Balfour Beatty has been lambasted for Hatfield, undervalued by the City and dubbed the "the worst scum of capitalism". Here's how its chief executive is answering the critics.
Somewhere in Mike Welton's head, the script of an oft-rehearsed presentation is rolling on the autocue. The Balfour Beatty chief executive coasts comfortably through a 20-minute tour of his £2.5bn empire, sticking closely to the map and bringing unscripted excursions briskly back to the subject. So we visit the four parts of the business, the three reasons for the downturn in rail profits, and we finish discussing rail before we talk about investment … Welton later jokes that this is the "36th" outing for his polished post-results presentation. A week earlier, the Balfour Beatty roadshow hit the City, spreading the good news of its 2000 figures to investment analysts and shareholders. Realising that his performance risks seeming offhand, he is quick to explain. "The trouble is, you get tired talking to so many people. You are genuine, but you can't help it if it comes out a bit stale." The delivery might be stale, but the content must have been welcomed like fresh apple pie. Having disposed of the rump of the BICC cable business, the streamlined Balfour Beatty reported a 50% hike in profit to £39m in building, building services and maintenance; "reasonably steady" growth in civil engineering; a "good contribution" from heavy construction in the USA and a £41m operating profit from its 10 PFI projects.

Along with other major contractors, Balfour Beatty has caught a wave from the dotcom backlash and is riding it to the sunny shores of higher valuations. The share price has more than doubled, up from 75p a year ago to 150p, with a 15% uplift after the results release. "What is it today?" Welton asks Tim Sharp, his head of corporate communications, also present at the interview. "Up another 2.5p," comes the reply.

If Welton is secretly satisfied to have finally wrong-sided all the doubters who wanted to discount construction stocks, he isn't showing it. He is not interested in short-term share-price movements, he says. Rather, he has his eyes focused on the chief executives' nirvana of "long-term shareholder value". "We don't get overly excited about share prices – what comes up can come down," he says dryly.

Mark Hake, a construction sector analyst at Merrill Lynch, approves of the firm's strategy and the chief executive. "They're developing along good lines, growing the rail business on an international scale, putting more money into PFI and building up PFI operating profit. They're not one of the contractors who have to worry about being pushed into consolidation – they've done enough to demonstrate to investors they can go it alone." Welton, 55, has held the reins at the group for three years, after four years heading Balfour Beatty when it was BICC's contracting arm. He joined the company in 1978, pursuing a career in roads, motorways and civil engineering. Beyond that, he is reluctant to add colour to a sparse CV, and was evidently not a fan of the "Personal effects" questions (above). The scripted presentation may have been an expedient to cope with a tiring week, but it probably also reflects a man who sees no need to give too much away.

He dwells at length on the rail sector: the focus of a recent round of corporate activity, future growth expectations and the public relations aftermath of the Hatfield crash. Last year's acquisition of part of Adtranz delivered new markets in continental Europe, South America and the Far East, and Balfour Beatty's three US purchases add technological edge in signalling and controls. "We realised we needed better geographical coverage and better technology. It turns our rail business from a turnover of £400m to £700m." But the arithmetic is less promising when the focus is narrowed to the UK, where the post-Hatfield National Recovery Programme contributed to a £6m drop in profit, and Balfour Beatty lost its East Coast Main Line maintenance contract to arch-rival Jarvis. But Welton wants to put the loss into global perspective, and sees an opportunity to demonstrate his hard-nosed business nous. "We never like to lose contracts, but Railtrack was working on a guaranteed maximum price basis, and we were not able to give a GMP at the level it wanted. It took its prerogative and placed the contract elsewhere." Heavy engineering in the USA is another increasingly important market, and offers opportunities unknown in the UK. For instance, Balfour Beatty has developed a specialism in "seismic retrofitting", or strengthening bridges and flyovers to meet modern earthquake codes. It has already worked on the four main bridges across San Francisco Bay, including the Golden Gate, and Welton is now anticipating contracts in the Seattle area. "It's a wonderful place to visit," he smiles.

