First person - There isn't exactly a rush to buy Laing, but with funeral costs mounting, the owners need to appoint an undertaker soon.
What a tragedy it is to see such a fine construction company as Laing so unloved. We are led to believe that competitors the world over are just longing to buy this historic business. There is, however, precious little evidence that this is the case. The rumour mill produces bidders as disparate as the Australian giant Multiplex and the Scottish family construction company Sir Robert McAlpine.

What the intention of Multiplex is in this matter I do not know, but for Sir Robert McAlpine to buy Laing would be uncharacteristic.

In truth, somebody will probably have to be paid to take Laing away, and the longer this unhappy situation lasts, the greater the costs of the funeral will be. It is true, however, that Sir Robert McAlpine has on several occasions performed the role of undertaker to other ailing construction companies, and as a young man I was closely involved in such operations.

The first, Token Construction, was bought by developer Land Securities along with the late Sir Charles Clore's other property interests. It was a comparatively simple company to wind up, although many of its clients had a few scary moments when they found that they might be without a builder mid-contract. In this operation all Token staff were interviewed and most of them employed. A multitude of unfinalised accounts were settled and all debts paid. Land Securities, which had no ambition to be a builder, went about its business with ever-increasing success, sure in the knowledge that it did not own a black hole in the form of a construction company.

Land Securities at the time took the view that the only way to find out the true cost of Token was to wrap the company up. The cost was high, but presumably small in comparison with the value of the other assets it had bought with the company.

Somebody will be paid to take Laing away, and the longer this lasts, the greater the funeral costs

Terson was the next winding-up that I was involved in. This company was bought by the giant BICC, which knew a bit about construction for it already owned Balfour Beatty. Terson was a different cup of tea from Token. Unfinalised accounts were legion. Accounts had presumably been left unfinished because they could not be finalised at a profit and the company was reluctant to show its true losses.

The job of winding up Terson was long and depressing. It was as well that BICC was a giant company, for the cost of Terson was also approaching the category of giant. The experience of both these deaths has left me with the strong view that you never can truly tell the real value of a construction company.

As in a clock or an engine, if you need to know how something works, take it apart. There is no other certain way of knowing the real truth. There is not an accountant or quantity surveyor born, nor for that matter will there be, who can tell you the real value of a construction company. Were you to buy one, you might end up with a pot of gold as easily as a black hole. Human nature and life being what they are, however, the latter alternative is by far the most likely.