Main contractors and specialists are engaged in a struggle to seize power in the construction industry. Who will come out on top? Katie Puckett reports from ringside

When the 600 guests at Building’s Specialist Contractors awards got together earlier this week, there was a sense that they had more to celebrate than usual. Specialists are enjoying a much loftier position in the industry than ever before and keeping the supply chain happy is now the dominant concern of clients and main contractors. These days, specialists are likely to spend less time praying they’ll get paid before they go under and more time fielding offers of long-term alliances from admirers. Power is shifting in construction and this is leading many in the industry to wonder: who calls the shots these days?

Latham and Egan may have started the ball rolling by drawing attention to relationships in the supply chain, but market forces have accomplished more than any amount of partnering could hope to achieve. With the market consolidating and the industry booming, the number of firms that can handle the mixed-use mega-projects that developers are bringing to market is shrinking – particularly in the sought-after trades of cladding, M&E, and steel frame. The demise of cladding giant Schmidlin in February sent shudders through the industry, as clients realised how vulnerable their supply chains were. Sophisticated clients, such as Land Securities, are now planning to take a more hands-on role in the management of specialist firms.

Main contractors, too, have woken up to the necessity of demonstrating they have access to a reliable supply chain to win work – Costain has set up formal relationships with three M&E contractors. Stephen Wells, Costain’s group business development director, sums up the new rules of working with specialists: “They choose you,” he says. “You’ve got to make yourself attractive to them – they’ve got to want to work with you.”

Of course, main contractors still control the purse strings on a project but, over the past decade, their financial clout has lessened because of changes in dispute resolution. When litigation was a subbie’s only way of recovering money, it was massively time consuming and expensive. But since statutory adjudication was introduced in 1998, subcontractors have had a simpler, cheaper route to get what they’re owed. “It used to be that the man who called the shots was the man with the cheque book,” says Tony Bingham, Building’s legal pundit. “But the playing field is much more level now.”

There’s also been a shift in political power, says Rudi Klein, chief executive of the Specialist Engineering Contractors Group. The days when main contractors had powerful links with No 10 are over and specialists are also skilled lobbyists. “Almost 100 MPs supported an early-day motion in the last parliamentary session to improve security of payments,” Klein points out.

Main contractors have only themselves to blame. It may have made economic sense to shed permanent skilled employees to rely on a shifting pool of specialist firms, but it has left them with little bargaining power. Most of the largest contractors are little more than project managers, forced to grapple with the many consultants in the marketplace. “They’ve shed specialisms to become managers of construction. They don’t have a great deal of knowledge of the skilled trades – just an awful lot of managers,” says Peter Rogers, director at developer Stanhope.

It is almost as if main contractors are locked in a face-off with the consultancy sector. Sir Robert McAlpine and Bovis Lend Lease both fight for pre-tender consulting work on Land Securities projects and Willmott Dixon is setting up an in-house consultancy.

John Frankiewicz, chief operating officer at Willmott Dixon Construction, is aware of the shift in roles of consultants and contractors. “Nobody has talked about it – it’s happened by stealth, and procurement routes are recognising this. On our frameworks, we find customers look for us to assemble delivery partners. Although consultants are still important, we deal direct with customers.”

Of course, clients such as Stanhope have seized control of their own projects, no longer content to be bamboozled by the architect or fobbed off by the main contractor. They are more informed, more likely to have come from the supplier side, more risk averse and, consequently, more demanding.

The end users are also having a greater say – Mike Nightingale of Nightingale Associates points out that on hospital and school projects, it is the “stakeholders” – patients and parents of pupils – who often cast the deciding vote in the procurement process.

Main contractors may have lost ground to specialists, but they’ve won it back another way – it is these large, deskilled firms that are the clients on massive PFI projects. Balfour Beatty is now the largest single client for architectural giant Building Design Partnership and for engineer Whitbybird, and contractors such as Costain and Laing O’Rourke are becoming the first port of call for lawyers and other consultants with new business opportunities.

This latest development is much to the chagrin of the architectural community. Although a handful of signature architects can still call the shots on projects, the rest are having to adjust to a world where contractor-led deals are the norm. Lord Rogers’ recent objections to the way the Olympic Delivery Authority was awarding design-and-build contracts was symptomatic of a wider unease.

Specialist contractors themselves still claim unfair treatment by main contractors. Rudi Klein says SEC Group research has shown that 57% of specialists have suffered payment abuse on government contracts. Long payment terms are common practice – when Carillion bought Mowlem earlier this year, it caused dismay among Mowlem’s subcontractors by announcing it would be paying them 65 days after work was completed, twice as long as before. And for all the enlightened talk, some specialists still complain they are given no involvement early in a new project.

The next battle is the setting up of project bank accounts, a measure called for by the SEC Group, which would leave no incentive for main contractors to withhold money from firms further down the chain. Whether this will be the final triumph of specialists over main contractors remains to be seen.