Forming alliances

How can you guarantee projects on time, within budget and to a high quality? By partnering and prefabrication says Charles Lever, regional manager for MEP contractor Rotary-Humm (M&E) Services UAE. Alison Luke reports.


Partnering is the way forward for the Middle East's construction industry says Charles Lever. Quality will improve, costs will fall and build times will be guaranteed he states. And this isn't just wild conjecture - Lever knows from experience that enormous benefits can be gained from project teams working together from the earliest possible opportunity. Having mastered the process in the UK, he is now aiming to put the theories into practice in the Middle East through his role as regional manager for MEP contractor Rotary-Humm (M&E) Services.

In the UK construction industry Lever is well known and respected for his commitment to developing workable partnering processes. As director of building services at contractor Taylor Woodrow Construction he was the central figure in the formation of the firm's Building Services Strategic Alliance Partnering (SAP) initiative, turning the concept into a major business engaged in projects worth over US $3 billion (AED11 billion). Lever has won several awards for his work in this field; Taylor Woodrow in turn has saved millions of dollars on the implementation of its projects.

Strategic partnering means that you can take all the learning from a project to the next one.

Partnering focuses on reducing the risk in the construction process by getting the various firms involved - from manufacturers to main contractor - to work in true collaboration. The aim is to develop projects as a combined effort rather than each firm concentrating on their individual aspect. Taking this one step further, the Taylor Woodrow SAP looked at partnering on a long-term basis. "Strategic partnering means that you can take all the learning from each project, or each element of a project, to the next one," explains Lever, "You get people working together and constantly improving instead of starting to reinvent the wheel on every single project.

"The difference that partnering makes to a project is incredible, because by doing this you know you're going to have a successful job," states Lever. "In the past ten years I've been involved with many partnering projects and it's made a huge difference in terms of surety of delivery."

Lever joined Rotary-Humm on 1 December 2006. Based in the firm's Jumeirah Lake Towers office, he is responsible for the management, development and operation of the business and plans to fully utilise partnering techniques here.

Part of Rotary International, the firm has operated in the region for around eight years and carried out a number of projects in the UAE. It is now looking at opportunities in Qatar and the South Pacific. Currently the firm's largest project is a joint venture with BK Gulf for MEP installation on Atlantis, The Palm hotel and water park on Palm Jumeirah, Dubai.

This is Lever's second stint working in the Middle East and is a role that he actively sought. A chartered engineer, he began his professional career by serving an apprenticeship with the North Western Electricity Board in Bolton, Lancashire. He then worked with the UK's Home Office before moving to the Middle East in the late 1980s to take up a post with Saudi Arabian Airlines.

Lever stayed in the region for five years before returning to the UK to run a branch of MEP contractor Andrews Weatherfoil and finally joining Taylor Woodrow. While at the latter two firms he was involved with several overseas projects, which saw him working in South Africa, Jakarta, Spain and Moscow. "I prefer to work abroad," he explains. "My years in the UK were really centred around my children's schooling, so as soon as I got the opportunity when the children had finished school, I looked to move abroad again."

His choice of Rotary and Dubai were not by chance; Lever had worked on projects alongside both the UK and International divisions of Rotary. "It was one of our strategic partners when I was the MEP director at Taylor Woodrow," he explains. He cites a Mormon temple in Ghana as a project that particularly impressed him under this partnership; this was singled out for a Quality in Construction Award in 2005.

"Rotary did all the MEP works there and in a Third World country, to produce quality of that nature was very impressive," stresses Lever. "I got to know Rotary very well, so when I decided to move on from Taylor Woodrow and was offered an opportunity to come and work with the firm in Dubai I was quite comfortable doing that." The opportunity to develop partnering techniques in the burgeoning Middle East market also held a strong appeal. "Because [Rotary] is an independent company, I knew that we could implement some of the learning from the UK in developing supply chain and project monitoring part of our development in Dubai," he explains.

A major part of Lever's role with Rotary-Humm is client liaison. "It's a bit of a cliché but we are a very client-focussed business," he states. "We're not going out to the market to do lots of different tenders for lots of different people, we're focussing on a very small number of clients who we believe are looking for firms that can deliver their building services with more surety in terms of cost, programme and quality."

The key to effectively delivering these outcomes lies in the co-operation of every single firm involved in a project. Part of Lever's plans for the firm is to develop a supply chain with which Rotary-Humm will have preagreed terms and conditions with the firms. "The supply chain is one of the biggest influences on a project," stresses Lever. "We are looking to develop more open partnering relationships with key suppliers to improve certainty of delivery of their services."

