Specialists contractors are being squeezed from all sides

Who’d be a specialist contractor right now? “Margins are being squeezed to nothing”, says Brendan Kerr, boss of groundwork and demolition outfit Keltbray. “Clients think you can work for any price.” Although it may sound familiar, this complaint isn’t just another entry in the long list of traditional supply chain gripes such as retentions, late payment or adversarial working practices - although it’s clear these complaints are still on the industry’s to-do list. While we’re all suffering from the fact that nobody has any money any more, supply chains are being hammered especially hard by structural changes driven from the top. If you’re not convinced, see how Carillion has culled its suppliers list this week.

What’s at stake is the shape in which the supply chain emerges once the cold season of this economic cycle passes

Take your average mid-sized subcontractor, for example. The immediate problems facing it are four-fold. It is squeezed by clients as margins shrink towards non-existence. Cash flow is limited as credit lines disappear and the banks continue to behave like hooligans - just ask Rok. Then there is the pressure from the bond providers, as premiums rise and preferred partners demand more reassurance and demonstrable financial protection. And finally, there is the subcontractor’s own group of powerful suppliers, companies of all sizes who are all looking to make money like never before, as an SME sector already under threat hits another bad patch.

Apart from the not-inconsiderable issue of specialist companies’ survival and their workers’ jobs, what’s at stake is the shape in which the supply chain emerges once the cold season of this economic cycle passes and everyone is once again dependent on the strength and availability of their preferred partners. Subbies will be sorely needed when that happens, but at the moment, it’s little surprise that they believe they face a gloomier future than most.

A grim picture? Maybe. But what’s becoming evident is how these specialist businesses are taking the initiative and adapting to survive. Companies are boldly starting to experiment in new areas of expertise, travel to new regions and, in many cases, consider new owners. There is also a shift away from working in core niche areas - once heralded to be a specialist contractor’s greatest strength, but a position now beginning to appear as a diminishing return on the accountant’s balance sheet. Of course, coming out of your comfort zone is often painful and problematic. But perhaps a new kind of more adaptable specialist with interests in multiple sectors, countries and markets, is the kind that will be best placed not only to survive, but to ride the crest of the upturn when it comes.

Bidders … going, going, gone

Watching contractors’ interest in buying failed rival Rok fall away this week almost as swiftly as the contractor itself unravelled would have made worrying viewing for other firms that are struggling to balance the books. Even a year ago, a contractor of Rok’s regional and sector spread that fell on hard times would have proved an alluring opportunity for larger rivals looking to gain a competitive advantage in the scramble for work - think back to Balfour Beatty’s swift acquisitions of Multibuild and Strata last winter. Rok’s turnover had plummeted over recent months from the £714m of its peak, but the company still had a solid pipeline of framework deals, which in theory could have provided a nice cushion for a rivals regional operations. The fact that, despite more than 100 expressions of interest, nobody took the bait, is as clear an indication as any of the extreme caution now in the M&A market - a caution which, sadly, is a lesson too late for serial acquirer Rok.