Interim managers are a bit like the SAS of the construction industry – they come in, clear up the mess and get out again – and construction firms are increasingly turning to them for help in difficult times. But why, asks Victoria Madine, doesn't anyone want to talk about it?
One day, Martin Noble decided he needed help. As managing director of building services company Lorne Stewart, he had to set up a complex, three-year maintenance contract for a major blue chip client. It was an unusual contract and needed an expert to start it rolling – but none of the company's executives had time to tackle it.

Like an increasing number of bosses in the construction sector, Noble decided to bring in an interim manager to provide the solution. If he hadn't, he says, the company would have been overstretched: "Our executive team would have had to compromise their attention to our existing clients."

Interim managers are hired guns, drafted in for short periods of time – no longer than six months – to tackle defined problems, to troubleshoot, to manage specific projects or to oversee major changes, such as moving a company from one sector into another. They earn between £250 and £1000 a day.

Commonly used in industries such as finance, banking and marketing, interim managers are now making waves in construction. More and more contractors, consultants and construction clients are using interim managers to solve problems, plug skills gaps and manage change in their businesses. MC2, a management consultant specialising in this area, says it deals with at least one enquiry every day from businesses in the construction sector looking to recruit an interim manager.

"In the past six months we've dealt with a lot more companies from the construction sector," says Richard Woods, MC2's head of interim management.

Bill Latto (box, right) is an interim manager. Right now, he's helping a contractor based in the Midlands to move its business away from competitive tendering towards partnering agreements. He has also helped other contractors move into the facilities management sector.

"I've worked with companies that needed to move their businesses very quickly," says Latto.

"If these companies hadn't taken me on, they'd have used a consultant. But what they really needed was for someone to go to the heart of the company and become part of it for a while."

Interim manager Simon Whelan is often used by companies to troubleshoot problems on site. Whelan, formally a project manager at quantity surveyor Citex, says his role is like that of an "independent referee" when things go wrong.

Recently, a major contractor working on a PFI scheme realised the project's M&E fittings had been installed incorrectly. The company brought in Whelan to "project-manage" putting the mistake right. "The contractor didn't want things to become bitchy, so I was brought in as a total neutral. Certain individuals were already barely talking to each other, so I became something like a conduit for communications on site – almost a shoulder to cry on."

Some construction companies have used interims from other sectors to tackle specific projects. Consultant Atkins recruited Gareth Hopkins, whose background is in manufacturing, as an interim human resources director. His task was to establish exactly what the role of the permanent HR director would be.

The company needed someone who could parachute in and not just represent it, but become intimate with the project

Simon Whelan, interim manager

"The company needed someone quickly, but they didn't just want a temporary director, they wanted someone to make changes," says Hopkins, now a permanent member of staff.

Atkins is now using another interim to help introduce flexible working practices at the group. "Interims are a flexible resource and a way of bringing valuable best practice into construction from other industries," says Hopkins.

Also, clients are finding roles for interim managers from construction. Internet banking group Egg used Simon Whelan as an adviser on a major project earlier this year. He says: "The company had little experience of managing construction projects and needed someone who could parachute in and not just represent it, but become intimate with the project and its needs as a client."

Whelan thinks there is huge scope for the use of interim managers as client advisers: "Though things are improving, there are still a lot of contractors who can't communicate effectively with their clients."

Although the use of interims in construction is on the rise, confusion remains about what they do. As MC2's Woods explains, there is a distinct difference between the interim's role and that of the consultant: "Consultants come into your company and give advice about how to streamline your business, change its structure and so on. An interim manager actually becomes a part of the company for a limited period of time and often implements significant change. But a lot of businesses in the construction sector can't see the difference between the two."

Despite the clear benefits of interims, most contractors and consultants who have called on outside help do not want to admit it. "It's as though interim management is regarded as some kind of black art," says Whelan. As well as Lorne Stewart and Atkins, contractor HBG will admit to using them, but few others will.

So why is there a stigma surrounding the use of this kind of management? After all, it is established practice in other industries. Some interims say they are sworn to secrecy about the nature of their task. Obviously, interims are privy to the workings of a company, but confidentiality agreements are a matter of course so this should not mean using interims is viewed negatively.

"The general view is that admitting you've used an interim is tantamount to admitting your company has failed in some way to solve its own problems," says Bill Latto. "But in sectors such as banking and human resources, using interims is seen as a positive way of handling business issues."

Lorne Stewart's Noble believes taking on an interim is a positive step and he sees no reason to be embarrassed. "In our case, we needed to set up a complex contract; getting the project moving required a different skills set from the set we would need to actually implement the project.

It was a logical step to bring in an interim and I'd use one again, if I needed to," he says. The six-month appointment was a success because the interim had a very clear brief, he adds.

Life of an intern

Two years ago, Bill Latto decided to jack in a stable career as a senior executive in the construction industry and follow a more adventurous road as an interim manager. “After years of working as a managing director on the board of Balfour Beatty Building and then Amey, I decided I needed a new challenge,” he says. “So I started working for myself as a kind of consultant, but looking back, I was clearly doing interim management. “Currently, I’m working with a medium-sized contractor that has always competed for work but now wants to move into partnering. My client is trying to achieve the move in less than six months, which is why it brought me in – none of the executives have time to devote to the move whereas I’m very experienced. I also bring an independent view to the company. It’s up to me to say that some of a company’s sacred cows need to be moved to the side of the road. I can do that because I’m not part of the office politics; I’m not looking for promotion and I don’t need to ingratiate myself with the CEO. But I do become totally immersed in the company and get to know its very heart. “It can be tricky getting the acceptance of the employees of my host company. After all, I’m there to introduce change and people tend to resist it. Part of my challenge is to get people to welcome that change. To help matters, I try to make sure I’ve got the patronage of the company’s chief executive and the support of the company’s stakeholders. “The great thing about my role is that everything is interesting. I don’t deal with routine matters but can focus on a specific project. I don’t have to worry about things like training and staffing. On the downside, every six months I have to say goodbye to a team of people I’ve got to know really well.”