This is the tale of how David Bucknall sold his family firm, then five years later bought it back in an adrenalin-charged race against the clock. We chart the rise and fall of Citex and talks to Bucknall about how he got his old job back.
David Bucknall's dramatic return to the construction sector after a five-year absence can be traced to his decision to attend a birthday party last spring. The host was working for Citex Project Services, the QS and project management arm of the Citex Group, and he happened to mention that the division could be the subject of a management buyout.

"Because I'd been through that kind of thing before, I offered to help out," says Bucknall – a little disingenuously, perhaps. "It was just going to be an advisory role. It might not have happened if I hadn't been at the party."

Nearly a year later, things have not quite gone as planned – they have gone even better. Five years after he sold Bucknall Austin, the listed QS business that became Citex, he has bought it back and installed himself as chairman. Everything has come full circle.

Bucknall is the nearest construction has to a Bobby Robson figure (he declines to give his age – "you can find that out from your records" – but it is 64). Like Robson, he has retained his passion for the game. He realised quickly that he wanted more than an advisory role in the buyout. "I was beginning to realise coming from those early meetings [about the buyout] how much I was enjoying it. My view was I had a few more years of useful working life – what better than to spend them in the area where I'm most comfortable?"

Bucknall's return, a subject of much industry speculation last year, was an intriguing subplot to the larger goings-on at the former Citex Group. At the start of 2002, the group decided to put itself up for sale. The strategy was driven by an ominous deadline: in August 2002, Citex had to make its first payment to the venture capitalists that backed the 1998 buyout, Phoenix Equity Partners and Legal & General Ventures. Sources put the sum needed at the £15m-plus mark.

Oliver Jones was the charismatic group chief executive behind the creation of Citex. He conceded later in the year that a sale of the whole group was unrealistic. The problem was that the group had already split into two halves – and they were pulling in opposite directions. The facilities management division needed to be big to chase property outsourcing deals; the QS and project management division, however, needed to be independent and flexible. "We had to look at different options for the two sides of the businesses," Jones said last year.

This was quite a comedown from the ambitions that its parents had for Citex when it was born in 1998. Jones, who seemed a breath of fresh air in what is often seen as the stale end of the construction industry, wanted to transform the business and take it into a market he felt was on the brink of exploding – facilities management, prime contracting (especially in the defence sector) and outsourcing. At the time, Jones predicted that Citex would float as a FTSE 250 company with a market capitalisation of £250m in a few years' time.

A number of factors held him back. Potential acquisitions, such as Mace in 1999, never transpired. The group's lack of a large balance sheet held it back from winning outsourcing deals against larger plcs. It also took twice as long as Jones had anticipated to restructure – in late 2001 he admitted there were "quite a few black holes in the business".

I was just going to be an adviser. But I realised in the early buyout meetings how much I was enjoying it

David Bucknall, chairman, Bucknall Austin

Insiders point to another malaise – culture. "Bucknall Austin was your basic profit-and-loss-based divisional business," one ex-director recounts. And this did not fit with Jones' new style. Tension increased over the group's headquarters, which were moved from Birmingham to London. "They [Bucknall Austin] were a Birmingham company; they hated London," one ex-Citex director says. "It was a recipe from hell. The Citex dream was flawed.

The basic idea of trying to turn a company like Bucknall Austin into an FM business was never going to happen."

As this split emerged, Citex looked to sell the two operations – its Hong Kong division was sold separately to EC Harris in August 2002. With facilities management considered sexy (this was before problems at Amey and Atkins took away some of its shine), there seemed more interest in the services division than project management. This led to the £11.5m sale of the FM part of Citex to Carillion – including the transfer of Jones and chief operating officer Steve Parkinson. Bosses signed the deal and breathed a sigh of relief – it was struck just in time for the venture capital cash to be paid back.

After the deal with Carillion, the prospect of a management buyout of the project services division – discussed in the spring by Bucknall and the existing management, but put on the backburner while the Carillion deal was going on – was on the agenda.

During the autumn, the management buyout team assembled a bid that was put to Citex Project Services' owners before Christmas. It was rejected. "We didn't have a formal rejection notice, but it wasn't pursued," says Bucknall. The owners were still keen on outside offers. Quantity surveyor AYH was one such interested party – the firm visited Citex offices and was understood to be particularly keen on its operations in northern England.

Despite this outside interest, the management buyout team still felt its bid was the favourite. By January, a source close to the firm claimed that a deal, involving Bucknall, was just weeks away. Events, however, took another turn at the start of last week: Citex Project Services was placed into administration, burdened by liabilities including the group's property portfolio.

It was a recipe from hell – the Citex dream was flawed

Former Citex director

As the news of the administration emerged, the management team was working against the clock to pull off its buyout. By close of play on Wednesday last week – "you could smell the adrenalin that day", Bucknall says – the team had struck the deal with administrator Ernst & Young. E&Y released a statement to Building as it went to press in the afternoon, stressing that a deal was imminent (see "Quick sale hope for Citex", 28 February, page 9).

By Thursday, the reborn Bucknall Austin was back in business. Bucknall, whose five years away from the firm included stints at Jarvis and directorships and chairmanships at furniture and property companies, had returned to quantity surveying with a vengeance. "It took me about three hours to get back into it," he says.

Bucknall is not looking for an immediate overhaul of the firm: "It would be both practically and morally wrong to come in and say I was going to rebuild this in 25 days." And he is full of praise for the management, who he says were bogged down by "non-trading issues" during the past year. "The actual company was doing well," he says. "There were factors beyond the realm of the management. They were significant downsides."

The buyout did not include the troublesome property portfolio. The firm is now operating on short leases in the offices they occupy, a situation that will last "around six months", according to Bucknall. Although he does not see a major shift in the office base, he points to "one or two issues" that no doubt include the City of London office, previously the Citex Group headquarters.

Bucknall says he is concentrating on the firm's customers and its 325-strong workforce. "They are the twin peaks," he says. "I want to support the staff – sometimes spiritually and sometimes practically." He also wants to improve the profile of the firm, which he has probably already achieved to some degree just with his presence there.

David Bucknall’s CV

1963 Becomes partner at his father’s QS firm, partnership Bucknall Austin. 1972 Made senior partner. Expands the firm into Europe and Asia. 1988 Floats the company in July and develops facilities management operation. 1998 Bucknall Austin bought by management buyout team led by Oliver Jones; renamed and delisted. Bucknall leaves. 1998-2003 Takes up post of managing director of Jarvis Airport Services as well as directorships of furniture and property firms. Also chairman of West Midlands Construction Best Practice Club. 2003 Leads management buyout of remaining QS and project management arm of Citex Group.