Procurement update: Uncertain markets

With the emergent challenges of Brexit, how can the industry drive improved innovation, productivity and value for money through commercially responsible procurement? William Waller of Arcadis investigates

01 / Introduction

The construction industry is inherently tied to the UK’s economic confidence and performance. One vulnerability of the sector is its exaggerated reaction to changes in sentiment and the economic cycle. This has been highlighted in recent weeks by the release of Office for National Statistics figures showing the construction industry technically in recession, despite the wider economy still seeing growth.

The industry is successful and healthy when it has confidence in its future pipeline of work and is able to invest in its contracts, people, tools and systems. While uncertainty from the Brexit result may have robbed the industry of some security for now, it may also hold significant opportunities to improve performance.

The macroeconomic environment and resulting demand/supply balance in the construction sector are usually the predominant factors in shaping the nature of procurement activity. The industry is still recovering from the damaging impacts of lowest lump-sum procurement during the last economic cycle and the associated race to the bottom. A worsening of market conditions creates the risk of repeating past mistakes.

At the same time, the viability of many projects has been challenged by high cost levels that are often the result of layer upon layer of allowances for overhead, profit and risk within the supply chain. The shifting landscape of uncertainty and concerns of an economic wobble are now a catalyst for those in the industry to re-evaluate procurement approaches and, for some, an opportunity to “reset the dial” in relation to both the aims and outcomes of the process.

This article explores procurement in the context of a deeply uncertain market and what approaches might be considered.

02 / The need for different procurement approaches

The EU referendum was a watershed moment for the industry, drawing the cycle in play to a premature end. Key risks and issues that pre-existed will influence the post-referendum industry. They include:

03 / Considerations in the uncertain market

Think twice before reverting to traditional procurement The main intended feature of traditional procurement approaches is that the concept design process is separate from the construction process, though often further design work involving the supply chain is required. Lump sums for construction are submitted by the supply chain, giving perceived cost certainty. In uncertain times this sounds attractive. However, it relies on the design being fixed and completed to a consistent level of detail, typically not the case, and results in extended tender periods and/or variations, as well as reduced flexibility and value.

Because many options for design development have been closed off before the supply chain is engaged, there may be little opportunity for it to ”buy in” and contribute expertise and innovation. In reality, the entry price promised by a lump-sum tender process is rarely achievable because of change or risk transfer.

We know from the last downturn that the supply chain may ”buy” work with sub-economic tender prices in the hope that it can claw back losses later through subcontract procurement, contract changes or disputes. This led to a ”race to the bottom”, resulting in lower quality work, an absence of innovation, escalating costs, distressed suppliers, disputes and outcomes that might have been better under other arrangements.

Many contractors and their suppliers have put in place better governance processes to prevent destructive bidding practices, but these have not been tested. Faced with falling workloads, contractors may still choose to ”buy” turnover rather than lose capacity. Clients’ design of their procurement events will play a significant role in determining contractor behaviour.

Don’t discount two-stage Two-stage design and build procurement has propagated widely. In most cases the approach has been successful and delivered the outcomes sought by clients. In several cases it has evolved. Key successful evolutions have included:

Focus on agility In today’s uncertain environment, maintaining flexibility and an exit strategy throughout procurement is key. This means maintaining the opportunity to react to any significant demand/supply events that emerge or keeping the door open for possible benefits from price movements. Each project or programme will have different drivers and influences such as joint venture partners or funding conditions that will inform the optimum procurement strategy.

Re-evaluate the procurement breakdown This can include separating a project into “super packages“, for example: demolition, basement box, shell and core and fit-out, and so on. Specific procurement routes can be adopted for each. The timing of the procurement can therefore be optimised to suit the market and the option of flexing the strategy maintained for longer. Inflation modelling of specific trades could accompany such an approach to inform timing of procurement. This approach can be expanded for procurement on a programme-wide, rather than project-only basis.

Proactively manage foreign exchange risk The significant depreciation of sterling and increased risk of supply chain failure urge a re-evaluation of sourcing strategy. Switching sources of supply could offer the potential of better value or greater assurance. Where you cannot source from within the UK, consider approaches to manage foreign exchange risk. These can include hedging, though the level of uncertainty is likely to increase costs. Deliberately fast-paced negotiation is another option, as is the pre-purchase or pre-allocation of currency. Another might be to adopt a floating currency approach to payment.

04 / Procurement approaches to consider


Target cost arrangements are designed to encourage collaboration, cost reduction through shared incentivisation, and increased levels of productivity improvement. They have been used widely in the infrastructure sector for many years where they have assisted in the delivery of complex projects with high levels of risk that rely on innovative solutions.

Target cost contracts are cost reimbursable and introduce the concept of pain-share and gain-share. This serves to incentivise the whole project team to work collaboratively, innovatively and productively to deliver the project in line with or below the target cost set in the contract. The most well-known target cost contract is the New Engineering Contract Third Edition (NEC3), widely used in the infrastructure sector, but the approach can also be taken under a Joint Contracts Tribunal agreement.



Tips for implementation


Clients invite the supply chain to bid on the basis of an initial brief and maximum price level. A variety of contractors will compete for the project in the first stage, with selection criteria based on their capability, capacity, track record, quality of their proposal and submitted commercial terms, including levels of overheads and profit.

Progressing to the second stage, the selected contractor develops the solution further in line with the client’s requirements and pre-agreed cost ceiling on an ”open book” basis. Construction start gets the go-ahead when the design is finalised and a lump sum or target cost agreed.



