After 10 years heading up Mace, Ian Macpherson is putting construction behind him and his 34% share up for sale – but only to the right buyer.
Ian Macpherson, one of the most innovative and best-known figures in the industry, unexpectedly announced this week that he is to quit Mace and bow out of construction. His 34% stake in the firm he founded 10 years ago is up for sale.

Macpherson, chairman of the construction and project management specialist, says he is leaving at the end of the month to pursue other interests – a decision he made six months ago. "I feel now is the right time to leave. The company is in good shape. I want to go when people are asking why I'm leaving, not when they're saying 'why doesn't he go?'

"I always said I'd give the firm 10 years. I've never been wedded to the industry." Macpherson, 54, intends to make his home in Montpellier in the South of France and has put his south London home on the market. He plans to start a music school there, but initially intends to "travel, eat lots of good food and wine, and see friends a lot more".

Holding out for the right buyer

Macpherson has sold about one-third of the 51% stake he owns in Mace to the firm's Employment Benefit Trust, an legal entity that sells shares to staff. His remaining shares will be sold either to staff or to an outside partner, which Macpherson says Mace is still looking for – contrary to industry rumours that a deal has been all but signed.

Although the firm has been linked to several of the big names in the industry, Macpherson says Mace is unlikely to be sold "lock, stock and barrel to anyone, in the type of deal discussed by Bovis and Atkins".

"We are looking for something more dynamic. We want a partner that will bring something more than construction skills to the table. It could be finance or expertise from another field, like healthcare."

Macpherson says Mace is now committed to the one-stop shop and needs a partner so it can develop and begin funding projects. We could go out and sell the firm tomorrow. But what we do for the future is most important."

More interest has been shown by overseas buyers than UK firms, says Macpherson. But he adds that no deal has stacked up yet, either because offers fell short of the asking price, or the because there was no fit with Mace's management philosophy. Brown & Root and more recently O' Brien Kreitzberg are understood to have been two of Mace's disappointed suitors.

The firm employs 500 staff and has a £30m annual turnover, on which it will make £500 000 profit in 1998. It is valued at about £10m, making Macpherson a millionaire.

Despite his stake retention, Macpherson says decisions about the firm's future will be made by Mace's board. "I don't intend to do consultancy work, or be a shadow manager in the background."

We are looking for something dynamic. We want a partner with more than construction skills

Bob White, one of Mace's founding partners and its chief executive for the past three years, will continue to run the operation but no one will replace Macpherson as chairman. "Ian's departure has created opportunities for change – there certainly will be changes to do with the structure of the company. We also intend to strengthen our core business, with significant additions to our activities. We are pursuing strategic alliances, but we're not talking to anyone about a sale," White explains. "Ian and I have been working together for 15 years," he adds. "I'll miss him, but I think it's the right thing for him to do."

A new design-and-build service

Having started the firm with an evangelical zeal for construction management, Macpherson shocked many in the industry when he announced at the end of last year that it would be offering CM with a guaranteed maximum price. Mace has yet to find a client to take it up but it is about to take the idea a stage further. In April, it will announce a fully fledged design-and-build service with buildings based on a set of pick-and-mix standard components.

Looking back on his career, Macpherson, surprisingly, says he should have offered this option sooner: "I was so committed to CM that I was blinded to anyone challenging that. Obviously, that's not what the wider market wanted."

Macpherson says he will miss friends in the business, but not the industry itself.

"I suppose I've just got to the stage where the excitement is outweighed by the fact that I've heard it all before."

Always a campaigner for change, Macpherson says he was disappointed at how little improvement he'd seen in payment practices. "Most clients have an appalling payment record – those in middle management often have no idea of the consequences of late payment. I'd love to see the implementation of strict payment regimes and people sticking to a contract."

Macpherson is on the board of the Movement for Innovation, the DETR-backed body for implementing changes following the Egan report. He chairs the committee charged with setting up a Knowledge Centre – an industry-wide database for disseminating best practice. And he rejects criticism that the Egan initiative has lost its way. "Despite what people are saying, it will work. Our mistake is that we are not telling the industry what we are doing. I intend to deliver the Knowledge Centre before the end of March – how it will be set up, what it will do and how it will interface with industry."

Macpherson says he will recommend that the Knowledge Centre be run as a type of club, where firms pay for access to information. The fee would be on a sliding scale, depending on size of company.

Those who know Macpherson have not been entirely surprised by his departure. Stanhope director and Macpherson mentor Peter Rogers says: "He's one of the few people in the industry willing to innovate and take risks. I think he just got ground down in the end by trying to get the industry to change.

How Macpherson caught the CM bug

With his zeal for reforming payment practices in the industry, penchant for Paul Smith suits and love of classical music, Ian Macpherson’s image is more akin to an architect than a builder. But then as a zealot for fee-based contracting, Macpherson would put himself very much in the professional camp. He caught the construction management bug in the mid-1980s when he was the Bovis director in charge of construction at London’s Broadgate. Stuart Lipton and Peter Rogers of joint-venture developer Rosehaugh Stanhope imported the US construction method in which subcontractors are paid directly by the client and the contractor earns a fee. When Bovis refused to set up a specialist CM unit, Macpherson quit the firm to start up on his own in 1989. He took with him Ian Wylie, Ian Jepps, Bob White and Harry Thomas. Jepps and Thomas have since retired. He says: “Broadgate changed things significantly both in the performance levels – better cost, time and quality – and the relationship with subcontractors. I knew I couldn’t go back.” The firm got its first big break in 1991 when it beat Bovis to the job of project and construction manager on the £160m Niels Torp-designed British Airways headquarters at Heathrow. Macpherson started his building career as a management trainee at Bovis. He joined the firm in 1965, working for director Ron Peggs after completing a Higher National Diploma in building at Glasgow. “Initially, Bovis wanted me to take elocution lessons, but I told them I’d quit first,” he jokes.