Carillion ex-boss Richard Howson: But for "a few challenging contracts" contractor would have survived

 
Oliver Gill
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Carillion fell into liquidation on 15 January (Source: Getty)

Carillion would have survived had it not been for a "few challenging contracts", the long-time former boss of the contractor told MPs this morning.

Richard Howson, who was Carillion's chief executive between December 2009 and July 2017, said he was "deeply saddened and sorry" for the firm's dramatic collapse.

During his last few months at the firm, Howson said he "felt like a bailiff" by trying to rake in cash for the firm to survive each month.

His comments came as rattled former Carillion executives delivered contrasting views on the firm’s failure.

Work and pensions committee chair Frank Field accused Carillion of being a “house of cards”, predicated on the continuing need to secure new contracts.

Keith Cochrane, who was parachuted in as Carillion’s chief executive last July, told a joint parliamentary inquiry he unaware at the “quantum” of contract write-downs required when a review was kicked off in last May.

The review by KPMG, partially completed in July, identified £845m of write-downs. This rose to more than £1bn once the analysis had been completed in September.

More or less aggressive?

Zafar Khan, who resigned as finance chief in the wake of the write-downs, appeared to contradict his successor Emma Mercer.

He said there were no issues with the firm’s bookkeeping and he was “not aware” of any change in accounting policy.

"There was no effort in the time that I was in the business, in any part of it, to push people to come up with a more aggressive position," he said.

But Mercer, who was called back from Carillion’s Canadian arm in September, said she found a "slightly more aggressive" approach to contracts on her return.

Read more: Mitie chief: Sector must boost reserves to absorb Carillion-style “knocks”

Field and business committee counterpart Rachel Reeves accused Khan of being “asleep at the wheel” during his eight months as Carillion’s CFO – something rejected by Khan.

Instead, Khan said: "To my mind, one of the issues that contributed was the fact our debt had grown over the past few years.

"That combined with the number of challenges we faced, in terms of four large contracts underperforming significantly, in terms of the market, and the construction market in the UK,” he said.

Khan went on to blame the Brexit and the general election for the company’s problems.

“Sorry”

Meanwhile, Cochrane admitted he was “sorry” for Carillion’s meltdown and said the board should have asked “more probing questions” in the second half of 2017.

He also appeared to contradict his lack of knowledge about the size of the contract problems. The construction veteran said Carillion had not been paid for 18 months on a Qatar contract preparing Doha for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Last October, City A.M. revealed Carillion was locked in a £200m dispute over the contract.

Read more: Insurance giant swoops in to save 4,500 Carillion jobs in Canada

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