Businessman who sanctioned sale of contractor to O’Rourke for £1 passed away two days after Christmas

Sir Martin Laing, the man who hoisted the for sale sign over the construction business that bore his family name, has died aged 81.

In a statement, the John Laing Charitable Trust said he “passed away peacefully in hospital in Malta on December 27, 2023 following a short illness”.

Sir Martin was the son of Sir Kirby Laing, who helped run the business with his brother Maurice in the 1960s and 70s, and was the grandson of Sir John Laing, who turned the firm into a household name after the Second World War with schemes such as the job to rebuild Coventry Cathedral.


Source: (c) Historic England Archive / John Laing Photographic Collection

Martin Laing with Carlisle mayor Trudy Whalley at the topping out of the Lanes shopping centre in March 1984. Martin Laing became Laing chairman the following year and was knighted in 1997

He was the great-grandson of John Laing, who took over the running of the business in 1882 after his father James Laing, who set up the business in 1848, died.

Sir Martin, who was knighted for services to construction in 1997, succeeded his father in 1985 to take over as executive chairman, remaining in post until 2001 when the firm sold the construction arm for £1 to one of its subcontractors, concrete firm O’Rourke, run by Ray O’Rourke. In the early stages of the sale, the firm had been expecting the business to fetch upwards of £100m.

The firm was considered to be one of the blue-riband contractors in its day after a host of high-profile schemes, such as building the M1 motorway, the Second Severn Crossing, the Barbican Centre and the Sizewell B nuclear power station, helped cement its reputation.

Famed for its training schemes, its former staff included Sir John Armitt, now the chair of the National Infrastructure Commission and before that a chief executive of Costain and later Network Rail, former WS Atkins chief executive Mike Jeffries and Stuart Doughty, another former Costain chief executive and now a non-executive at Balfour Beatty.

The decision to sell the construction arm of Laing, therefore, sent shockwaves through the industry, only eclipsed by the name of the eventual buyer.

The construction business was put up for sale in November 2000 after being hobbled by a series of losses, eventually totalling £200m, on several jobs including the Cardiff Millennium Stadium, the National Physical Laboratory, a disastrous PFI scheme in Teddington, west London, and No 1 Poultry in the City.

As part of the deal, O’Rourke left most of the problem contracts with John Laing, immediately replaced then Laing Construction chief executive Brian May and eventually closed its historic head office in Mill Hill, north London.

>>> See also Sir Martin Laing on selling Laing Construction

After selling its property and housing businesses to Kier and Wimpey in 2002, John Laing later became an infrastructure investor and was eventually bought by US private-equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts in 2021.

In 2012, John Laing handed its entire collection of 230,000 images to the government’s heritage adviser Historic England depicting how the firm helped build modern Britain.

Sir Martin had recently stepped down as chair of the John Laing Charitable Trust after more than three decades at the helm. His appointments included serving as chair of the British Overseas Trade Board from 1995 to 1999, while he was also chair of WWF UK from 1990 until 1997.

He is survived by his wife Stephanie, whom he was married to for 58 years, children Edward and Alexandra and five grandchildren.