Chastened contractor outlines more cautious approach after millennium rugby stadium disaster knocks £12.1m off profit, cutting it to £20.1m.
Senior LAING executives last week vowed that the firm will never suffer another disaster like the Cardiff Millennium Stadium, on which it lost £26m.

Deputy chairman Robert Wood and finance director Jim Armstrong outlined the firm's new approach after admitting that 1998 profit had suffered a massive hit because of the project.

They also admitted other mistakes: Wood said Laing "missed a trick" in not getting into the rail maintenance market, where competitors such as Tarmac and Balfour Beatty have made huge profits.

And Wood flatly contradicted speculation that Laing is open to offers for its construction business, saying the whole focus of that business is to get back into profit.

Better than it looks

Reporting pre-tax profit of £20.1m, compared with £32.2m for 1997, Wood said that, apart from Cardiff and a £5.1m charge Laing took to reorganise afterwards, 1998 had been a good year.

Laing's UK and homes divisions and its property and investments divisions all increased profit. The construction business also improved its overall performance, despite the departure of Laing Construction chairman David Blair shortly after the extent of the Cardiff losses become apparent.

But Cardiff, where Laing underpriced the job after giving a fixed price on the basis of sketchy designs, overshadowed everything.

Wood said: "1998, overall, has been a disappointment, arising solely from Cardiff. We had not been saying 'no' as often as we should have in the construction division. The days of 'let's do anything for anyone anywhere on any terms' are over."

Armstrong, who was made chairman of Laing Ltd, the new Laing construction business set up in the aftermath of Cardiff, said there was enough activity in the Midlands and the South to satisfy the firm's new bidding criteria, although he was less sure about Scotland and the North.

Fewer and bigger projects

Laing, which saw £1.2bn of construction turnover in 1998 – and £1.6bn overall, compared with £1.46bn for 1997 – is budgeting to continue with £1bn of construction turnover a year.

However, this will be divided between fewer, bigger projects taken on more secure terms. Armstrong said: "As the work profile changes, there will be some falling away in staff this year, but there will be no slash and burn, no 'Night of the Long Knives'."

Armstrong said he believes that the 2% margins being achieved by Laing's building division could be replicated across the construction business. He is still keen on private finance initiative work, but strongly opposes government plans to name two preferred bidders.

Wood firmly denied a suggestion that the Laing family may want to sell out of the business.