That has not stopped the specialist foundation and consolidation outfit going from strength-to-strength. Having survived the savage recession of the early 1990s – during which it laid off half its workforce – the 50-strong, Middlesex-based company now has a turnover of £5m a year.
Formed in 1962 by an association between Fondedile in Italy and Sir Robert McAlpine, the company introduced a new range of piling, strengthening and consolidation services to the UK. One of these, pale radice (Italian for root pile), comprises a system of small diameter cast-insitu minipiles used for underpinning and strengthening existing foundations.
Ian McKenzie is Fondedile’s UK managing director. The 50-year-old civil engineer joined the company in 1984, before which he had spent his career with Sir Robert McAlpine. Although proud of his 30-year stint in the construction industry, he is exasperated at the lack of change in working arrangements over the period.
“We are often called in to supply our expertise at the initial stages of projects but are dismayed when we find our detailed information is hawked around the market by the main contractor, giving other subcontractors the opportunity to price something we have designed,” says McKenzie.
Consequently, the firm will give details only to contractors and consulting engineers with whom it has developed good working relationships. Otherwise, says McKenzie: “We give prices, but not the design information, which is withheld until the appointment of the main contractor.”
But the problems do not stop there, with invitations to match cheaper bids “resulting in a spiral of increasingly lower bids”.
Bid peddling is another problem, where numerous enquiries are received for the same job at different stages from different contractors, and each time the price falls. The industry in general is to blame, thinks McKenzie, but he concedes that specialist contractors probably bear some responsibility for allowing it to happen.
Could partnering be a way of avoiding these problems? “Partnering principles are sound,” says McKenzie, “but a major difficulty is that guys in their mid-30s making their way through the industry and who have had their formative years during the recession of the early 1990s are likely to be indoctrinated in ways of beating down prices and reducing contract periods to unrealistic levels.”
The other difficulty with partnering is that clients “only read the chapter on benefits to themselves without reading the sections detailing the benefits to the entire team”.
“The objective of partnering,” says McKenzie, “is to be open and honest in your dealings, even to the point of having an open-book auditing system where people can see your costs and you can agree margins with them. For us, partnering means that the market can take full advantage of our expertise at the earliest opportunity to the benefit of the project and the other parties.”
Although McKenzie suspects there may be a current surplus of initiatives in the industry, he welcomes the Latham and Egan reports as steps in the right direction. But even before Egan, he insists, Fondedile had operated systems for benchmarking, cost-cutting, performance monitoring and increasing productivity.
“Egan has not taught us anything dramatically new,” he says, “but we hope it will teach the construction industry to be a bit more collaborative and co-operative.”
Having more of an input at the design stage is one area where things might improve. Fondedile handles projects where it is consulted at the conceptual phase, but also receives completed designs that it then has to redesign.
McKenzie sees the introduction of retention bonds by the Federation of Piling Specialists as real progress. Used in lieu of cash retentions, the bonds allow piling specialists to be paid as the work proceeds, without having to wait for years to receive their 3-5% of the contract value.
Fondedile directly employs all its staff. There is no other option, given the highly specialised equipment and process involved. To give an idea of employee loyalty, McKenzie points to a picture in his office of seven Fondedile workers receiving 25 year and 40 year service awards. It may be a touch sentimental, but it could be one reason why the company has yet to catch a bad cold.