It is becoming a well-travelled route for Cochrane as he takes on the role of Sir Frank Lampl's heir. One might think this would not be an easy mantle to wear following the breakdown of merger talks with WS Atkins, which has left clients, staff and competitors wondering where Bovis' future lies. But with the ease and charm reminiscent of Sir Frank himself, Cochrane gently reassures them all: Bovis has returned to the P&O fold.
"The discussion process with WS Atkins renewed P&O's affection with Bovis," he says in his well-bred Southern drawl. "Quite frankly, some eyes at P&O were opened to how well we're doing, how good our people are, and our client list. And, of course, to the quality of our earnings.
"The stability and calm with which they will allow us to operate has eliminated any need to do anything drastic or dramatic."
Rather than looking for a foster home, P&O is playing the responsible parent. "They have said: 'Come to us with a long-term growth plan – we will support it,'" says Cochrane. As a result, Bovis is on a shopping spree for acquisitions to add to its services and geographic coverage. Three firms are at the top of the shopping list and discussions are well under way: two are project and programme managers in the USA, one employing 170 people, the other 60; the third is a small, UK engineering consultancy in the Home Counties. Cochrane says Bovis will also look further in Asia Pacific and South America as those markets stabilise.
"We have more than enough money within Bovis if we choose to buy all three firms, so we don't need P&O's support on this occasion," he adds. "But if we went to them with a plan that required some P&O funding, if it made sense, they would support it."
Another plank of the Bovis growth plan is to become more integrated within the P&O family. It intends, for example, to establish a name for facilities management by teaming up with P&O's FM operation in Australia. "If, as a consequence of working with them, we established a profile in the FM business, perhaps we would consider acquiring a company," says Cochrane.
So, how does the chief executive see his role? "Sir Frank is still our visionary," he says in quiet, reverential tones. "And our leader.
I'm doing more of the day-to-day operations and co-ordination of the three regions and trying to bring them closer together, and perhaps a bit more of the watching of the sales and marketing function.
Sir Frank will spend more time plotting the longer-term future. "We will both focus on certain clients, Sir Frank in Europe and me in the Americas and Asia. I will still have a great deal of responsibility for what we do day to day in North and South America."
Ever the diplomat, Cochrane is quick to allay concerns that he will be treading on British management toes. "I don't want to look over anyone's shoulder. I'd just like to learn what happens here and get to know the clients and the people."
Lawyers can make problems as opposed to solving them. It’s just the way we’re trained. Thank heavens I’ve gotten over that
Cochrane was appointed chief executive in September when negotiations with WS Atkins had begun in earnest and the lack of a successor to Sir Frank was becoming an issue. He had run Bovis Inc – the US arm – for three years, and was on an equal standing with John Anderson, managing director of Bovis Europe, and Fritz Rehkopf, managing director of Bovis Asia Pacific. With his can-do attitude and courteous, confident manner, it is easy to see why this slightly built, genteel American emerged from the troika as Sir Frank's successor. A construction lawyer by training, Cochrane is a million miles from the old-style, dirt-under-the-fingernails contractor. He is said to be independently wealthy. He has ambitions to write a novel. He worked for a year as assistant sports editor on the Roanoakes Rapid Daily Herald. He even proudly admits to doing his own ironing.
Married to Margaret, 15 years his junior, Cochrane lovingly recounts racing home from the airport to help her bath their two children – Robert, 25 months, and Maggie, nine months. Whereas some new fathers might understandably complain about lack of sleep, he looks at it positively. "It's the single most satisfying thing I've ever done," he says. "It's a source of great energy. It's reminded me how much fun it is to be a child." He has three older children from his first marriage.
Who is Luther Cochrane?
After gaining a law degree from the University of North Carolina, Cochrane set up his own construction law firm, at one point taking a sabbatical as a property developer. He became close friends with Bob Street, the owner of burgeoning local construction management firm McDevitt Street, joining as a non-executive director in 1970s. When his friend became ill, he fulfilled a promise he had made years earlier and gave up law to take up the helm in 1985. He sold the firm to Bovis in 1990 and was heading the entire US operation by 1995. He married Margaret, Bob Street's youngest daughter, in 1995, "making a Street back in charge of the business", as he puts it.
He describes construction as an "almost perfect job" and claims to have left his legal leanings behind him. "I haven't read a contract from cover to cover since 1992," he says. "Lawyers can make problems as opposed to solving them. It's just the way we're trained. Thank heavens I've gotten over that."
Cochrane is an unknown quantity in the UK. The few who have met him warm to his intellect and personality. To others, his all-American wholesomeness and unwavering charm make him difficult to read.
In the US, though, his reputation is as a strong leader who gets things done. He has been credited with pulling the three separate entities of the Bovis construction management empire – McDevitt Street Bovis, New York arm Lehrer McGovern and Chicago-based Schall Bovis – into one integrated operation, splitting his time between head office in Manhattan and his home in Charlotte. He also helped swell 1997 turnover in the USA to £1.1bn, out of Bovis' worldwide turnover of £1.8bn. US profit accounts for about half of the group total of £16.5m. He has opened new offices in the USA, and, in the last year, in Argentina, Brazil and Canada.
Atkins and after
Although Cochrane says it was not his goal to land the top job, his synergy with Sir Frank meant he was not too shocked at being chosen. "I've found situations with people at P&O easy," he says. "Sir Frank and I think alike and relate to situations in somewhat the same way. Philosophically, we have a similar view of what Bovis is and can become."
In a nutshell, that is to grow and diversify. It wants to follow clients anywhere in the world and provide them with all the services from design to the construction and maintenance of facilities – in short, to be the kind of operation it would have become overnight had the merger with Atkins gone ahead.
It’s more likely things will continue as they are. P&O is a nice house in which to shelter from the storms
"The two companies combined would have accelerated the pursuit of the ultimate vision," says Cochrane, who was very much involved in the negotiations. "But it may have been too big a step at the time. We'll simply back off and see what happens. We'll do business together where it makes sense. We made a good friend in Atkins."
Cochrane makes light of any chance of walking up the aisle again with Atkins. "I would never say never, but there are very few second romances that work after the first try."
That was one broken engagement. But Cochrane predicts that construction will inevitably follow the trend in other sectors towards consolidation. "The larger will get larger and have more of a management role, and the smaller people who control labour will have more of a direct production role.
"And, unlike today where you can operate in the middle, there will be very little left there. At some point, you are going to have to grow and cover the globe, as opposed to being a regional service provider."
There is obviously no doubt which camp Bovis wants to be in, but is P&O building up the firm so that it will become big enough to stand alone?
"It could happen," concedes Cochrane.
"If P&O decided they wanted to focus on shipping and transport, there might be some push to let us operate independently. But I don't see that in the short-term. It's more likely things will continue as they are. P&O is a nice house in which to shelter from the storms."
Cochrane plays down any effects the merger talks may have had on clients and employees. "I think staff said: 'As long as there are people out there prepared to buy us, it's comforting,'" he says. He is equally nonchalant about the knock the firm received when it was dropped from BAA's framework agreement. "It's a disappointment, but no reason for people to say: 'Oh my, the glitter no longer exists.'"
As for his own plans, does the future head of Bovis intend to swap his home in Charlotte for a base in Sloane Square? "I've thought about it," he says. "We'll see what the demands of the job are and whether it makes sense." With that, he's off for the plane.