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Last Updated: Friday, 23 May, 2003, 15:08 GMT 16:08 UK
High hopes as firms fight for crumbs

By Mary Gahan
BBC News Online business reporter

Bechtel conference
An estimated 10,000 subcontractors will bid for work
"It's a lot worse than I'd anticipated - I'm not particularly hopeful of getting work."

Those were David Hucknall's thoughts at the end of a meeting to tell British and other European firms how they could get a slice of the multi-billion dollar contract to repair the war damage in Iraq.

But Mr Hucknall says his firm, Hidrostal, will still go ahead and bid for work on the country's sewerage system.

He was one of more than 1,000 people who squeezed into a hotel conference centre to hear how the prime contractor, US engineering giant Bechtel, is dividing up the contracts.

I'm sure there will be preferences given to the US companies and to those who speak the same language
John Walster, Naston chief executive

The company's acquisition manager, Tom Elkins, seemed to be doing his best to dampen people's expectations.

He reckoned 10,000 firms would be interested in $680m (416m) of work and he warned that most of the tenders would be for less than $1m.

Bechtel would be awarding the contracts, but the sub-contractors would then be entirely self-sufficient, responsible for every aspect of their work in Iraq, including security.

That was a big disappointment for Mr Hucknall: "Self-sufficiency in a hostile environment will not be easy."

US Advantage?

John Walster, chief executive of Naston, is also hoping for work in water and sewerage repairs.

But after hearing Bechtel's presentation, he is worried that the value of the contracts in this area will be low but is still going to bid.

The chances are fair for everybody but there's a lot of competition
Werner Dums, Streicher business development manager

"It's worth pursuing if the values are reasonable and there's some profit to be made from it."

Despite the assurances that US firms would have no special advantage in the bidding process, Mr Walster is not convinced.

"Americans will always favour their own: I'm sure there will be preferences given to the US companies and to those who speak the same language."

One German company still hoping to pick up work is pipeline and plant construction business Streicher.

"I think because of the speciality we have we should be able to get work," says business development manager Werner Dums.

"The chances are fair for everybody but there's a lot of competition."

Fast turnaround

A Serbian engineering company that specialises in clearing unexploded bombs and ammunition is also hopeful of winning a contract.

Nobody has an unfair advantage: they're a pretty professional outfit
Peter Wilson, Carter Horsley

As well as its ordnance expertise, the company was involved in building hospitals and airports in Iraq before the sanctions.

"We are trying because we have been there about 10 years or more working with the Iraqi systems and employers."

It was clear from the Bechtel briefing that companies already in Iraq or Kuwait would have the advantage because the work would be "ultra-fast track".

The 14 contracts handed out so far had a turnaround time of 24 hours, from now on the turnaround time will be seven days.

Niche suppliers

Muhammad Kubba, from the UK-based Iraq Reconstruction Group, wants to see skilled Iraqis rebuilding their own country.

"We're pushing for Iraqi engineers and other professionals to be employed and we want to get Iraqi companies from within Iraq winning contracts."

When Bechtel's meeting finished the construction recruitment and staffing specialists moved into gear to hand out their business cards to the companies that might win sub-contracting work.

Among the niche suppliers was Peter Wilson of Carter Horsley.

His specialist tyre company wants to supply tyres and repairs for the industrial vehicles that will be used in the reconstruction.

"I'm hopeful of getting work: I've done business with Bechtel before.

"Nobody has an unfair advantage, they're a pretty professional outfit."

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