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Construction Leader: Alan Smith highlights SPI McGrattan’s varied projects in Scotland



For June’s Construction Leaders feature, Allan Smith tells Colin Cardwell how SPI McGrattan navigated a number of challenges to carry out different types of contracts in Scotland.

There must be something eminently satisfying about being integral to the completion of the last in the trilogy of massive bridges that span the Forth.

From the original Forth Bridge completed in 1890, through to the road bridge of 1964 and most recently the Queensferry Crossing, the longest three-tower, cable-stayed bridge in the world which opened in 2017, all three represent a collective triumph of expertise that compass three centuries and are a vital part of Scotland’s infrastructure.

Alan Smith, managing director of SPI Piling Ltd which is based in Bolton, Lancashire recalls the Crossing as a highlight of his more than 25 years in the industry – and as a new yardstick in the progression of the company in Scotland where SPI McGrattan is its trading name.

“We were involved with the Jacobs Arup Joint Venture (JV) consortium that provided temporary works for the southern cofferdams in the Forth and for the main bridge consortium that delivered the main works providing Tower Crane Platforms, and in river cofferdams, creating a dry working environment and enabling the main construction works.

It was, he adds, “very challenging through all weathers” – as is much of the work undertaken by SPI Piling which was established 25 years ago and has built up a portfolio of successful projects and is now one of the largest steel piling contractors in the UK.

Construction Leader: Alan Smith highlights SPI McGrattan's varied projects in Scotland

Its dedicated Scottish team of four is in Bellshill, North Lanarkshire, supported by a network of 48 others around the business, with local design and contract management facilities headed by Richard Pattison who is general manager for Scotland.

“Anything we design and manage for Scotland is done from there, plus most of the tendering is done by Richard and our estimating department,” says Mr Smith whose background is as a main contractor, civil engineer Tier One and who spent most of his early career working for Birse Group, then Balfour Beatty before joining SPI in 2010.

The profile of the company’s work in Scotland is broadly similar to that in the rest of the UK, he explains. “In many ways, that’s because we’re engaged in such a specialist area within the industry.”

It is indeed a field that involves a high degree of special know-how, dealing across a spectrum of Vibratory Leader Rigs, Hydraulic Pile Presses, Sidegrip “Grizzly” and “Movax” hammers.

Contracts are varied – ranging from those worth £15,000 to a recent multi-million-pound redevelopment with RJ McLeod – and involve targeting work with SMEs on smaller schemes to Tier One contractors on major projects though there are singular opportunities in Scotland, especially in the net zero and sustainability arena.

“We know that we’re in good standing in Scotland here because the bulk of our largest gains in Scotland have been on the ports and harbours networks, working from Scrabster in the north down both coastlines.

“For example, there was the Seagreen Landfall at Carnoustie which was completed in 2022, a joint venture partnership between TotalEnergies and SSE Renewables – Scotland’s largest offshore wind farm – and at other windfarms.”

Additional significant projects, continues Mr Smith, have included the Uig Harbour Redevelopment on Skye to install a new main berth to widen the existing berth by 15 metres, and the flood protection works carried out in Hawick.

Construction Leader: Alan Smith highlights SPI McGrattan's varied projects in Scotland

Also on Skye, the company was involved with the new development at Kyleakin Feed Mill which produces feed for harvest Marine Scotland’s (now Mowi) freshwater, seawater and organic fish farms.

While at Scotrail’s Robroyston station in Glasgow, the company supplied and installed the foundation tubes acting as bearing piles for the new platform at the station and for new OLE (overhead line equipment) installations.

“Overall, these are complex projects in terms of planning and logistics, combining the broader experiences of the team at SPI Piling Ltd with the support of our established supply chain partners,” says Mr Smith.

The use of steel is intrinsic to the company’s operations on-site and recent events have proved particularly challenging, particularly during the Covid pandemic.

“This was a very difficult time to navigate because live projects were coming back online but with control measures. As a UK contractor we had people working away from home and even finding them accommodation was an issue, but we managed it.

“The demand was still there but in terms of obtaining steel, the factories were closed so when stock began to run low it became a problem but we navigated our way through after the first four or five weeks.”

Then, of course, came another obstacle: the conflict in Ukraine, which saw steel prices in Europe soar. “Nobody in the UK produces sheet piles; these are all imports from Europe and beyond and in those global markets prices went through the roof.

“Meanwhile, however, we’ve been living in an inflated economy, trying to avoid recession, with lots of political things going on all around Europe, which affect our markets. And that has unnerved investors, the people who put their money into these larger schemes, including government funding.”

Construction Leader: Alan Smith highlights SPI McGrattan's varied projects in Scotland

There are two sides to the steel coin, however, and a distinctly positive aspect is its contribution to sustainability within the construction industry. As in other areas, Mr Smith takes a proactive and pragmatic view.

“In terms of purchasing materials, we ask our supply chains for conformity to environmental product certification and we use a small number of key suppliers that are able to prove and guarantee the source of that material.”

Technological advances have similarly taken cognisance of the drive to net zero with all SPI’s equipment attaining Stage V emissions standards for non-road machinery. “The environmental impact of that type of machinery is significantly lower than it was even a decade ago,” he says.

“We’ve just purchased our fourth ABI Mobilram leader rig and we bought that because it’s fitted with efficiency drive technology which allows it to control oil flows while lowering the RPM to increase pressures so while consuming less diesel it also lowers the noise levels of the machinery, which is a win-win.”

Asked about how he unwinds from a highly specialised and responsible job, his answer is similarly down-to-earth.

“When I’m at home with my wife and two children – one 19, the other eight – I turn off, it’s as simple as that – though we do like to get out and about for a walk as we live near the Lake District.”

And though cautious about looking too far into the future he’s upbeat about new landfall projects, pipelines and cables coming in from offshore wind farms, energy platforms and cross-continental sharing of resources, as well as the increased infrastructure works being spoken about by the government.

He says: “There’s also a big uptake on energy along with waste recycling and government schemes seem to be well on course now. But mostly what we are seeing are projects attached to the potential growth in ports and harbours, which is a massive industry in Scotland.”

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