Supplier failure and collapse on a massive scale – it’ll never happen to you, right? How do you really think you’re doing to help protect your organisation from the fallout?
London, July 2017. Despite an “encouraging start to the year”, the warnings are coming thick and fast on Carillion. By November 2017, the company has issued its third profit warning in five months and things are looking bleak. And in mid-January 2018, despite the deferral of two financial covenants, the company collapses into liquidation.
In the days that follow, the investigations and enquiries begin. How did a company so integral to so many high value and high profile UK Government projects get into such trouble? Where and how did billions of pounds worth of contracts become over £1.5 billion worth of debt?
And, perhaps most importantly of all, how did numerous civil servants, Government contract specialists and expert financial consultants not see it coming?
2018 – The Year of Demises
The demise of a construction giant will go on to leave an enormous hole for the UK Government to fill in order to continue providing key services across the country such as school meals and hospital and prison cleaning, and ensuring that the 19,500 employees delivering public services are able to be paid.
The final cost to the UK taxpayer is estimated to be more than £148 million, but the knock-on effects will be felt for some time to come. Late last year it was reported that there had been a 20 per cent rise in insolvencies in the construction industry as sub-contractors and small businesses struggled following Carillion’s collapse.
But 2018 wasn’t finished there. Fast-forward a little more than ten months and the unthinkable happened again. Twice. First, one of Carillion’s key competitors, Interserve, issued a warning on the state of its finances and increasing debt predictions to between £625 million and £675 million in 2018.
Then just before Christmas, Healthcare Environmental Services (HES), a key provider in the disposal of medical and clinical waste, closed its doors with the loss of nearly 200 jobs and leaving the NHS and Local Authorities scrambling to ensure that services could be delivered by another organisation.
Where did it go wrong?
If your procurement department was anything like mine, then all three situations dominated conversations for weeks after these public announcements. Beyond the usual, “well, I’m glad that wasn’t us”, and the frantic checking to understand exposure, questions were starting to be asked.
Give a procurement professional long enough and they’ll be able to pick through the wreckage of a broken contract and understand roughly where things went wrong. And frequently, lines are drawn back to the contract or contracts put in place and the overall management of this.
But in these cases, and particularly in the case of Carillion, there was a general disbelief that something like this could have been allowed to happen. After all, how was the overall performance of the supplier missed? And just why, even though it was clear that there were serious financial difficulties, was Carillion awarded more contracts to help bolster its financial position?
Like me, maybe you thought, “I’d like to have seen the procurement process for that one.” Or maybe you wouldn’t…
And probably just as likely, even though you tell yourself that it would never happen on one of your contracts, you go back to check. You know, just to be 100 per cent sure that all your checks and balances are in place.
Checks and Balances
What has subsequently been reported is that Carillion, in conjunction with its appointed internal auditor Deloitte, had been, “”unable or unwilling” to identify failings in financial controls, or “too readily ignored them””. This is where there may be some explanation or sympathy for the procurement process.
In the public sector, as in the private sector, procurement will work in tandem with other departments in its organisation to ensure the robustness of the contract and the suitability of the supplier. As part of public tendering exercises, there are a two stages in which this can happen for Economic and Financial standing assessment.
The first comes as part of the European Single Procurement Document (ESPD). Buyers will outline the minimum financial requirements for the contract, usually linked to contract value, complexity, volume and length, as part of their Contract Notice and ESPD. This can be, for example, a positive outcome for pre-tax profits for the previous 3 years, and/or certain outcomes linked to financial accounting ratios.
Suppliers will confirm that they comply with this and at this stage may provide evidence for this. This is backed up by the second stage for financial checks, the Request for Documentation (RfD). The RfD allows for this evidence to be requested by procurement of successful suppliers as a final check before contract award. These checks then provide the comfort that the supplier has a firm financial footing to undertake the contract.
The key issue here, and in the case of Carillion, is that the assessments are only as good as the information that is filed and provided.
Procurement’s Role and Remit
As with many of the challenges in the public sector, we’re left asking the question of what is procurement’s role and remit in this situation. There needs to be an understanding that procurement can only do so much. However, what they do have the responsibility to do needs to be done correctly.
In the Carillion example, procurement may asked all the right questions, but if the evidence provided isn’t accurate, it still wouldn’t have made any difference. Procurement can put in the ground work up front, before they even get to the stage of requesting responses to ESPDs and the like.
When looking at your next contracts, make sure that you have the following:
- An accurate specification – this will fully outline the scope of requirements and the supplier’s responsibilities;
- Estimated project volumes – based on historical usage data where applicable, otherwise linked to the specification requirements;
- Market analysis – who are the suppliers that are likely to bid for this work? What is the overall market spend like with the top suppliers?; and
- Understanding of current contracts – which suppliers have won the most business from you recently? Is anyone looking like they may have capacity issues?
Working with key stakeholders across the organisation is critical. Not only will this improve the accuracy of the data that is issued with the contract, but it will also mean that there’s an overall understanding of who is actually best placed to cope with the new package of work. Particularly if one supplier seems like they are overstretching themselves.
Then it’s back to a footing of openness and honesty with suppliers so that any potential issues with financial performance are flagged up well ahead of time. Build that relationship with your suppliers and you may help to head off a situation where it’s your contract on the front page of the newspaper next time.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article and the series of articles on the challenges facing public sector procurement in 2019. Leave your comments below, or get in touch directly, I’m always happy to chat!