Just 37 years old and with no previous IT experience, the managing director of construction portal Asite is changing the way the industry thinks about e-procurement. Marcus Fairs found out what makes him tick – and blush.
Meet the youngest, newest member of construction's aristocracy. Alastair Mellon, 37, is managing director of Asite, an internet portal that is trying to become the industry's standard electronic project management, tendering and procurement tool. Lined up behind it is a construction industry dream team, consisting of opinion formers such as Stanhope, Mace, O'Rourke, J Sainsbury, BAA, Land Securities and, in the chair, none other than Sir John Egan. The Confederation of Construction Clients was so impressed by the site's potential that it moved into Asite's offices.

Almost a year after its launch, Mellon claims Asite is within sight of break-even. Sunday broadsheet The Business agrees: "A dotcom with a working business model: now there's a rarity," it wrote in February.

Yet two years ago, Mellon had never even surfed the net. "I'm not a tech-head," he admits. A chartered civil engineer, he started with Mowlem in 1987 and has since worked for Canary Wharf project manager Lehrer McGovern, fit-out contractor Interior and American developer Gemini Investments. He has also built refugee centres in Bosnia.

In his years on site, he was struck by the inefficiencies that make construction such an unprofitable game. "Whatever I've been in, I've seen generic problems: basic processes not adhered to and a lack of those disciplines that help a project to be successful," says Mellon.

By February 2000 he was working for Stanhope as a project executive. At one of the developer's monthly staff meetings, the firm announced its involvement in the high-tech venture that would eventually become Asite.

"I asked what I thought were a few innocuous questions and David Camp, Stanhope's managing director, said, 'You seem to know an awful lot about the internet'."

He didn't – but he did have an inkling of how the web could be harnessed to eradicate the inefficiencies that had vexed him throughout his career. He was invited to more Asite meetings, and by April 2000 he had joined the venture full-time as director of strategy and development. He was appointed managing director shortly after Asite's launch last June.

Mellon now has to persuade Britain's biggest industry to sign up to his vision. This means explaining to IT-shy construction bosses what Asite does. Other sites offer tools for project collaboration, tendering or procurement, but Asite has set itself up as a "super-portal", offering the gamut. Users rent monthly access to the site at a fraction of the cost of buying their own software.

If we could get the industry to procure electronically, we’d immediately get a third of the improvements Egan is calling for

Product information is Asite's backbone. Suppliers place their catalogues on the site, which acts as an online shopping centre for other members of the supply chain. Potential savings are enormous: a paper requisition is estimated to cost £60 to process. By eradicating paper, the internet can slash these costs by up to 95%.

Every year the industry issues about 100 million purchase orders worth about £25bn; Mellon calculates savings of up to £4bn are there for the taking. "At the moment, procurement adds 10% to costs," he says. "If we could get the industry to procure electronically, we'd immediately get a third of the 30% improvements Egan is calling for."

Savings only come on stream if every supplier joins in. Asite's backers, some of the most powerful firms in the business, are leaning on their supply chains to make the switch. "We're signing up the entire supply chain of companies like Mace, Stanhope and O'Rourke," Mellon says.

With the big players and forward-thinkers on board, Mellon is now focusing on those who will take more convincing. "Change is threatening. Some people feel excited, others ambivalent or antagonistic."

His evangelism is refreshingly jargon-free; instead, he resorts to a series of well-rehearsed analogies. Construction, he says, resembles the lungfish of Lake Victoria. "When the lake dries up, the lungfish burrows into the mud and waits for it to rain. In the industry, people can survive on next to nothing during a recession and when it rains they come back with the same old business practices. The internet will change that."

You get the impression that Mellon would have made it in whatever profession he had chosen. The interests listed on his CV include mountain biking, psychology and, not surprisingly given his familiarity with lungfish, evolutionary biology. Well-versed in politics and the arts, he peppers his monologue with quotes from Winston Churchill, Benjamin Franklin and TS Eliot. At one point he fires off a quotation he cannot place; he pulls out his mobile and phones a friend. "John. Who said: 'There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come'?" [it was Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.]

Mellon also seems thoughtful and sensitive. When I repeat third-party comments that he can be arrogant and dismissive, he blushes fiercely, putting his head in his hands while he weighs up the criticism. "I'm sorry if I come across like that," he says eventually. "What they see as arrogance may just be enthusiasm."

Personal effects

Do you work as many hours as other dotcommers?
Since I became managing director I’ve made an effort to cut down. When Asite started, I worked 80-90 hours a week, but now I’m down to a do-able 50.
What do you do in your spare time?
I’m getting fit. I’m running the London marathon to raise money for muscular dystrophy, so I run four times a week. I’ve also given up alcohol.
Where do you go on holiday?
I very much like hiking and camping; the idea of self-sufficiency. I’ve been all over the place – Yosemite, the Pyrenees, the Atlas mountains, the Drakensburg [in South Africa]. I’ve also climbed Mount Toubkal, the tallest mountain in North Africa.
What car do you drive?
A green Golf, I dunno why. It’s reliable, it’s eight years old, it’s done 24,000 miles.