It's high time construction companies overcame technophobia and woke up to the fact that if you're not on-line, you're out of the picture. Get the message: new business starts with e-mail.
If your firm doesn’t have e-mail yet, it could be making a fatal business error. Major industry clients have decided that the only way to drive the IT revolution is to refuse to give work to companies that have not cottoned on to the benefits of electronic post. This could be bad news for many firms: a DETR-backed report on IT usage in construction published at the end of last year found that 20% of small and medium-sized firms still do not have access to e-mail.

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 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.

Where to get help

Confused about whether your company needs to go electronic, or about where to start? There are organisations that can help. The national network of Business Links has experts that advise businesses on IT needs. Day rates for their consultancy services vary across the country, but in London come in at £450. Often, Business Links will help with minor queries free. To contact your local office, call 0345-567765. The Information Society initiative is backed by the Department of Trade and Industry, and offers advice and support for businesses with IT needs. Call 0345-152000, or check out its web site on

How to get hooked up to e-mail

To get connected, you need a computer, a modem and a telephone line. You then need to register with an Internet service provider. This will connect you to the world wide web and give you access to e-mail. Choosing an ISP can seem daunting as there are hundreds to choose from. Richard Burton, IT consultant at Business Link London Central, advises firms to go for an ISP that has been established for several years, such as BT, Demon or pipex. “Word of mouth can be a good indicator,” he adds. “Talk to friends and colleagues who use the Internet to find out which they recommend.” Once you have picked your provider, it will ask you to register an address, or “domain name” as it is known – for example, You may find that someone has beaten you to your chosen name, in which case you will have to come up with another. The cost of being connected to the Internet, including e-mail access, varies from no charge to up to £50 a month, depending on the service provider and the services you need. Last year, BT launched a free Internet service called Access aimed at small businesses. Access offers 20 MB of web space – enough for a small brochure – so your company can have a presence on the Internet as well as an e-mail facility.