He's back in the news after HBG's sale to Dragados, but May is still best know for his part in the fall of Laing Construction. In his first interview since then, he tells Phil Clark about the indignity of having his firm sold for £1 – and his new life at HBG.
It's a good job Brian May doesn't suffer from stress, because the gregarious new HBG boss would be a nervous wreck if he did. After a steady 26 years working his way through the ranks of Tarmac and Mowlem he landed a job as chief executive of Laing Construction in April 2000 – a stroke of luck comparable to being appointed captain of the Titanic shortly after it had hit the iceburg.

What followed might be best described as a topsy-turvy couple of years. Six months after he took up his post, the firm was up for sale and May had to forget his plan to turn the group's construction arm around. As if that was not bad enough, he then suffered the indignity of seeing the business slump in value, from an initially guestimate of £50m to the £1 eventually paid by concrete contractor O'Rourke.

The collapse was the result of loss-making contracts won before May took over, but the drawn-out due diligence process (the sale was finalised nearly a year after the firm was put on the market) could not have been a pleasant one. "My wife said to me when Laing was being sold that it was good experience," recalls May dryly. "I remember saying it wasn't an experience I would want to repeat."

Luckily for May, he is able to step away from the strains of the corporate world. A keen traveller, he was on a trip to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas in the weeks running up to the sale announcement in November 2000. "I have always found it easy to turn off when things are difficult at work. I don't wake up in the middle of the night worrying about things."

Yorkshire-born May does not dwell too much on his Laing experience – the strongest adjective he uses in reaction to the construction sale is "disappointing".

"It affected me for a while," he says of the sale decision. "I'm not going to pretend it was an easy part of my life. My feelings now are that I am disappointed I was unable to do what I wanted with the firm."

May confesses to getting a buzz from working with people, and his personable style – colleagues describe him as "genuine", "open" and "honest" – served him well during his brief Laing tenure. Laing insiders at the time claimed he was crucial in keeping up staff morale during the sale. He was both the good guy and the underdog in the saga, up against the big bad Laing board – which came under fire from construction staff for informing them of the sale by email. Insiders predicted a wave of departures by disgruntled employees once May left.

I’m not going to pretend the Laing sale was an easy part of my life … I was unable to do what I wanted

Bashful though he is, one guesses that May is also proud of such praise. "Clearly, it's hard to keep a harmonious relationship when a parent sells a subsidiary. It puts a strain on both parties," he says. "It was a difficult working environment trying to keep the staff motivated, but I think we did remarkably well in the work we picked up. And the majority of people did stay, even when I left. People said nice things to me and that was fine, but I told staff that they had to think about themselves and not my situation. It was their careers and their lives, after all."

May's future at Laing became clear when he met the owner of the purchasing firm, Ray O'Rourke. The charismatic Irishman is not known for beating about the bush and made his intentions clear to May as soon as the sale was done. "He said to me, 'Look, I want to be chief executive'," May says. He adds, candidly: "If I had bought it, I would have done exactly the same."

May subsequently left in July, and is full of praise for O'Rourke. "One thing I should say about Ray is that the guy loves construction; he's passionate about it. I think he's bought a good business. It's still got a good brand and he is using that to the full."

The whirlwind of events for May did not end there. Within a month he had been approached by HBG UK boss Adrian Franklin, who was moving up to the main board of the Dutch group and wanted May to take over the reins in the UK. Some might have thought it a bit soon to take another top post after his last job, but for May it was too good a chance to miss. "When I met the main board I felt very much at home. I thought, 'Crikey, this is too good to be true. Within a month I have an opportunity that looks super'."

Now the 50-year-old is more than three months into his new post and says he has a new challenge at the £627m-turnover firm. Speaking before the announcement that his parent group was being bought by Spanish contractor Dragados, which agreed a price of £462m on Tuesday, he says: "It's different at HBG – the business is performing well." As a result, May is preaching evolution not revolution. "I'm not going to turn the business upside down".

But what does he think after hearing about the sale? The answer is not much. "It's difficult to see how and why there would be any changes to HBG. It's a change in shareholding in all honesty. There's almost no overlap between the two firms."

Personal effects

Where do you live?
Thirsk, North Yorkshire, with my wife and two dogs – a golden retriever and a springer puppy.
What are your hobbies?
Walking on the Dales, playing golf, going to the theatre.
Is it true you used to tread the boards?
I was in an amateur dramatics group. Acting gives you the confidence to stand in front of people. I preferred playing in comedies.
Who’s your favourite playwright?
Sir Alan Ayckbourn – his plays are funny and are based on observing people.
Where do you like to travel?
America, the Far East – Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Hong – and South Africa. Airports fascinate me – I love watching people. I want to ask them where they are going.