to get this stadium complete. It is not for me to comment on negotiations with Multiplex in the press. That will be done in private and then announcements will be made once conclusions have been reached."
A legal source close to the dispute describes the situation, from WNSL's point of view, as like that of an employment tribunal, with Multiplex as a disgruntled employee seeking redress from his employer. The employer may believe it is in the right but may not want to fight the individual, as that would be costly, time-consuming and potentially embarrassing. So it is easier to pay the individual off so they leave the company without any fuss. Or in this case, wait for the stadium to be completed and strike a deal.
Jeffries does not want to square up for a public fight with Multiplex, even if the situation may eventually warrant it. If he can resolve any potential conflict in private, he will do his best to do so. It would certainly be in the interests of the scandal-hit FA to avoid more damaging headlines.
Jeffries is actually disarmingly complimentary about the contractor, pointing out that without it the stadium would never have gone ahead. "Multiplex was the only firm that would build Wembley for the fixed-price deal available at the time. No UK contractor would touch it and the government would not give any more money for it, so it wouldn't have gone ahead without them. They deserve credit for that." Jeffries adds that the stadium's arch represents state-of-the-art steel construction. "People don't understand its complexity. Multiplex rightly regard it as a huge achievement."
Jeffries accepts that there have been cultural differences between Multiplex and UK construction firms. "Of course they have a different culture but, to be fair to them, when there was an industrial relations dispute in the summer of 2004 they took advice and resolved the problems. And notwithstanding the problems they've had, they've stuck with it and delivered a high-quality stadium. I believe they've learned from their mistakes."
He is unrepentant about the missed FA Cup final and the announcement - just 12 weeks before the match - of the shift of venue to Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. "Even as far as the end of January, we believed the delays to the project could be recovered and the deadline met. It would have been foolish for the FA to move the cup final to Cardiff only for the stadium to end up being ready in time. We had to give Multiplex every chance."
Jeffries says the decision came at a time when it was impossible for the time delays to be made up, adding mysteriously that there were "other factors" that meant the final could not be played at Wembley. What those factors were, he will not say. For the time being, he is keeping his counsel. But it is clear that if forced to make his case in court, Mike Jeffries will have a lot more to say.
Jeffries on …
- The press
The number of stories that have been written about Wembley that have borne no resemblance to the facts has been unbelievable. The press has got a number of things mixed up. They have confused Wembley with other major projects such as the British Library, where cost overruns have been paid
by the taxpayer. Here, it’s a fixed-price deal and the risk is with the contractor.
- The 2012 Olympics
This is a project that will have to be completed on time no matter what; there’s a definite deadline. If it begins to go wrong, then more money may be the only solution. If the three main variables in a project are quality, cost and time, then for Wembley quality and cost have been relatively more important to us than time.
- His future
I currently have other positions: I’m chairman of the support services company VT Group that is involved in Building Schools for the Future and I’m also chairman of National Car Parks, which builds car parks.
- Other, Size 0 kb