May, 48, will replace Paul Whitmore, who has decided to step down after 26 years with Laing “to pursue other challenges”. He was chief executive for only 14 months.
The news came as a shock to Mowlem, which responded quickly by promoting director of performance Steve Bowcott, 44, to managing director.
A Mowlem spokesperson said staff were informed of the news last Thursday. May left immediately and is now on “gardening leave”.
May was formerly chairman of Mowlem’s northern division and managing director of its domestic repair business, Skillbase.
A number of industry and City players have commented that Laing’s senior positions are filled by accountants and quantity surveyors, rather than by people with direct construction experience. May, who is a civil engineer by profession, will change the balance.
Laing Construction’s chairman Jim Armstrong said it was “important” that Laing kept its position in the civil engineering market but said that that was not the only reason for appointing May.
He said Whitmore had written to him early in the new year saying he wanted to step down and that he had immediately appointed headhunters to find a replacement.
Armstrong added that the move would have no impact on the implementation of Laing’s business plan, which was drawn up after a review by KPMG last year and resulted in 800-plus job losses.
Whitmore will stay on at Laing until the end of the month but his plans after that are unknown.
May’s departure comes at a bad time for Mowlem, which announced its year-end results yesterday.
May’s replacement, Bowcott, was appointed late last year to oversee the changes recommended in a strategic review by McKinsey. Before that, he was chairman of Mowlem’s South-west division for 10 years.