Geoff's message is that people from the top to the bottom of a company need to become part of, and feel part of, and feel proud of, the work they do. Cue anecdote about a vehicle transport outfit whose drivers were a little off-hand when unloading those shiny cars. Their hero was Norman, because just last week he took the roofs clean off five Volvos with one swipe of a low bridge outside Northampton. It was easy for Geoff to guru this firm. He simply told the managers that if they continued to treat their blokes like apes they would behave like apes. "Hell's bells," I muttered to myself, "that's what goes on in construction."
Three days later, I was at another bash. This time it was as a guest of the Confederation of Construction Specialists. Sadly missing was the founder, John Huxtable. This relatively young man had a massive stroke a few months ago and didn't recover. I had known him for 25 years. Geoff would have given the thumbs up to John. They sang the same song. John's theme was to make people from top to bottom become part of, and feel part of, and feel proud of, the work they did on each project. Geoff and John would like the way Lyndon Johnson put it when talking of J Edgar Hoover: "It's better to have him on the inside of the tent pissing out than on the outside pissing in." Huxtable used to say a similar thing to main contractors when inviting them to play fair with subcontractors.
And talking of playing fair, my mail recently included a set of subcontract conditions used by a West Midlands company called Interclass. The lawyer who sent the document was – how shall I put it? – critical. He said the use of such small print to heap risks on those least capable of managing it "has caused the construction industry to become what it is". He was quite rude, but I will save Interclass' blushes. The specialists' confederation analyses these non-standard forms. It awards them bombs out of five.
Their hero was Norman, because just last week he took the roofs clean off five Volvos with one swipe of a low bridge outside Northampton
I asked my tablemates what they thought of such contracts. A big interior firm said it wouldn't work for main contractors at all after it got its fingers burned 10 years ago. Another told me that the mention of home-made forms was a nod and a wink to load the price; he did, and still got orders because his enterprise was good and "those swines know it". Another said his bid always made an offer on standard form subcontract documents; then he would play cat-and-mouse when the order tried to reintroduce the home-made rules. I spoke to the chairman of Interclass, who told me that he was willing to use standard form contracts where they fit into the contractual framework.
Interestingly, some of the big contractors have gone over to using the standard forms. There are oodles to chose from, and it's no good having subcontractors on site who detest you. Those feelings get down to the blokes on site, and when something goes wrong it might be that Norman, the hero with the Volvo roofs, was previously the hero on your site roofs.
Tony Bingham is a barrister and arbitrator specialising in construction. You can write to him at 3 Paper Buildings, Temple, London EC4 7EY, or email him on firstname.lastname@example.org.