Commercial head Anna Stewart expands her power base as firm plots move into Brazil and Canada

Anna Stewart, commercial director at Laing O’Rourke, has expanded her power base at the UK’s largest privately-owned contractor in a boardroom shake-up that included the resignation of finance director Iain Ferguson last week.

Ferguson, who left the £4bn-turnover firm after four years, will not be replaced and Stewart has taken over his duties.

A Laing O’Rourke spokesperson confirmed the changes, saying Ferguson had moved to his “next career challenge”, having left the firm in a “strong position”.

The shake-up comes amid reports of a wider strategic shift at the family-owned firm, after Tony Douglas, its former chief operating officer, left in November.

One construction boss said Stewart’s appointment was an example of chairman and chief executive Ray O’Rourke surrounding himself with a circle of close advisers. He said: “Anna is a very sharp operator and Ray clearly trusts her implicitly.”

Douglas, who is a former boss of Heathrow airport, had been lined up to take over the chief executive’s job, but left the firm amid speculation that O’Rourke refused to relinquish control over the group’s day-to-day running during the downturn.

It is understood O’Rourke has increased Stewart’s powers in an attempt to win more work.

Barbour ABI’s rolling annual table of work won by contractors showed that Laing O’Rourke slipped from £3.3bn (first place) in February 2008 to £2.4bn (third place) last month.

In a separate move, Building understands the firm may enter new global markets to offset the effects of the UK downturn, with Brazil and Canada at the top of its list.The former is an emerging powerhouse, and O’Rourke is understood to be interested in the latter because of its strong PFI market, its similar legal system to Britain and the fact that John Laing operates there.

Laing O’Rourke has reportedly begun lining up top UK managers to spearhead the push, although a spokesperson said: “We do not comment on matters of group strategy.”

In October, several weeks before Douglas’ departure, the firm announced the appointment of former Carillion director Roger Robinson to oversee a restructure and chair European board meetings. It is understood he acts in a “chief operating officer-type role” and that more restructuring could follow Stewart’s move.

Although the firm boosted turnover and profit last year, it announced a “significant” number of redundancies at its UK and European business in October.

In an email, Ray O’Rourke told 11,756 staff that job cuts would ensure the firm had “a tight rein on controllable costs to compete effectively in winning work”.