Mace chief executive Bob White sums up the thought of many on Ray O'Rourke. "If anybody can breathe life into Laing, Ray can," he says.
O'Rourke's private firm, called simply O'Rourke, has a turnover of £220m and is the biggest concrete specialist in the UK. Despite this, he retains an air of mystery, which some say he cultivates.
O'Rourke started the firm with his brother Des in 1977 10 years after he came over from County Mayo to work in England as a civil engineer with J Murphy and Kier.
Even at the outset the firm was already breaking the traditional subcontractor mould, offering a package of services that included concrete flooring products and installation.
O'Rourke further broke further away from the traditional subbie's role in 1985, when the firm made its name working on Broadgate.
Why was he so innovative at such an early time? Partly because he was fed up with relying on contractors planning concrete jobs to their own timetable – so he decided to do the job in-house. And to do this he expanded, employing setting-out engineers, buyers, planner and surveyors.
That was a springboard for the firm to branch out even further in the 1990s, when it took M&E, handling services, fit-out and curtain walling in-house.
With former Wimpey boss David Anderson joining as group managing director last year, the firm now offers design-and-build contracting and says it plans to break into the PFI market. Group turnover has risen from £60m in 1995-1996 to £220m for the year to 31 March 2000.
In fact, O'Rourke, and other specialists such as John Doyle, were among the few firms to grow during the recession of the early 1990s. "He is pretty enlightened about the construction industry. The firm is not a dog in the manger, it's very progressive," said one source O'Rourke's approach has certainly impressed many in the industry. "Many people don't understand O'Rourke – they still see it as a ground and framework contractor," says Richard Clare, chairman of consultant EC Harris. "But it has been really developing building as a product – it has some really good ideas." Far-thinking in his approach, O'Rourke also has a reputation as a hard-nosed operator. Rivals point to last year's takeover of ailing concrete-frame specialist Swift Structures, which was owned by his brothers-in-law. O'Rourke moved in to buy it for a nominal fee, then pulled out, leaving the firm to collapse. "He is pretty ruthless," one rival said. "If he sees an opportunity he takes it – if he decides he doesn't want something he will drop it." Rivals also point to the formidable team, including brother Des, Anderson and deputy chairman Bernard Dempsey, that O'Rourke has built around him. "They are a tough crowd, a combative bunch of guys," a rival observes. "He's no soft touch on negotiating tenders," says another.
Yet there is not much doubt about who is in charge – while many will see Anderson as the architect of the Laing deal, associates emphasise that the buck definitely stops at O'Rourke's office. "Nothing will have happened unless Ray wanted it to," one says.
Friends point to O'Rourke's charm and sense of humour but quickly add that he is driven by a fierce ambition to become an industry big hitter in the same league as Peter Mason of Amec or Balfour Beatty's Mike Welton.
Industry pundits point out that he will need all his communication skills to convince potentially disgruntled Laing staff that being part of the O'Rourke set-up gives them a long-term future.
There are also Laing clients to persuade, as one large developer points out. "Ray doesn't have a name among clients because most of his work is from main contractors," the source points out. "He will have to change his whole method of work." Yet such challenges are right up O'Rourke's street, say associates. "The deal will appeal to his sense of the underdog who comes good."