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Partnering: fact or fiction?

Respondents generally felt that true partnering in the geotechnical industry is largely fiction, although most agree it offers benefits to both industry specialists and their clients.

Good geotechnics is ultimately about delivering cost savings and, when properly implemented, partnering is the best available mechanism of achieving this.

But Stent business development director Cliff Wren sums up the attitude of many: 'True partnering is fiction, being a preferred contractor is fact.And while this achieves early involvement and input into the design process, it is hard work and requires a larger commitment to resources.'

Keller business development director Martyn Singleton goes further.'Partnering is not well suited to geotechnical engineering.By and large our customer base is made up from dealings on a series of random projects dictated by soil problems rather than a constant need or ongoing relationship.

'Many of our clients are new to us and frequently they will not have another suitable job for some years.It is difficult to maintain the type of strong on-going relationship steel or concrete suppliers would enjoy.

'We have preferred bidder status with many contractors and with some, we are assured a minimum volume of work for which we have a pay-back agreement as a percentage of turnover, but we're still in a competitive tender situation, albeit bidding against fewer people.'

Singleton also cautions against exclusive bid arrangements.'If you keep backing the wrong horse, you can put in significant effort without result and relationships can suffer as everybody becomes more cynical.'

He is not wholly cynical of the process, although in his experience partnering has worked best where the relationship has been informal.'We've had continuity of work with Transport for London and this has delivered real savings.'

Pennine group marketing manager Stan Mimms says many clients 'cluster'activities and geotechnical works are often not sufficiently valued to be in these clusters.As a result, geotechnical specialists are often still not involved early enough for value engineering and 'joined-up'solutions to be effective, he says.

'Too many clients, especially those in retail, expect repeat prices and indeed, falling prices;

irrespective of the complexity of geotechnical processes.'

So how widespread is partnering? Based on GE's straw poll, few small companies have direct experience of it, and it is not that common even among large consultancies.

Mott MacDonald geotechnical director Jim Beveridge confirms 'it is not as widespread as anticipated'although Pell Frischmann geotechnical director John Chantler believes it is 'getting better' On the contracting side, Bachy Soletanche managing director Martin Pratt says: 'We are involved in an increasing number of partnering agreements, ranging from specialist works subcontracts to participation as main contractor partners for major projects.'

Moving down-scale in size of organisation, Weeks Consulting geotechnical director Phil Parnell says: 'Partnering is rarely fact and is mainly about clients trying to tie you down on scope and cost.'

Tensar's Chris Jenner agrees.'Certain contractors work towards partnering with suppliers and get the supplier involved from conception to order - but this does not get away from the competitive pricing situation as you nearly always end up having to cut margin to achieve the order.'

Parnell, however, adds that Weeks has 'enjoyed the real thing'in the rail sector.

Geoff Card of Card Geotechnics says: 'For me it's fiction - we have never been invited nor wanted to undertake a project in partnership.

We will work as part of a project team but are fully in control of our own cost plan.'

Yeandle Geotechnical has an agreement with a housing developer based in the south west, making it one the few small consultancies with direct partnering experience.'We get a guaranteed stream of work at good rates and the client gets a fast-track response, which means they can decide whether or not to purchase a site before others, 'says director Pete Arnold.

However as a small consultancy, he adds, it cannot provide a partnering service to more than one or two clients, simply because it does not have the resources.

What of the benefits of partnering? Pell Frischmann's Chantler says it creates a much more enjoyable working environment, in which there is less stress and a more considered, professional approach.

Tensar's Jenner believes the biggest benefit of partnering is early involvement, because 'providing alternative solutions to traditional methods can only be achieved by working closely with partners from an early stage' Philip Woodcock, northern business development manager of Van Elle, is also upbeat.

He says it 'creates new business opportunities in new sectors, helps share risks, and enhances packages and encourages innovation.'

For the moment, though, it seems that partnering works best on very big projects.For example, Arup associate director Tim Chapman says it has worked well on CTRL, where 'we have been able to work closely with the client and contractors to make the project more buildable and avoid most problems' Chapman believes that partnering 'needs to be properly integrated and requires a change in culture and a shift in loyalty from your company to the project.'

Provided everybody enters with the right mindset, it is an excellent way of delivering major projects by sharing common goals, he adds.The only problem is, 'I suspect only a handful of clients have properly embraced all the principles necessary for it to work fully.'

Mott's Beveridge says partnering works when you have honesty and trust.For example at Heathrow Terminal 5, piling design and construction (with Bachy Soletanche) led to a 30% saving on piling quantities.

Unsurprisingly, Bachy's Pratt closely echoes this view: 'Partnering promotes an open and transparent relationship, allowing the parties to concentrate their efforts on identifying and implementing the best and most efficient solutions.'

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