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Piling pioneer is back in town

The UK piling industry suffers from overcapacity.So why has Mowlem re-entered the market after a 20 year absence? Paul Wheeler talks to Mowlem Piling general manager Chris MacDonald.

Much of the early development of the geotechnical industry in Britain was through the efforts of contractor John Mowlem & Company, which set up its Soil Mechanics subsidiary after the collapse of Chingford Dam in 1937.

Soil Mechanics the company was established before most civil engineers had even heard of the eponymous new science.The company's pioneering directors included Golder, Glossop and Harding - names now enshrined in geotechnical consciousness.

But for geotechnical engineers under 40, Soil Mechanics is most closely associated with site investigation. Few young engineers will know that in the 1970s, the company was also one of the UK's main foundation contractors, with whom many of today's industry champions - David Sherwood and Tony Merricks to name just two - cut their teeth.

After a break of nearly 20 years, Mowlem has re-emerged in the foundation market with Mowlem Piling, fittingly sited in Soil Mechanics' one-time base of Foundation House in Bracknell.

Chris MacDonald, Mowlem Piling's general manager, explains the background.

'In the late 1970s the foundation industry was heading for a shakedown, 'he says.

Many companies were using equipment built to serve the post-war reconstruction of the 1950s. General contractors realised that if their piling subsidiaries were going to remain competitive, they would need to make a major investment in new rigs.

Soil Mechanics, among others, decided it was not going to make the necessary investment, and so it and names such as Economic Foundations and Lind disappeared from the foundations sector.

Those who stuck at it were rewarded with a lot of work and saw piling develop into an industry in its own right, says MacDonald.

But the unprecedented growth in the 1980s created 'monster companies' burdened with large and expensive plant fleets and high overheads.These same companies now face the difficulty of operating within a market that is less buoyant and in which margins are ever tighter.

MacDonald says today's piling industry carries high overheads, is high risk, requires high commitment and suffers from overcapacity.

'It's easy to complain about pricing levels, but the price for anything is the price you can get and this is being dictated to us by the mechanism of oversupply, particularly at the lighter end of the construction industry.'

He predicts that ultimately, normal laws of commerce will apply.

'No one is going to stay in the business unless they can get a decent return on their investment, ' he says. Why then does Mowlem think the time is right to re-enter the piling market?

'We did it to give the group 'total capability', ' says MacDonald. 'Mowlem recognised there was a very technically capable industry, and indeed was and will remain a major client to the piling industry. But for special projects we wanted to establish our own capability.'

The group made this decision in 1996, but Mowlem Piling maintained a very low profile until last year. In the meantime the company had recruited MacDonald, whose pedigree included 24 years with (Kvaerner) Cementation and six years as piling director at Roger Bullivant.

Initially, MacDonald suggests, the market assumed Mowlem Piling would be 'a bunch of guys working for a main contractor and banging in sheet piles'. He claims this is far from the case.

'We have the capability of becoming a major player in the piling industry, ' he says.

'We operate with the same material and same wage costs, but we have an advantage that we are starting with a clean sheet.'

MacDonald believes it is critical that Mowlem Piling does not develop into 'another monster' and has been selective in its rig purchases to date.

'We will develop at scale consistent with how we believe the industry should exist - which is not as it is at present, 'he says.

Nevertheless, last year the company invested in three new rigs, most recently an Italian-built Mait 190. This produces 22tm torque and can drill up to 2.5m diameter piles to depths of 60m, giving capability at the very heavy end of the market, The Mait is the first of its type in the UK, which prompted Mowlem to investigate the spares and support process very carefully. This appears to have been an academic process since, says MacDonald, the rig has proven unbelievably reliable and has not lost one hour's work in nine months, either in commissioning or in operation.

MacDonald believes that 'to be competitive a company needs superior equipment, a higher level of management and very strong design team.' The latter is available in-house through Mowlem Civil Engineering, whose design capability 'straddles geotechnical and structural solutions', giving a clear competitive edge in this age of partnering.

The advantages of this are clearly demonstrated by the company's two most prestigious projects to date, both of which were won on a design basis, claims MacDonald.

East London's ExCel international exhibition centre at Royal Victoria Dock and piling for a new bridge across the adjacent Royal Albert Dock both featured complicated large diameter marine piling carried out from barges and pontoons in conjunction with other Mowlem companies such as Mowlem Civil Engineering and Mowlem Marine.

MacDonald maintains Mowlem Piling's success will come down to developing choice skills that others may not have the technical competence to undertake.

'We can do continuous flight auger work, but are selective in our projects because that market is simply too competitive, 'he says.

'Instead we anticipate getting involved in very difficult work in which design input is key.

We believe that well-managed companies with technical capability will succeed in this market.'

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