Laing O’Rourke replaced by Bellway in list of biggest contractors and housebuilders

The UK’s biggest private contractor has fallen out of the top 10 of this year’s Top 150 contractors and housebuilders as the gulf in earnings between the two groups is once again exposed.

Laing O’Rourke now sits at 11th place in the table, slipping from seventh last year with half the top 10 now made up of housebuilders – up from the two that made the list a decade ago. 

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Balfour Beatty remains at the top, followed by Barratt and Kier.

But following the collapse of Carillion, Balfour is by some distance the biggest contractor in the UK market with its £6.1bn contracting turnover, more than twice that of next placed Laing O’Rourke.

The contrast between the two biggest contractors and housebuilders is underlined by the profits the four made last year.

Balfour Beatty made £123m but O’Rourke, hobbled by a problem PFI hospital contract in Canada, stayed firmly in the red, racking up a near £44m pre-tax loss.

By contrast, Barratt turned in a pre-tax profit of £836m with second-placed housebuilder Taylor Wimpey racking up a £811m pre-tax profit. But the pair were bested by Persimmon, which notched up a pre-tax profit of £1.1bn.

The 10 biggest housebuilders this year reported pre-tax margins on average more than 10 times higher – at over 18% – than the equivalent-placed contractors.

The average margin for the top 10 contractors was 1.6%, up slightly on 1.3% last year, but way below the nearly 4% for those ranked 50 and above.

Mace boss Mark Reynolds said a couple of schemes meant the firm, which is now the country’s third biggest contractor with a contracting turnover of close to £2.4bn, turned in pre-tax margins of 1.4% last year.

But he said the firm was on course this year to hike up margins – although revenue will be down “quite significantly”. He added: “I’m not worried about turnover, it’s about profit. Our margin will go up significantly.”

Following the collapse of Carillion and the problems which have struck Kier, Interserve and Galliford Try, some contractors have taken to proving their financial credentials with star performer Morgan Sindall reporting its daily cash figures.

Aynsley Lammin, building analyst at investment bank Canaccord Genuity, said: “Customers and subcontractors want to be able to trust that these businesses will be an ongoing concern.”

Last week Ian Marson, the UK head of construction at Ernst & Young, warned that banks that have traditionally provided firms with finance were beginning to lose confidence in the sector. “They don’t see this as a place they are going to get the returns they need for their own investors.”

He said the volume of profit warnings since the beginning of this year is expected to push the 2019 figure beyond levels not seen since the turn of the decade.