Buying power and the rhetoric of seduction
What cannot be denied is that the cause of partnering was championed by a number of powerful clients who had become dissatisfied with the supposed under-performance of the construction industry. The large UK supermarkets have consistently numbered amongst the most enthusiastic advocates of partnering. As regular clients of construction, they understandably wish to extend the control that they exert over the grocery supply-chain to the construction sector. It is no coincidence that Bennett and Jayes (1998) include the exemplar case studies of Sainsbury’s and Asda. The Egan Report (1998) also cites the case of Tesco, who have apparently:
‘… reduced the capital cost of their stores by 40% since 1991 and by 20% in the last two years, through partnering with a smaller supply base with whom they have established long term relationships. Tesco is now aiming for a further 20% reduction in costs in the next two years and a further reduction in project time.’
If true, the benefits achieved by Tesco though partnering are indeed sig-nificant, although the Egan Report neglects to say anything about the corresponding increase in profitability achieved by Tesco’s partners. Other large clients who were strong advocates of partnering include BAA and Whitbread, both of whom were represented on Egan’s Construction Task Force. Other notable UK clients who claimed to be committed to partnering included (the now defunct) Rover Cars and John Lewis Partnership.
Given the collective buying power of the aforementioned clients, it is unsurprising that many leading contractors also quickly claimed to be committed similarly to partnering. To do otherwise would have been to risk attracting the label of ‘adversarial’, thereby denying themselves access to a significant part of the UK market. This exercise of buying power is made especially clear by the Construction Clients’ Forum (1998), who at the time collectively accounted for some 80% of the construction market. The CCF document committed its members to promoting relationships based on teamwork and trust, and to working jointly with their partners to reduce costs. They also promised not to exploit their buying power unfairly, but also to look to form lasting relationships with the supply side. The overall tone is one of barely-disguised seduction. However, they then issued an unveiled threat to those dissenters who remained unconvinced:
‘The message from the Construction Client’s Forum is clear. If this Pact is concluded, clients represented on the CCF will seek to place their £40bn of business with companies that are seen to follow the approach described in this document, and will seek such commitment prior to tendering, commensurate with relevant national, European and international regulations.
The message was indeed clear. The CCF was saying to the construction industry that in order to qualify for £40 billion worth of work their ideas on teamwork and trust must be accepted. An adherence to the language of partnering was seemingly an essential pre-requisite of doing business. This was made equally clear by the Construction Industry Board (1997), albeit on the level of individuals:
‘If it becomes clear that anyone at the workshop is unable to adopt the spirit of partnering, that person should be replaced in the team.’
It would therefore seem that lurking behind the rhetoric of seduction was an ‘iron fist’. The same implied threat lay behind the Egan report (1998). Little wonder that dissenters to partnering were so few and far between.