Tips for implementation


Collaborative arrangements involve a commercial union between the client and the supply chain that enables the parties to share risk and reward in the delivery of a development project or programme. This approach has been highly successful in the residential sector, for example, where the balance of contribution between the parties in respect of land, construction and finance is well understood and where the product is relatively easy to specify.

In a residential scheme, the objectives of the parties can be aligned through tying financial reward to the end performance of the entire development rather than just the construction element. Different arrangements will be needed on other schemes where there is no asset disposal or where construction delivers a relatively small share of overall asset value. Typically, an output-based performance specification forms the basis of the project, leaving the joint venture parties to develop innovative solutions and collaborate to decide how best to achieve the best outcomes in the most efficient way.



Tips for implementation


Competitive dialogue is most suited to major projects with high levels of complexity, aimed at developing alternative proposals in response to a client’s fixed set of outline requirements and usually delivering a lump sum or target cost contract.

This approach has traditionally been associated with the public, defence and infrastructure sectors, but there are examples of competitive dialogue being used in major commercial developments, too, where solution enhancements, rather than price enhancements have won the day. A client would adopt this approach where the disadvantages of reduced competitive tension are outweighed by the advantages of focused commitment, innovation and expertise in the development of a solution for a project, where it has been difficult previously to define or has required flexibility.



Tips for implementation

05 / Critical success factors of procurement approaches in uncertain times

Whether a traditional procurement approach or an alternative is adopted, there are several critical success factors that will apply:

Strong, effective leadership of the procurement process Ensuring that the procurement aligns to corporate objectives, that communication is clear and consistent, that the right environment required to drive value for money.

Understand the market and build relationships Maintaining a detailed understanding of market conditions, capacity, capability and structure will enable faster identification and resolution of supply chain disruptions.

Have an exit strategy The exit strategy should be defined early in the procurement cycle. The needs and considerations embedded therein can be incorporated into the workings of the entire procurement process. Uncertainty means there is significant potential for outlier events. The exit strategy should, therefore, consider continuity of procurement, knowledge, data, the costs incurred and the impacts on people involved should the procurement process be disrupted.

Effective engagement between client and supply chain Effective engagement consists of open, transparent and equitable two-way communication carried out efficiently but over an extended period – even before a specific opportunity. Benefits include consistency, reduced waste of effort and improved quality of outputs, and the building of trust – the key ingredient of collaborative working.

Process excellence Procurement process excellence is reached when the policies, processes and procedures that are implemented are as lean as possible for the task in hand.

Strong due diligence and assurance regime Elevated risks around financial fragility in the supply chain means tender submission quality must be comprehensively assured, with robust due diligence regimes, including the use of third-party audit where appropriate. Strong assurance can be used to offset adapted profiles of risk transfer and competitive tension under different procurement approaches.

Disciplined change management Change under non-lump sum procurements can unpick complex deals: risk transfer can be invalidated and this needs to be considered in a structured way. Change management needs proactive management to avoid disproportionate delays associated with it and resulting costs.

Sensible allocation of risk Risk is often pushed too far down the supply chain, costing money and hampering effective risk management. While the desire to transfer risk in this way is understandable, a more measured approach may drive both better management and value. Complete transparency of risk, pragmatic assessment of which parties are best placed to manage risks and, therefore, where they should sit commercially, collaborative development of mitigation plans and frequent risk review meetings as integrated teams are all activities that could help better allocate and manage risk. For example, through a shared risk register, joint risk review meetings and jointly undertaken mitigation plans.

Keep costs of tendering down The appetite of the procurement process for time and resource should be made as lean as possible. Short bid lists and simplified pre-qualification, together with provision of design information completed to a consistent level of detail are all potential steps. Procurers should consider reimbursing at least a proportion of bidding costs, which might be done for a smaller number of bidders, for example, but is likely to attract higher quality bids. Appropriate use of technology may also assist.

Use technology when appropriate Technology has the potential to impact positively upon the procurement process. Explore the potential of BIM and e-tendering.

Avoid ‘one size fits all’ approaches Flexibility will be key in the uncertain market: mix and match approaches on projects, look at pre-procured packages, main contract elements and delayed procurement of finishes.

06 / Conclusion

With a shift in the economic, political and social landscape, uncertainty has taken hold and there is the prospect of increasingly challenging business conditions. This has exposed significant risks to construction, including falling investment, fewer projects, rising input costs and low profitability.

In responding it can be tempting for the industry to return to flawed commercial practices such as single-stage lump-sum bidding.

The potential long-term impacts of the Brexit vote necessitate a change of approach, but one that is focused more on flexibility, collaboration and pragmatic allocation of risk and balanced commercial terms.

Some procurement approaches that clients might consider include the use of target cost contracts, joint venture partnership models and competitive dialogue.

Regardless of the choice, there are a range of critical success factors. Strong leadership, deep understanding of the market, maintaining an exit strategy, engaging effectively with strong processes, disciplined change management and assurance and having flexibility of approach to suit the project in question will all help ensure success.

Ultimately, for clients that are in a position to invest and progress their construction plans, there is opportunity to drive for improved value for money, innovation, increased productivity and, ultimately, better outcomes through a change in approach.

In doing so, they will be supporting the construction sector longer-term in relation to sustaining capacity and promoting an intelligent and innovative construction sector.

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