David Anderson is, rather charmingly, telling the story of his job interview with Wimpey Construction in 1976, when he turned up in loud neck attire and was told that he could have the job as long as he never wore anything so garish again.
Listening to Anderson tell self-effacing anecdotes, it is hard to believe that the most common adjectives used to describe this burly 57-year-old are “tough”, “aggressive” and “pugnacious”.
Perhaps it is not surprising that Anderson is in an engaging mood: he has a new story to tell. At the end of last year, he left Jarvis to become group managing director of top structural subcontractor O’Rourke, and plans are afoot to raise annual turnover dramatically over the next four to five years.
Anderson says he will do this not by turning the company into a main contractor but by providing construction managers with a one-stop shop for major packages. He wants O’Rourke to be a service company that works with the likes of Mace, Bovis and Sir Robert McAlpine to provide key subcontract services, such as structures, cladding and services packages.
“On major projects, no matter how big, O’Rourke is quite capable of providing a watertight, fully clad structure in the form of a guaranteed maximum price contract,” he says.
Anderson, who made his name as managing director of Wimpey Construction, sees the O’Rourke job as his final challenge before retirement. “I get the same feeling about O’Rourke today as I did when I first joined Wimpey Construction 25 years ago – a can-do attitude prevails throughout the organisation,” he says.
Anderson constantly refers back to his days at Wimpey. And it was there that he gained his reputation for driving a hard bargain with suppliers. One prominent subcontractor, often at the wrong end of Anderson’s tongue lashings, greeted the news of his joining fellow subcontractor O’Rourke with glee: “I hope he gets some of his own medicine now.”
Among industry executives, Anderson is known as an engaging and friendly man. This is one reason for his employability – he has gone from job to job in recent years, but few contacts have disappeared from his address book. As one project manager says: “David is a great networker. He knows everyone.”
As for his management skills, senior industry figures have nothing but respect. One long-standing colleague says he is good at “rolling his sleeves up and getting things sorted out there and then”. He adds: “This inevitably led to run-ins, but they were always good-humoured.”
Anderson admits that he can be tough. “When you are a managing director, you are usually dealing with big problems and that can mean making tough decisions,” he says phlegmatically.
“I would guess that my reputation among the subcontract fraternity may have come about as a result of my frustration showing through at various JCT meetings where they were blocking the JCT’s work [in deciding new forms of subcontract],” he says.
If Anderson really was the embodiment of adversarial contracting, he seems to have changed his tune. Now, he talks of Egan, partnering and even kaizen, a management technique of continuous improvement developed by Japanese car manufacturers. “As chairman of the major contractors’ working group providing input into the Egan taskforce, I visited the Nissan car plant in Sunderland and was most impressed by what I saw. I am a firm believer that the industry can benefit from adopting kaizen techniques.”
Colleagues who have recently worked with Anderson say he is still a tough negotiator. One from Anderson’s days as managing director of Shepherd Construction says his style did not go down well at the family-run firm. “We’ve still got a copy of a marketing video he did when he was here and we get it out and have a laugh now and again,” he says (leaving several intriguing scenarios to the imagination).
Anderson joined Shepherd after falling victim to the Wimpey-Tarmac swap in 1996. Just over two years later, he was out. A confidentiality agreement with Shepherd prevents Anderson from talking about why he left, but close friends say a clash of personalities with chairman Paul Shepherd led to a showdown in Shepherd’s office. The chairman invited all his senior managers into his office, drew a line on the floor and asked all those who were with him to step over the line. Anderson stayed rooted. Or so it is said.
After Shepherd, Anderson joined Jarvis in early 1999 where he headed up the Major Rail Projects Division. He left for O’Rourke at the end of 1999. Again, Anderson is tight-lipped about why he quit, but one City analyst says it became apparent that Railtrack, wary of becoming dependent on a single supplier, would not be giving Jarvis much extra work.
Commenting on the current industry trend for contractors to cull staff to cut overheads, Anderson says: “There is a high cost to low overheads,” he says. “If contractors are to bring greater professionalism to servicing their customers through the likes of partnering, design and build or underwriting GMPs, then this should result in overheads increasing. A sensible level of overhead is 4-5%, depending on volume.”
So, will Anderson see the O’Rourke challenge through? Chairman Ray O’Rourke is also a forceful character, and some are predicting a clash of egos. But, in some ways, Anderson has mellowed – he certainly talks very fondly of his six-month-old son James. Perhaps this tenderness, which some parts of the industry choose to ignore, will help O’Rourke reach its target.