Ray O’Rourke has come a very long way in the past 30 years. After starting a business in an office adjoining his garage in east London, he is now at the helm of a global contracting and investment business worth £2.6bn, and with profits of more than £34m.
The latest Laing O’Rourke figures are significant as they mark a full five years since O’Rourke snapped up Laing for £1 after the collapse of the Laing family’s construction dynasty. And it also provides a window into the rapid growth plans of a company that has just taken on the responsibility for delivering the 2012 Olympics and is planning further global expansion.
To many a green-eyed competitor it has been O’Rourke’s dash for growth that has set the company apart, especially in the winning of major contracts up and down the country. But as fierce as accusations fly that O’Rourke is chasing turnover, the truth remains that O’Rourke’s hands-on, can-do approach is the keystone of the firm’s success. As one senior industry source put it:
“As soon as Ray landed the contract to deliver London 2012 he was probably already thinking about how to win the Olympics in 2016. He believes he can build anything.”
And there is also its ability to innovate. O’Rourke has invested heavily in research and development, and also in training and management. He has countered the industry’s crippling skills shortage by recruiting an army of thousands of loyal, directly employed staff: the company has more than 18,000 staff on its books, including 800 female staff, 8% of whom are site based. It has also developed new solutions to business critical issues such as material supply and health and safety. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that he can build things cheaper than his competitors.
And if you put to one side his provocative speech to the British Council of Office’s conference in Dublin earlier in the year, in which he maintained that there was no place for women on sites, then the only real criticism you could level at Laing O’Rourke’s progress is that it has not shared its best practice with the rest of the industry, as was called for by the Egan report, and O’Rourke could be a little more clubbable. But then that’s probably the price you pay to have a modern-day player who can stand comparison with the Laings and McAlpines who created the modern industry. In a world that is becoming ever more corporate and anonymous, characters like Ray O’Rourke remind us of what is possible.
Tom Broughton, deputy editor