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Mon October 26 2020

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Tough times ahead for fit-out firms

17 Sep Contractors specialising in interiors and fit-out have seen workloads falter and profits slide. And now they’re facing the fall-out from Covid-19. David Taylor reports

This time last year we reported that, despite signs of improvement in the commercial building sector, contractors specialising interiors and fit-out work were failing to capitalise on the upswing.

This year it appears that any improvement in the commercial building market has still to filter through to the fit-out sector. Although our selection of the 20 leading fit-out contractors have together recorded a 3.9% increase in turnover (to £3.6bn, up from £3.4bn last year) this compares poorly with last year’s 21% growth in revenues.

Furthermore, profitability has suffered. Pre-tax profits are down 14.3%, from £126.3m to £108.2m, and the average pre-tax profit margin has contracted from 3.7% to just 3%.

But these are not the same 20 companies that we surveyed this time last year because three of last year’s top 20 have since ceased trading. 

This article was first published in the Jul/Aug 202 issue of the The Construction Index magazine. Sign up online. 

The most significant casualty was Manchester-based Styles & Wood – number three on our list of the top 20 specialists last year – which collapsed in February 2020 along with its parent company, Extentia, with debts of more than £100m.

Extentia (previously called Central Square) had bought the already loss-making Styles & Wood for £50.4m in December 2017. And despite shareholders pumping more than £30m into the business last year in a bid to keep it afloat, huge losses on a number of major projects finally brought it down. 

The biggest loss was a £12m hit on the India Buildings fit-out contract in Liverpool. Styles & Wood was refurbishing the Grade II-listed building in the city centre as a new tax office for HMRC when the client terminated its contract and gave the job to Caddick Construction. 

Styles & Wood also lost over £7m on a major office refurbishment contract in Manchester city centre.

The other two major fit-out companies to go under last year were S&T (UK), a London-based specialist in hotel fit-out, and Paragon Interiors, part of the Paragon Leisure Group which was founded by former Notts County FC owner Alan Hardy.

S&T (UK), which was placed seventh on last year’s table of top 20 fit-out specialists with a turnover of £114m, collapsed following a lengthy legal battle and a barrage of winding-up petitions. 

It was set up in 2011 as the UK arm of the Omani-owned Services & Trade Company and focused on high-value prestige fit-out jobs for the likes of Langhams, the Intercontinental in Greenwich and the Hotel Russell in Bloomsbury.

Two years ago, the company became embroiled in a legal battle, which it ultimately lost, over a disputed £14m pay claim against client Grove Developments on the new Premier Inn hotel at Heathrow Airport. 

Soon after the conclusion of this court case a queue of creditors formed, eager to serve winding-up notices on the company. In March this year, S&T (UK) went into administration.

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In February, administrators were called in at Paragon Interiors after an audit raised concerns over the company’s financial stability.

The administrators’ report to creditors revealed that the company’s profits fell from £2.6m in the year ending March 2015 to a loss of £800,000 for the year ended in June 2019. Latest management accounts for the period ending January 31st 2019 show a loss of £2m.

Thankfully, although the overall picture of the fit-out sector looks pretty ropey, not everybody is going out of business or even trading at a loss. In fact, only three of the top 20 recorded a pre-tax loss in their latest financial results.

ISG and Overbury – the two biggest players in the sector, both made healthy pre-tax profits in the year to December 2019 – even if they both also saw a decline in their turnover figures.

ISG, the undisputed leader in the fit-out sector, recorded a profit before tax of £23.1m on a turnover of £1,223.2m. While retaining a strong position in the UK market, ISG has its sights on becoming a “truly global contractor and [has] diversified into sectors targeted by the business for their potential growth and ISG’s enhanced market presence”.

ISG established a new management team in its German office last year to “respond to opportunities across continental Europe”. The company also appointed a new MD for its Malaysia office to strengthen its capability in south-east Asia. The Hong Kong office generated a revenue of £71m last year – delivering more than half of ISG’s profits for the Asia region.

During the year, ISG’s major projects division delivered work valued at £444m “largely in the form of game-changing projects for some of the world’s most recognisable banking, legal and technology customers,” boasts the company. This included a 24,000m2 office fit-out, which it has just completed, for law firm Freshfields at its 100 Bishopsgate headquarters in the City of London. In retail, ISG turned over £281m and achieved a 7.5% gross margin. Roughly a third of this business was in the financial services sector.

Overbury, a subsidiary of Morgan Sindall, is once again the biggest profit-maker on the table, recording pre-tax profits of £30.5m on turnover of £721.1m during 2019. The company’s fortunes peaked in 2018, when turnover approached the £750m mark and profits rose to almost £40m. A profit margin of 5.2% has since slipped to 4.2% – still not bad for a sector where pre-tax profit margins average just 3%.

Overbury is the quintessential office fit-out specialist, with 82% of revenue derived from the commercial office market and 75% of its workload by value coming from the London area.

By the year-end, Overbury had secured an order book worth £468m (a 7% increase on the previous year) of which £407m was for delivery in 2020. In its financial report, published in June, the company speaks of “some disruption to the normal operations of the business” as a consequence of the Covid-19 outbreak, adding that, “whilst this did not affect the financial performance for the year ended 31st December 2019, the extent of the overall disruption will inevitably have an impact on the business and its financial performance in the future.”

That is only to be expected. Overbury is one of the larger and more robust contractors in the fit-out sector and although it’s bracing itself for a financial set-back as a result of Covid-19, it has “stress-tested” the business and is confident that it will suffer only temporary disruption.

Others are more vulnerable. With revenue growth slowing to a crawl and profit margins dwindling, many companies in the fit-out sector don’t have the strength or resources to weather a severe financial storm. Several acknowledge, in their financial reports, the inevitable impact of Covid-19, but of course none is able to quantify it. 

Everybody will hope that the economic fall-out from the pandemic will be, to quote Overbury, “a temporary disruption and will ultimately pass”. But for some, it’s likely to be a lot more serious. 

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