Construction

What is the difference between a main contractor and a sub-contractor?

What is the difference between main contractors, sub contractors, builders and specialist contractors in construction

If you have come close to the 315,000 construction firms in the UK, you will have come across the construction lingo “main contractor”, “sub-contractor”, “builder”…

This article explores what the difference is between a “main contractor” and a “sub-contractor”, and provides a list of the main construction contractors in the UK.

It also clarifies the difference between a “general contractor” and a “specialist contractor” and between a “contractor” and a “builder”.

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What is a main contractor in Construction?

In the Construction industry, a “main contractor”, also called a “general contractor”, is an organisation carrying out building, civil engineering or engineering construction work.

Involved in very large or complex construction projects, main contractors have the overall responsibility for delivering the project on time and on budget. However, they don’t have all the skills required to deliver the project, due to the volatility of the demand, therefore they sub-contract work packages to “sub-contractors”, also called “Tier 2 contractors” or simply “suppliers”. Tier 2 contractors may in turn sub-contract part of the work to Tier 3 contractors.

“Main contractors”, often called “buyers” are appointed based on a competitive tendering process.

This article is worth reading if you’d like to find out more.

Who are the main contractors in the UK?

By turnover, the top 20 “main contractors” in the UK are:

  • 1. Balfour Beatty plc
    • 2017 turnover: £8.2bn
    • 2017 pre-tax profit: £165m
  • 2. Kier Group plc
    • 2017 turnover: £4.3bn
    • 2017 pre-tax profit: £26m
  • 3. Galliford Try plc
    • 2017 turnover: £2.8bn
    • 2017 pre-tax profit: £59m
  • 4. Morgan Sindall
    • 2017 turnover: £2.8bn
    • 2017 pre-tax profit: £65m
  • 5. Amey UK plc
    • 2017 turnover: £2.6bn
    • 2017 pre-tax profit: -£190m
  • 6. Keller Group plc
    • 2017 turnover: £2.1bn
    • 2017 pre-tax profit: £110m
  • 7. Laing O’Rourke plc
    • 2017 turnover: £2.0bn
    • 2017 pre-tax profit: -£81m
  • 8. Skanska UK plc
    • 2017 turnover: £1.8bn
    • 2017 pre-tax profit: £14m
  • 9. Costain Group plc
    • 2017 turnover: £1.7bn
    • 2017 pre-tax profit: £39m
  • 10. ISG plc
    • 2017 turnover: £1.7bn
    • 2017 pre-tax profit: £9.1m
  • 11. Wates Group Ltd
    • 2017 turnover: £1.6bn
    • 2017 pre-tax profit: £33m
  • 12. Willmott Dixon Holdings Ltd
    • 2017 turnover: £1.3bn
    • 2017 pre-tax profit: £34m
  • 13. Multiplex Construction Europe Ltd
    • 2017 turnover: £1.2bn
    • 2017 pre-tax profit: £4m
  • 14. BAM Construct UK Ltd
    • 2017 turnover: £958m
    • 2017 pre-tax profit: £19m
  • 15. Sir Robert McAlpine
    • 2017 turnover: £943m
    • 2017 pre-tax profit: -£20m
  • 16. Bowmer & Kirkland Ltd
    • 2017 turnover: £928m
    • 2017 pre-tax profit: £64m
  • 17. Mears Group plc
    • 2017 turnover: £900m
    • 2017 pre-tax profit: £27m
  • 18. Homeserve plc
    • 2017 turnover: £900m
    • 2017 pre-tax profit: £123m
  • 19. Vinci plc
    • 2017 turnover: £871m
    • 2017 pre-tax profit: £22m
  • 20. VolkerWessels UK Ltd
    • 2017 turnover: £870m
    • 2017 pre-tax profit: £24m

Other famous “main contractor” names include J Murphy & Sons Ltd (#23), Eurovia UK Ltd (#24), ENGIE (#25), Bouygues (#30) and the Carey Group (#31).

What is a sub-contractor in Construction?

Also called “subbies” or simply “suppliers”, sub-contractors carry-out construction work on behalf of main contractors.

Sub-contractors win work through a competitive tendering process. They often meet main contractors via “Meet the Buyer” events.

What is the difference between general contractors and specialist contractors?

“General contractors” have general building skills, while “specialist contractors” are only involved in one very specific part of the construction work, for example, in piling, asbestos removal, cladding, fire. protection, drilling, lifts, flooring…

You can find more information about specialist sub-contractors in this article.

What is the difference between contractors and builders?

A “builder” generally refers to a house builder who employs construction workers directly and does not sub-contract work.

Builders are involved in domestic construction, where the volume of work is more predictable than in commercial construction projects.

A “contractor” is typically involved in commercial (e.g., offices, retail), civil (i.e., infrastructure) or industrial construction projects, and hired by main contractors.

You can find more information about builders and contractors here.

If you’re a sub-contractor or a builder and you need to hire temporary construction staff, TempaGoGo is here to help you find great recruitment agencies specialised in Trades and Labour or White Collar roles, across the UK.

Is there anything I’ve missed? Just leave me a comment!

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