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Growing potential

Soil reinforcement contractor Comtec received a new lease of life when it was taken over by one of the world's largest geotechnical contractors. Max Soudain reports.

When Keller Ground Engineering acquired the Comtec Group at the end of last year it ended nearly four decades of independence for the soil reinforcement contractor. Despite surviving one of the most serious recessions in the construction industry in the late 1980s, by mid1999 the company was in trouble.

'We had a good year in 1998, ' explains Comtec general manager Jerry Fox, 'with a turnover of £2.5M.' As a result, the decision was taken to expand the firm in anticipatation of an upturn in the UK roads programme and a planned move into Europe.

The strategy was pinned on Textomur, a hydroseeded geotextile reinforcement solution. Designed for stabilising cuttings and embankments and used extensively during the M25 widening projects in the 1990s, the company was banking that it would again be chosen by contractors as a green alternative to conventional retaining walls.

But with the continuing postponement of the majority of the projects in the roads programme, Comtec's fortunes took a turn for the worse. Lack of work at a time of ambitious expansion plans soon led to cashflow problems and ultimately receivership.

Comtec had been working closely with Keller on a number of projects such as concrete retaining walls.The firm approached Keller and within 10 days the takeover was a done deal, with Comtec joining the Keller Group at the end of last year (Ground Engineering January).

It was fortuitous that the approach came at a time where Keller was looking to get into the sector. 'We had been thinking about it for some time, ' confirms Keller's sales director Martyn Singleton.

While Keller had been involved in soil nailing for many years, 'you can only go so far with the technique, there are other techniques that can give technically and aesthetically better options.' Recognising this and that the sector was a growing one was key to the takeover decision, he says. 'Keller was looking to broaden its services and we knew Comtec offered a good product and good engineering.'

Despite the relatively smooth transition from independent contractor to being part of a large international group, the takeover was not without casualties. 'Some senior staff and a couple of designers were lost and the East Kilbride office was closed, ' says Fox. The firm now has a staff of 10, with three design engineers based at new premises near Maidstone, Kent, the company's hydroseed specialist based in Chesterfield and estimating manager Ian Fraser working from Keller's Coventry office.

Despite the slimming down of operations, capacity has not been reduced, Fox explains, as the firm 'tend to use subcontractors to carry out site work, some of which are exclusive to Comtec.'

And despite Comtec's problems last year, Singleton, Fox and Fraser are all confident that the UK market remains strong and is a potential growth area. 'Perhaps the firm's focus [towards Europe] wasn't the best thing, ' says Fox. 'Fundamentally, the UK market is still OK and the core business is good. Soil reinforcement and other alternatives are taking a large part of the conventional retaining wall market.'

Potential growth areas are seen as, perhaps surprisingly, roads - 'it depends whether the anticipated road programme goes ahead and how hard the Highways Agency is on design and build contractors for maintenance, ' says Fox - and rail. 'The method is less intrusive than conventional solutions, it is quicker and there is minimal disruption.'

Fraser says that one of the biggest problems in the UK is convincing engineers that soil reinforcement is a viable and often more economical alternative to conventional concrete retaining systems. 'Typical savings are 30%, ' he says, 'and that is purely cost, it doesn't include the time savings involved in constructing reinforced soil walls, which are up and ready much faster than concrete walls.'

Moreover, soil reinforcement has the potential to offer a more sympathetic green solution. 'Often this isn't even considered;

getting people to think about it is the problem.'

'The Textomur system has been used to build walls up to 8m high in the UK but walls up to 46m high have been built in Taiwan.'

Attitudes are changing however. 'Younger engineers are being taught about green solutions, ' Fraser says. Because the techniques have been introduced to them at university, they are more willing to consider them, he says. And with the introduction of BS8006 and Highways Agency codes of practice, engineers are now happier to specify reinforced soil.

Comtec's main products are Timbacrib, a cribwall system that uses treated New Zealand pine, Textomur Green (for slopes less than 70degrees), Textomur Stone (for slopes over 70degrees) and a range of retaining wall systems from Tensar combining precast concrete facing units and Tensar geogrid reinforcement.

It also carries out hydroseeding.

Developed in the 1970s, hydroseeding involves spraying a mixture of grass seed, water, fertiliser, a tackifier and wood or paper pulp on to the prepared reinforced soil wall or slope. The mixture promotes vegetative growth, cutting down on the amount of topsoil that has to be imported, and providing a low maintenance and aesthetically sensitive retaining solution.

In April, Comtec will launch Terraforce.

Developed in South Africa, the firm holds the UK licence for the system, which consists of interlocking shaped hollow concrete blocks that can be filled with soil and planted to produce a vegetated slope. The system is suitable for light and heavy retaining solutions (the units can also be filled with gravel or concrete) and also for erosion control on waterways, an area where it has been particularly successful in South Africa, says Fraser.

Comtec provides a design, supply and construct service and one of its advantages, Fraser says, is that it is not tied to one manufacturer. 'This means a variety of solutions can be offered to the client, ' he says.

It will take some time to fully integrate Comtec into Keller. Fox says that the firm, which will operate as a separate entity within the group, will initially focus on the UK market. 'The takeover will allow a refocusing and enable us to take a look at the core business.'

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