David Morrell, formerly Chairman of Mitchell Construction, died on Friday 12 January, at the age of 92. He leaves two daughters, Christine and Judith, and a son, Paul (former senior partner of Davis Langdon), who writes below of his father's contribution to the industry.
My father was born in 1914, not a good year for the world, and shared the trials of many of his generation: making sacrifices to obtain the best possible education, joining queues 100 yards long for a single job vacancy, and trying to get together the £100 capital that he felt would give him enough security to marry my mother.
Although the family tradition was in fine arts, he was drawn to the challenge and companionship of construction and qualified as a chartered quantity surveyor in 1947 while working for Gardiner & Theobald. In 1949 he joined Mitchell Construction as chief surveyor - and, in accordance with the rules at the time, was required to surrender his RICS membership. The argument that he put to the RICS (dismissed with lofty disdain) makes interesting and characteristically prescient reading. He argued that the industry could only be improved by the two 'sides' being represented by professional advocates with shared training and values, and that one day that is how it would be.
In 1953 he became managing director of Mitchells, and began to apply to the business the economic and social principles that he had established as a personal belief system, and that he followed unbendingly for the rest of his life. Those principles included a belief in the market economy, and (unfashionably) in the importance of competition.
These days, it is clients and academics who argue against the efficacy of competition in construction - then it was the major contractors. To both of them he would say that its absence will shelter inefficiency, waste, and a lack of inventiveness - and eventually corruption. All of these he regarded as an affront to the poor.
He also believed that the creation of privileged, non-competitive access to work effectively created a dual market, with those who do not have such access forced towards sub-economic pricing, in the face of a wage structure that is undermined by those who can afford to let it inflate. Ultimately this would mean that only the big could survive, and this too would be against the national interest.
Long before Latham & Egan (he is listed among those who gave evidence to Banwell in 1963), he also believed that the industry achieved only a fraction of its potential, as a consequence of the circumstances in which it tried to work - particularly in a lack of preparedness when projects come to site.
Notwithstanding this, over the next 20 years Mitchells was built into a real player in the industry (in his own words 'a company that need bend its knee to no-one), employing 5000 staff, turning over some £500 million in today's terms, and at one time simultaneously holding the world records for hard and soft rock tunnelling.
However, a frequent problem for men with principles is that they are too easily blind-sided by men without; and so it came to pass for Mitchells. In 1973, the company was brought to its knees by unconscionable dishonesty on the part of those responsible for administering the Kariba North Bank Power Station project; and by a combination of greed, duplicity and incompetence by many of those who played a part in dismantling what had been such a fine company.
My father set the story down in a book Indictment: Power and Politics in the Construction Industry that all the family are proud of, and that should be required reading for anybody who seeks an understanding of how the industry works.
Although desperately disillusioned by the events of 1973 and thereafter, he never became cynical, and retained a passionate interest in the potential of the industry. The dedication to his book reads "o the next generation: in the hope that they will do better". Although sometimes made difficult by the evidence of our eyes, it remains essential that those of us who care continue to share that hope.