If some good is to come out of the travails of Amey and Atkins, perhaps it will be to destroy the mythology surrounding support services. Unlike contracting – which TV viewers now know to be as old as the pyramids – outsourcing and PFI are still in their infancy. We learn new, hard truths about the PFI every week: the outrageous tendering costs, the drain on resources, the perilous returns. But outsourcing has been misjudged, too. In the right hands, it can be profitable, and the income streams are lengthy – but margins are low and, on PFI projects, very slow in coming. Those who painstakingly built up a strong business model, such as Capita, are in robust shape. But newcomers – including refugees from contracting – would be well advised to adopt a similar line to that of Amazon's in the dotcom field and warn investors not to be fooled into thinking that hefty investment now means hefty profit just around the corner.
All of which may be too late to save Amey, or Staples. Despite the denials, there must be a chance that the business will be broken up if the whole is worth less than the sum of the parts. Amey's road maintenance arm, for instance, is believed to be in good shape. A better solution, though, might be for a white knight to step in and take the whole thing private – notwithstanding the fact that Mike Jeffries has ruled out such a move for Atkins. After the last six months, it may take as many years for Amey to restore its credibility in the City.