Balfour Beatty must be breathing a sigh of relief this morning that Carillion's recent takeover bid was not successful. BB was lined up to follow Mowlem, McAlpine and Eaga to boost Carillion's sales and potential profits in a process that only works so long as there are more companies with which to merge or take-over; once the music stops, the whole thing generally collapses.
Carillion was overburdened with debt and major construction contracts were simply not providing the profits to service them. This was disguised for a while by accounting for 'other receivables' i.e. money expected to be released from construction contracts, but never materialising. And this is a tale that is common throughout the construction industry.
I once let a large contract to a subsidiary of a well known mega firm. It was a newish subsidiary run by set of very confident managers, but with no great track record. Still, their bids were excellent value and they were underwritten by their parent. Shortly after my contract started, rumours came in of heavy time over-runs on another job. They moved key contract management staff from my job to the problem job, and as a result they fell behind on my job. Their solution was to bid low for yet another job; the ever-growing order book made the risk of losses look unimportant. They failed to perform adequately on the third job, too. All the while they were reporting expected contract out turn as close to budget - even when they were into LADs for late completion. A few weeks after my job finished and the final account on their first job became clear, they submitted requests for additional payments of several millions. All the while they were still reporting to their board high levels of profitability - the cost claim was 'income' and contrived to maintain the fiction for as long as possible.
Well, we demolished their silly claims without breaking sweat, but that took time. By the time their major losses on all three jobs became clear, the parent company decided to close down the subsidiary. The very confident managers became ex-managers. The fact is that they were able to continue forecasting profitability long after the point when it was blindingly obvious they'd cocked up hugely.
In effect, the head company shareholders subsidised my scheme by their cocky managers underbidding and hoping to make up the profits from changes, additions and variations. The form of contract I used didn't allow very much scope for that.
Well, I'm sorry for all the good folk at Carillion including those I know and have enjoyed working with. But that's mega construction firms for you.