US engineer set to work on National Physical Laboratory as Laing finalises sale of its construction arm
Laing has called in American troubleshooter Bechtel to help it complete the £300m National Physical Laboratory in west London, which has lost the firm £40m so far.

The move comes as it emerged that the sale of Laing's construction division to O'Rourke is set to be completed early next week.

The laboratory is the only live project not to be taken over by concrete specialist O'Rourke once the sale is finalised.

Bechtel will be officially introduced to the project team working on the NPL redevelopment at the end of the month at a meeting with joint client the DTI.

The decision to bring in Bechtel follows technical problems at the Teddington scheme, which was to have been completed this year. It is now expected to be finished next spring. Laing declared losses on the NPL project in April.

Insiders say Bechtel will give the Laing/Serco PFI joint venture cost analysis advice. One said: "Laing will want to know when it can correct the problems, how much it will cost and how it can do it."

Problems that arose during the project included abiding by strict specifications for temperature control in each laboratory.

The scheme, which was signed by the PFI consortium in 1997, has seen the laboratory transformed from a mishmash of huts and temporary buildings to the high-tech facilities now on site.

The expected sale of Laing's £1bn construction division follows a month's delay in closing the deal, largely because Laing and O'Rourke could not agree on who should take on contract liabilities.

One source close to the deal said: "The debate has been going backwards and forwards for months. O'Rourke has been going through the books with a fine-tooth comb."

The deal was also set back by the problems experienced by AWG, formerly Anglian Water, after its acquisition of Morrison.

AWG failed to spot losses in Morrison contracts during the due diligence process, which meant that it paid too much for the firm. O'Rourke redoubled its efforts to check Laing's books after this incident.

Insiders said the question of troublesome contracts could reduce the price of Laing's construction division by £10m. The division lost £88.9m last year.

Laing is also expecting to demerge its housebuilding division next year after the construction sale (see below).

Bechtel's imminent appointment at NPL is its latest troubleshooting job in the UK. The firm was called in to complete the troubled Jubilee Line Extension in mid 1998 and to finish the Channel Tunnel in 1990.

… and prepares to demerge its housing arm
Laing is expecting to demerge its housing arm after it has sold the construction division.

The move, expected next year, will see the splitting up of Laing's two remaining divisions: homes and property, and infrastructure and PFI investment. The divisions will operate as listed companies under the plans.

It is understood that the plan is under consideration because of the diverse nature of the two arms, which would not operate comfortably as one firm.

A Laing source conceded that any offer for the housing arm would be considered, but said the demerging option was favoured by the firm. The source said: "Laing Homes has performed very well. This will ensure that the successful management can be retained."

The homes division, now run by chairman Steve Lidgate, accounts for 70% of the group's pre-tax profit. It made £47m last year.

Laing has denied rumours that it will sell the division. City reports last month claimed that it could be sold for £300-350m and that the proceeds should go into Laing PFI deals.

Lidgate said last month: "No offers for Laing Homes are being sought or encouraged and we are not talking to anyone about the sale of the company."

Laing completed the sale of its US housing arm WL Homes at the end of last month.