At Taylor Woodrow the partnering process began with the firm as main contractor forming an alliance with three MEP contractors: NG Bailey, Staveley and Rotary. These became the top-tier partners and adopted an open-book approach to contracts to create an atmosphere of trust and enable a fully integrated management structure to be formed. Further tiers were created involving specialist subcontractors then suppliers and product manufacturers. Here suppliers will be the primary targets for initial agreements. "Currently we are looking at [partnering with] our suppliers because that's who we have control of and that's who we can build relationships up with no restraints," reasons Lever.

"We're already starting to identify suitable strategic supply partners who we'll work alongside. The way we will work is on a business-to-business relationship, not a project-by-project basis. That gives us the opportunity for long-term improvement, where we can set targets and monitor our progress," he explains. The firm is already in serious negotiations with some suppliers and the concept is being well received Lever reports.

Partnerships may be set up with two or more suppliers that offer the same type of product, such as pumps or lamps, but on a project basis only one will be employed at a time. "We wouldn't have two suppliers duplicating efforts and work on a project," stresses Lever. "There is quite a [thorough] process that we go through in selecting the supply chain in the first place, but once it's in place we're confident that we can utilise that supply chain and select the most appropriate firm for a particular project and work with them on a one-to-one basis," explains Lever. "If we can get commercial agreements in place that we know are competitive and can go across a range of projects, we can start to appoint the suppliers at a very early stage and get them to help us develop design solutions. It's more cost-effective and suppliers will also have more time to manufacture and deliver the components," he adds.

Some of the firm's included in Rotary's UK supply chain also operate in Dubai, which is easing the initial stages reports Lever. "They completely understand what it is we're doing and the benefits of it. Other suppliers are also starting to be aware of the commitments that we're asking of them in terms of looking at designs, logistics and not just the bottom-line prices," he explains. "Whilst we have to be competitive, what we are absolutely focussed on doing is taking out the waste and a lot of wasted time and effort is in continuously retendering when we should be looking at improving the project design," he stresses.

The scheme will be expanded over time to include further levels of the construction teams and the firm is talking with some of the region's main contractors about potential framework solutions.

But with strong competition for work in the Middle East, is the market ready for such methods of working? "One of the biggest challenges here in Dubai is the risk in getting the right quality products at the right price and the right time to your workface...because there's so much work going on there are limited supplies. It's going to be a critical success factor for the industry here to start working more efficiently...the best solution is to engage with a fully committed supply chain," states Lever. "To be able to deliver these major projects within the timescales, cost constraints and quality requirements in the future, firms will need to be working very closely with their supply chain from the earliest possible moment," he stresses. "That means doing a lot of work in building frameworks so that you can hit the ground running when you've identified a project with a client that you are going to take forward."

Another key process that Lever has in his sights is the development of Rotary's offsite prefabrication capabilities. The firm is already doing this on Atlantis, The Palm, where it has set up a facility adjacent to the site to reduce transportation, protection and packaging costs. "The truth is this market and the designs used here are really tailored for offsite fabrication," states Lever. "Not only does it mean that you can better control some of the quality and labour issues, but it actually means that you can maintain the programmes, which you couldn't do if you were installing everything on site," he concludes.

Charles Lever: up close and personal

Where are you from?

I'm from Bolton in Lancashire (UK). That's where I started my professional career with the electricity board. I now live in The Springs, Dubai.

Who's in your family?

I moved here with my wife Fiona. She loves [Dubai] and she gets involved with the wives of the other families here, is in the [ten-pin] bowling league and thoroughly enjoys it. I don't think we'll ever get her [to move] away!

Our two sons, Richard and Philip, are in the industry: Philip is a lighting engineer and Richard is training to be a building services engineer. Our daughter Laura is at college as well, she's learning dance, so something completely different.

How do you spend your free time?

I join my wife bowling, I'm a member of the gym and I enjoy the fine restaurants in Dubai.

Where do you like to holiday?

I haven't had time to have [a holiday since arriving in Dubai], but we are planning to go to China in July. We'll be touring around and sailing up the Yangtze River; it'll be a bit of a cultural experience and we're thoroughly looking forward to it. And at some point we will be returning to the UK for a few days.

We like travelling and tend to go wherever we can; last year we went to Egypt on a Nile cruise, then to the Red Sea for a week. We also have a home in Spain, so we try to spend some time there.

What's your favourite project?

The Welsh Assembly Building (Cardiff, UK) is certainly one of the top projects I've enjoyed and the temple in Ghana was a tremendous project; that was a Rotary-Taylor Woodrow partnering project. But I have to say that Atlantis, The Palm (Dubai) is going to beat them all - it's a tremendous project.

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