There is one other issue that is close enough to Welton's heart to compete for airtime with the rail presentation: the London Underground PPP. He describes the current impasse as a waste of human resources. "The most frustrating thing is the number of good quality people working on the bids. But our business is so oriented to that sort of business [private finance and infrastructure] that we're not likely to walk away." There's another moment of emotional engagement when Welton is asked for his reaction to Ken Livingstone's description of the PPP bidders as "the worst scum of modern capitalism".

I don’t mind being called scum because I’m paid for it. But I do object for the staff

"He was talking about us specifically," Welton says, looking hurt. "I don't mind being called scum, because I'm the chief executive and I'm paid for it. But I do object on behalf of staff working hard on contracts and maybe earning £25,000. I think that's grossly irresponsible." As Welton says, Livingstone's comments last summer were political point-scoring that would not survive serious scrutiny. But it is possible that Livingstone – and other observers – could have been influenced by a series of controversies that have followed Balfour Beatty around the globe. The proposed Ilisu Dam in Turkey has been targeted by environmental pressure groups; investigations into another dam in Lesotho drew Balfour Beatty and Kier into allegations of contract-oiling bribes; and an Amtrak contract led to a dramatic swoop by the US equivalent of the National Audit Office.

In each case, Welton is confident that "misinformed" speculation will not solidify into serious consequences. However, the cumulative effect of these events, along with the death of a worker on one of Balfour Beatty's City sites last year, could leave a shadow hanging over the corporate image, client opinions and staff morale. Welton acknowledges the problem with a heavy-browed expression and repeated use of the word "concern". Again, he focuses on his staff: "We spend a lot of time explaining the truth behind these events, so that our people feel they're working for a morally upstanding organisation, and can discuss it with our customers." Welton rationalises the flare-ups as a side-effect of the changing business landscape. If Balfour Beatty is taking on the financial risks and rewards of infrastructure projects that would once have been in public hands, it also has to take on the debates and demonstrations that would have been directed at governments. "It brings a new dimension to business that wasn't there five or 10 years ago. It can be disconcerting, or even irritating, when people get the wrong end of the stick, but it's clear it's now part of business life." Even when the scripted part of the interview is over, Welton favours fairly bland boardroom-speak that falls back on ready-made formulas such as "delighted" and "satisfactory". His casual shirt sleeves, relaxed pose and broad smiles contrast with a manner that rarely ventures into humour or spontaneity. Even very soft deliveries – about what Londoners can look forward to from a post-PPP Tube system, or whether he suffers from nerves about Californian earth tremors – are played with a straight corporate bat.

This reluctance to give of himself could have played a part in Welton's recent controversial decision to withdraw Balfour Beatty from the Major Contractors Group. Chief executives are expected to attend meetings every two months, but Welton evidently missed five in a row last year. His own explanation is that the MCG's original intention of representing the 10 or so largest contractors was being diluted by the arrival of smaller parvenus, and that its lobbying voice was not being heard often or loudly enough.

Both the MCG and another industry chief executive suggest that Welton's personal view was not shared by senior Balfour Beatty staff involved in MCG working groups, who were frustrated at being cut off from the flow of information and ideas. The chief executive speaks of Welton as "amiable and able", but found that he never set a high value on socialising and networking. He also questions Welton's timing, suggesting that "it seems an eccentric moment to detach yourself from a major industry-wide initiative on safety".

Personal effects

Who’s who in your family?
I’m married with two grown-up sons, one at university and one working. I live in Guildford. What kind of car do you drive?
A Mercedes. Did you suffer any nightmare rail journeys after Hatfield?
I don’t have any horror stories, although plenty of my colleagues did. What do you do in your spare time?
I’m a season ticket holder at Chelsea, I like to ski and I go for the occasional pint with my colleagues. And I’m a keen gardener. What’s your gardening top tip?
I don’t have one at the moment. What book are you reading at the moment? One about how the US trans-continental railway was built. It was a present from the owner of one of the companies we acquired. I read quite a lot about all sorts of things.