That 20% – and the even smaller firms that did not fit the survey’s criteria – should be concerned. Last year, Bass, which invests about £240m a year in pub refurbishments, demanded that its construction suppliers get hooked up to e-mail by Christmas. Developer Akeler, which has an annual spend of more than £100m on construction projects, has insisted that all its suppliers be contactable electronically for more than a year now.
For speed and ease of communication, the post simply cannot compete with e-mail. Trevor Silver, development director of Akeler, finds it invaluable throughout the construction process. In the early stages of concept design, the architect e-mails him a sketch, and he can immediately send back any comments by the same route. As e-mail can cross continents in seconds, it really comes into its own on overseas schemes. Akeler is currently developing a business park in Portugal. “Because of the e-mail link, I don’t feel I have to go there so often,” says Silver.
Firms that fail to embrace the electronic age will almost certainly miss out on new business arising from investments made by the burgeoning IT sector. Companies such as Nortel and Compaq are developing sophisticated control centres for web site building equipment. These firms insist that any architect, consultant or contractor they deal with has e-mail.
Berkshire-based PPT Integration is a project manager and office relocation specialist based in the heart of Britain’s Silicon Valley along the M4 corridor. Rod Grinsted, partner with the firm, has noticed that, whether the likes of Nortel and Compaq ask for it or not, project managers are taking it on themselves to insist on e-mail connections. When Grinsted puts together a tender list, he knows what he wants from potential contractors: “We say to firms, if you aren’t electronic, you can’t come to the table.”
Smaller domestic builders need not think they are unaffected by the electronic onslaught. What starts in larger firms tends to filter down to the smaller players. No organisation is more aware of this than the Federation of Master Builders. Deputy director-general Brian Flint underlines the small firm’s position when he says: “There is no doubt that people are being encouraged to shop over the Internet and, as time goes by, firms may miss out on work opportunities by default. Youngsters are being taught this method of communication in schools and they will start to look at the Internet rather than directories.”
Flint’s prediction that small builders cannot escape the e-revolution is already coming true. Last year, one innovative company saw a gap in the Internet market for a database of fully vetted domestic builders. Although still at the pilot stage, customers will eventually be able to log on to Hirevolution.com and find a local firm to build a conservatory knowing that the firm has been in business for three years, has checked out against credit ratings and comes with references from building professionals as well as past customers. Builders that want to be included on the site have to be contactable electronically.
This is only the beginning of the e-mail takeover. The shame of it is that firms that fail to move with the times will only feel the negative effects when profits start to slip. The 20% of firms in the DETR’s report that are still totally dependent on the Royal Mail should start investigating e-mail providers before it is too late.