When construction's biggest companies buy each other, they turn to Richard Smee to make it happen. Matthew Richards finds out what drives one of Europe's key consultants – and is rather surprised to find out what he drives …
On 13 October, 20 of the most powerful construction executives in Europe will meet in Madrid for a two-day conference. The chief financial officers from the likes of Bouygues, Skanska, Dragados and Taylor Woodrow will be invited to discuss the industry's concerns – and maybe hammer out a few deals on the side. The event will be the business equivalent of a European Union summit, and the man in charge will be Richard Smee, head of the real estate, hospitality and construction division of business consultant Ernst & Young.

He says: "We're looking to enhance our credentials on a pan-European basis and do something useful for the industry." Those credentials meant Smee was one of the few people who knew about Mott MacDonald's takeover of Franklin + Andrews before Building broke the story last month. His job was to lead the due diligence, making sure that longstanding client Mott MacDonald knew exactly what it was buying. He says the deal makes sense because the two firms' employees complement each other: add QSs to engineers and you have a formidable range of skills. What is more, Franklin + Andrews now has access to Mott MacDonald's network of clients in Asia and the Middle East.

Although he sits at the top table in the international construction market, Smee does not conform to the stereotype of a turkey-talking, cigar-chomping dealmaker.

He discusses deals without using the macho vocabulary of hostile bids and poison pill; instead he talks about synergy and cultural difference. Many of his colleagues in the City aspire to own a Ferrari Maranello, but Smee prefers to drive a tractor around the Hampshire farm where he lives with his wife and two children. Having said that, he does smoke cigars – although slim panatellas rather than eight-inch Bolivars.

The firm might not be as brash as the investment banks, but Ernst & Young is just as hungry for business. One morning in August 2000, Smee opened a newspaper to discover that Skanska was planning to merge with Kvaerner. He got straight on the phone to Jan Bengtsson, Skanska's European chief financial officer. Smee recalls: "As he took the call he was reading the documents and thinking, 'Crikey, the clock started ticking yesterday and I've got 30 days to do all the due diligence. How am I going to do it?'" The man from Ernst & Young had a comforting message: "We can do it for you."

Having persuaded Skanska that Ernst & Young could help close the deal, Smee scrambled to assemble a team to comb through Kvaerner's worldwide operations.

At its height, this had 60 members, many of whom had to fly out to Egypt and Singapore at a moment's notice. Weeks later, the due diligence process was complete and the deal went ahead.

I think there are some exaggerated expectations of the profitability of facilities management. The systems required to make it work are too complex

Needless to say, the tight schedule dictated long hours and late nights. But for Smee, that's par for the course – if he puts in a 70-hour week, he reckons he has got off lightly. His appetite for hard work extends into his home life, where he undertook a big construction project of his own eight years ago. Eight years ago, when their first child was still in nappies, the Smees bought their Hampshire farmhouse and turned it into a home and business rolled into one. Horses and riders are trained there for three-day eventing, and creating the space to breed and train the horses required a large building project.

"There were just too many late nights to recall with plans spread out on the table," Smee recalls. "It's very time-consuming if you want to get it right. Like any construction project, the more time you devote to planning at the front end, pre-empting problems, the smoother it will go." He says that working with a local architect, builder and subcontractors taught him a lot about the realities of partnering and planning – knowledge that he can now apply to his clients' projects.

Smee surveys the changing construction industry from the vantage point of a highly placed insider. So, what does he see on the horizon? He hints that the sell-off of some construction firms' housebuilding arms could be on the cards: "A lot of organisations are asking themselves whether housebuilding is a happy bedfellow with another business. Traditionally housebuilding and construction have gone hand-in-hand, but some companies have rebadged themselves as service providers and are steaming down the facilities management–PFI route."

Steaming they may be, but Smee reckons they still have a long way to go. He says: "I think there are some exaggerated expectations of the profitability of FM. The systems required to make it work are considerably more complex than most players currently possess." Smee's work encompasses property outsourcing firms as well as contractors, and reckons the former are streets ahead: "Look at what Trillium and Mapeley have to have in place to provide FM to their tenants. There are very few construction companies that have anything like that degree of sophistication."

Smee is a fan of PFI, though. He says: "PFIs bring enhanced infrastructure to the country in a way that would not happen if it was left just to the private sector or just to the public sector." He acknowledges that the concept suffered bad publicity in the wake of the Railtrack fiasco and the Enron collapse, which involved similar accounting tricks to those used in many PFIs, but he says it is unfair to tar PFIs with the Enron brush. He adds: "Some people are worried the private sector is earning too much out of PFI, and the private sector is worrying it's not making enough money out of it. There's bound to be a tension there."

Personal effects

Where do you live?
I have a flat in the West End. When you’re networking at functions in the evening, it’s a lot easier to fall into a bed in a flat in London than run to Waterloo for the last train. But my family home is a farmhouse in Hampshire.
What kind of farmhouse?
Parts of it date back to the 17th century, but we’ve added a lot to it, including stables and an Olympic-size showjumping arena for my wife’s three-day eventing business.
Do you ride horses yourself?
No – I usually just shovel up what comes out of the back end of them, and help out with repairs and maintenance.
What tractor do you drive?
It’s a two-litre New Holland compact tractor, 8 ft long with a hydraulic bucket on the front.