BuildOnline's Mark Oliver chose an odd moment to join a dotcom. Yet he is confident that his firm's collaboration programs will trigger a computer revolution – if only firms can find a way to upgrade those soft pink things that operate them.
His friends thought he was mad. Two years ago, just as the internet bubble was popping, Mark Oliver left a top job at a big plc to join a dotcom start-up. The company, BuildOnline, hoped to sell internet collaboration technology to the antediluvian construction industry. The aim was to allow firms involved in the same project to share information over the world wide web.

"When I started here we had no customers and no revenue," recalls Oliver, managing director of BuildOnline's UK operation. "But at the time I felt that if I didn't do it then, I never would."

BuildOnline still isn't making a profit, but Oliver says that will soon change. The company's software is running projects worth a total of £15bn and Oliver reckons that the industry is on the verge of an IT-led revolution.

He predicts that industry take-up of online collaboration tools will leap from 10% today to 30-50% by the end of next year as firms move from piloting the technology on one-off projects to rolling it out across all their jobs.

"We used to have to approach companies and try to convince them to use collaboration," he says. "Now people are calling us."

Today, BuildOnline offers three tools. About 80% of its clients use ProjectsOnline, an application used by all members of a team to share information over the internet. The second, SupplyChainOnline, is a database that allows organisations to maintain information on their suppliers in a central, secure environment. The third tool, TenderOnline, is used for preparing bids and tendering construction services.

Oliver insists that TenderOnline is not the same as reverse auction bidding, a highly controversial system in which suppliers bid against each other over the internet. He describes this as "unhelpful". "The way to improve efficiency is not by bashing suppliers," he says, "but by making their processes more efficient so they can lower their prices."

Indeed, Oliver thinks these internet-based tools will allow the perpetually cash-starved construction industry to make the same sort of efficiencies as sectors such as banking and retail – while investing a fraction of the money in IT that they have.

"There is an opportunity with the internet for the construction industry to catch up with – and possibly leapfrog – other industries in the use of IT," he says. "The guy who has no PC can go and get the latest spec computer for less than £1000, plus broadband internet access for £30 a month, and suddenly he has better performance than most companies have through their own intranet."

There is an opportunity for the construction industry to catch up with – and possibly leapfrog – other industries in the use of IT

By accessing powerful applications via the internet, companies can forget about running their own expensive computer networks. "Is it the core competence of an architect or consultant to run its own servers and host its own data?" Oliver asks. "That's our core competence – we're the IT experts. They could outsource the management of their intranet to a provider like BuildOnline and that way they use ProjectsOnline as both their intranet and their extranet."

Oliver's leap into the dotcom world was not as reckless as it might have seemed at the time. After completing his MBA, he had worked at management consultant McKinsey and he used his business skills to check out the new company's credentials. "I did it in a calculated way," he says. "I did a lot of research before deciding it was BuildOnline I would come and work for. At the time there were quite a lot of other businesses focused on construction but without the business models and strategies of BuildOnline, and these companies have gone by the wayside."

Looking every inch the MD in his dark blue pinstripe suit and gold-rimmed glasses, it is hard to guess at 40-year-old Oliver's varied career. In fact, he trained as a civil engineer and worked for contractor Kier before joining the army. After a four-year stint with McKinsey, he was sales and marketing director for locks company Yale in the Far East. Then he was appointed managing director of the industrial division of BSS Group – a distributor of mechanical services products with a turnover of £200m and 1000 employees – before joining BuildOnline.

According to Oliver, contractors are driving the project collaboration revolution, especially in the PFI and design-and-build markets. This is because the savings made using collaboration tools make a significant difference to their tight margins.

Public sector clients have been lagging behind but Oliver says they are being introduced to collaboration tools by their supply chain. This is what happened at the Highways Agency, Railtrack, the Ministry of Defence and the NHS – all of which now have projects with BuildOnline.

The firm is also offering a Europe-wide service, with offices in Ireland, France and Germany. Oliver thinks this will ultimately prove advantageous for international companies such as Balfour Beatty and Amec, (two more customers of BuildOnline).

For the future, Oliver is planning an asset management tool aimed at PFI organisations. All project information can continue to be hosted after a building is finished to help streamline facilities management operations.

Personal effects

What gadgets do you carry around?
I have a PDA, my laptop and a handheld scanner that enables me to scan in text and download it onto my PC. What mobile do you use?
It’s an Ericsson. My wife is worried about me irradiating my brain, so I have a Bluetooth hands-free set. I can speak on the phone as long as I am within 10 m of it. Do you work from home?
Yes, one day a week. We use ProjectsOnline to run our business. I have broadband access at home so I can work as efficiently from home as I can in the office. Do you live in a “smart home”?
Not at all – my wife is a technophobe. How do you relax?
I used to be a very serious sportsman; now, I try and keep fit by rollerblading.