Sir Robert McAlpine Limited is a private British company headquartered in Hertfordshire. It carries out engineering and construction for the oil and gas, petrochemical, power generation, nuclear, pharmaceutical, defence, chemical, water and mining industries.
Robert McAlpine, who founded the eponymous company, was born in 1847 in the Scottish village of Newarthill near Motherwell. From the age of seven he worked in the nearby coal mines, leaving at 16 to become an apprentice bricklayer. Later, working for an engineer, he progressed to being foreman before starting to work on his own account at the age of 22 (1869). He had no capital other than that he could earn himself and his first contract involving the employment of other men had to be financed by borrowing £11 from the butcher. From there, McAlpine enjoyed rapid success; the early contracts centred on his own trade of bricklaying and by 1874 he was the owner of two brickyards and an employer of 1,000 men. (It was on one of the housing estates he built that he first experimented with using concrete blocks as well as bricks (from which he earned the nickname ‘Concrete Bob’).
With the capital he had acquired, McAlpine determined to build a garden city at Hamilton, South Lanarkshire. Relying now on the income from his estate, McAlpine’s attention moved away from his contracting business towards self-education. However, the financial panic following the collapse of the City of Glasgow Bank in 1878 virtually wiped out McAlpine financially: his mortgages were called in but his debtors did not pay him.
The liabilities from the Hamilton estate were threatening the construction business and to protect it, Robert took his clerk into partnership, trading under the name McAlpine & Co; the clerk was bought out not long after. McAlpine’s first large contract was a building for the Singer Manufacturing Company in 1883 and the profit from that enabled him to pay off his remaining debts. Almost immediately he faced further financial difficulties. Winning a contract for the Lanarkshire and Ayrshire Railway without the necessary technical knowledge, the subsequent rebuilding work and litigation meant another fresh start.
In 1887, Robert took his two eldest sons, Robert junior and William, out of school to help him, with Malcolm and Alfred following soon after, and they did much to rationalise the firm’s administration and finances. Undaunted by his earlier experience, McAlpine took on further railway contracts, this time successfully, including the Mallaig Extension Railway and the Glasgow Subway. There was an increasingly wide range of building and civil engineering contracts but the firm was almost brought to its knees again with the construction of the Methil Docks between 1909 and 1913. It was argued that this led to a much more cautious approach to risk on the part of the sons – if not the father.
The inter-war period saw the firm focusing solely on construction. Gray wrote that Sir Robert McAlpine “seemed to have been involved in every major building and civil engineering project that ever hit the headlines of the day.” They included docks, harbours, power stations, factories; the Wembley Stadium and the Dorchester Hotel were notable examples. In the case of the Dorchester, when the client was unable to pay for the construction works, the company took possession of the completed building and operated it on its own account.
In November 1934, Sir Robert died aged 87. Two weeks later his eldest son, the new Sir Robert, also died. William was appointed Chairman while Alfred remained in charge of the operation in the north-west subsidiary, where he had been since 1918. The two London partners argued that the recession was impacting more on the north than the south and proposed closing Alfred’s company. Alfred, however, did not wish to return to London and, on an informal basis at first, the two businesses were run separately. The separation was formalised in 1940 and the northern business was renamed Sir Alfred McAlpine. During the Second World War Sir Robert McAlpine was one of the contractors engaged in building the Mulberry harbour units.
The two McAlpine firms had non-compete arrangements and sites had a common “McAlpine” board irrespective of which firm it was. When both companies first went public, they did so under the names Newarthill for Robert and Marchwiel for Alfred. These arrangements continued until 1983. In 2003, Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd sued Alfred McAlpine plc over the use of the family name and won. The dispute centred on Alfred McAlpine’s intention to trade under the name “McAlpine”. There was previously a long-standing agreement within the McAlpine family not to make such a change but, following the death of Alfred McAlpine and his son, the board of Alfred McAlpine sought to make the change in any event. The effect of the judgment was to prevent Alfred McAlpine trading under the name “McAlpine”. In 2008, Alfred McAlpine plc was acquired by Carillion and dismantled, thus making the “name war” irrelevant.
In November 2017, the company announced 90 job losses in a cost-cutting drive following a loss-making energy from waste project. Six regional centres were to be cut to four. The company than announced a new board and leadership structure, with no McAlpine family members included in the leadership team.
From the 1930s onwards, the company employed large numbers of Irish who had come to England looking for work. The harsh working conditions with which McAlpine’s management treated their labourers has gone down in Irish emigrant folklore. The song “McAlpine’s Fusiliers” (written by Dominic Behan and made famous by “The Dubliners”) described the realities of life on the building site for many Irish expatriates.
The company is organised on a regional basis; following restructuring in late 2017, four regional centres were created: Scotland-Northern, Central-Wales-West, Southern and London.
Projects undertaken by the company have included:
Sir Robert McAlpine is also involved in HS2 lot C1, working as part of joint venture, with main construction work to start in 2018/9.
Sir Robert McAlpine funded the initial establishment of the Consulting Association in 1993, providing £20,000, around half of which was used to buy a blacklist database from the Economic League and hire one of its former employees, Ian Kerr, as manager. Company director Cullum McAlpine served as chairman of the Consulting Association for some years before it became publicly implicated in a construction industry blacklisting scandal in 2009 and was wound up. Subsequently, Sir Robert McAlpine was one of eight businesses involved in the 2014 launch of the Construction Workers Compensation Scheme, though this was condemned as a “PR stunt” by the GMB union, and described by the Scottish Affairs Select Committee as “an act of bad faith”.
On 11 May 2016, major companies, including Sir Robert McAlpine, issued an “unreserved and sincere” apology in the high court to hundreds of workers for putting them on the illegal blacklist and denying them work over two decades. The companies agreed to pay sums ranging from £25,000 to £200,000 to 771 people under out-of-court settlements to avoid a trial, while accepting that “their secret vetting operation should never have happened”. However, evidence disclosed before the settlement led many of the victims to claim that there was an illegal attempt by McAlpine executives to destroy evidence and cover up the involvement of key individuals when the blacklisting was discovered in 2009. The targets of the victims’ intended criminal complaint included director Cullum McAlpine, and head of human resources, David Cochrane, who was a later chairman of the Association. Both denied involvement in destroying any relevant files and attempting to pervert the course of justice.
In September 2017, McAlpine chief executive Paul Hamer tried to disassociate the company from continuing allegations of blacklisting in the construction industry, saying “Sir Robert McAlpine complies fully with all legislation to prevent blacklisting and is committed to fair and transparent recruitment. … We have a zero tolerance policy towards blacklisting, illegal or unfair recruitment practices.” The company defended itself again in December 2017 when Unite announced it had issued High Court proceedings against four former chairmen of the Consulting Association, including Cullum McAlpine and David Cochrane, and against 12 major contractors including Sir Robert McAlpine.