Prime contractors 'simply middlemen', says academic

18 October 2000
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19 October 2000 | Cathy Hayward

Prime contractors are becoming superfluous to the contracting process, according to an industry expert.

They were simply middlemen, creating an unnecessary barrier between the client and the specialist contractor, said Roy Morledge, director of graduate studies at the faculty of construction and the environment at Nottingham Trent University.

Specialist contractors, which account for almost 80 per cent of all contractors, own the skills base, while prime contractors are now predominantly managers, he told delegates at London's "Rethinking procurement in construction" conference, organised by the government-backed Building Services Best Practice programme.

"Specialist contractors need to seize the initiative and provide the complete solution to clients. The management function could be provided through project managers," Morledge said.

Clients dealing directly with specialist contractors would also shorten the supply chain in an industry that has fragmented, temporary and complex supply chains, he added.

Alan Crane, chairman of the Movement for Innovation and a former chairman of the Construction Confederation, agreed that the role of the main contractor was past its sell-by date.

Crane called on clients to change their procurement strategy. "Rethinking construction procurement means rethinking construction itself. Clients need to become more involved and not leave everything up to the contractor," he said.

But other experts have hit back, claiming that more than two-thirds of construction customers are small and occasional clients (Socs) that need a main contractor to act as a expert manager. "Most Socs want a one-stop shop with a fully integrated team," said Dan Dolliton, procurement manager at Laing. "They need a primary contractor who is an expert in the field, not just a project manager."

Ted Pearson, commercial director for the Ministry of Defence's property management arm, Defence Estates, is overhauling the organisation's procurement processes. He said: "Without prime contractors, a firm would need to hire a project manager who may not be as expert."


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