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Rising from the ranks


Bachy Soletanche has a new managing director, portraying a very different leadership style to his predecessor. David Hayward reports.

Martin Pratt, the new man at the helm of Bachy Soletanche, has never formally applied for a job in his life. His business card now says managing director, but Pratt has been with the contractor - and its predecessor companies - man and boy.

'My only other real job before joining the group from university 22 years ago was as assistant groundsman at a golf club, ' says the 43 year old, reluctant to reveal which of these two jobs he would prefer.

Today he plays golf - and drives a much-loved Caterham R500 around Goodwood race track - to help relieve the inevitable stress of his day job.

For this he sees his main priorities as not only keeping the company among the top trio of geotechnical contractors but also growing it organically, and through technical innovation, within 'a tough, competitive and restricted market'.

'Evolution rather than revolution is the way forward, ' he declares, sitting back in the office chair recently vacated by one of his industry's most respected elder statesmen, David Sherwood.

Not that his predecessor is closing the office door behind him, for Sherwood stays on as chairman and will still be around to oversee Bachy Soletanche's two major Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) joint venture contracts that he has steered from conception.

Unassuming, somewhat laid back yet very determined, Pratt appears a very different type of leader to the ebullient Sherwood.

But behind the approachable smile is a highly competitive businessman who, during 15 years at the group's Hong Kong office, helped boost the region's annual turnover to an impressive peak of £170M - a workload needing 1,200 employees.

When Pratt took over last spring the UK firm averaged about half that figure, though he expects 2003 to outturn at around £100M. 'But this is an unrepresentative blip as our CTRL and Heathrow Terminal 5 contracts all reach a peak together, ' he explains. 'During 2004 we should turnover around £80M.'

Pre-tax profit, rather than turnover, is the figure forming the critical path of Pratt's rolling five year plan. 'Our key target is an ongoing increase in profitability, ' he states. 'And we can achieve it not by radical changes but by doing what we do now, only better.'

Added value, flexibility and innovation are his targets. 'Every time I review a new set of tender drawings I am automatically looking for 10% value engineering savings, even if not specifically asked to, ' he says. 'But we would prefer to be asked, and the earlier we get involved in a project the more we can offer.'

Pratt is happy for the company to accept a straightforward subcontractor role, building what is specified; 'if that is what the client really wants'. But he claims this is often a waste of the team's design and innovation skills.

'The bottom line is that neither the client nor main contractor could build their project without the skills of specialist companies, so why not use our expertise from the start to identify and solve the challenges that we know most about?'

With up to 30% of a typical contract's risk occurring below ground, bringing in geotechnical experts, either as formal joint venture partners, or to work with a main contractor pre-tender stage, makes sense, Pratt argues.

Two thirds of Bachy Soletanche's turnover lies - and is expected to remain - in heavy civils foundations, with joint venture partnerships the flagship route. Success with several Jubilee Line Extension joint ventures helped lead to similar prominence with CTRL work where the company is involved in fully integrated joint ventures totalling £550M.

It is a solid relationship with main contractor, consulting engineer or client, regardless of the type of arrangement for a particular project, that really matters, Pratt maintains. The company is working with selected contractors and engineers at pre-tender stage reanalysing the scope of work it takes on as a specialist partner or subcontractor.

He claims it can sometimes prove cost effective for Bachy Soletanche to take charge of - and carry the risk for - all foundations and related below ground work, including earthworks and concreting, handing over to the main contractor at ground level.

This, says Pratt, smoothes interfaces and keeps the risks with the company best suited to manage them.

Such pre-tender value engineering produces obvious savings for both the contractor to win the work, and for the client.

'If we can propose a cost effective scheme, and include the risks associated with the ground work, then everyone wins, ' he claims.

'Our strength in being genuinely independent, rather than owned by a major contracting group, allows us to work freely with any contractor.'

Although Bachy Soletanche operates in the UK as an autonomous company, it points out that parent group, Paris-based Soletanche Bachy, is but a few hours away. This back up, available from the world's largest foundations group, is not lost in Pratt's sales pitch. 'Given just 24 hours notice, we can have any specialist engineer or piece of plant on the doorstep of any UK contract.'

To reinforce the company's local image, it has just opened regional offices in Glasgow and Birmingham. And, in a renewed attack on the medium sized civils market, it intends to promote another company strength.

Nearly half of Bachy Soletanche's 400 permanent employees are engineers or technicians, with around 10% concentrating primarily on design. This expertise, claims Pratt, can offer the company's most successful value engineering tools - experience and innovation.

Automated compensation grouting; a major stake in a leading vibroflotation company; and expansion of its already successful Screwsol piling technique, offering greater pile surface area for less concrete, head up the company's list of cost effective innovation.

'And we are developing an even more exciting new shape of large diameter pile, that will provide significant savings of concrete versus strength, ' he says, refusing to reveal more.

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