Last March, I started planning a construction portal designed to hold project information, called cleverclients.com. In June, while I was still pursuing the portal idea, I happened to speak at a conference. The speech, on how the internet can be used to control project information and encourage teamwork, struck a chord with two BIW directors in the audience. They approached me afterwards and almost immediately offered me a job.
Weren't you tempted to become a dotcom success in your own right?
BIW seemed to have already established something similar to cleverclient. They already had clients, funding and 50 employees. I am not an entrepreneur and I have never raised large amounts of venture capital, so I joined BIW.
What does your role involve?
My job is to get BIW adopted in the public sector and by public-sector-related organisations, such as privatised utilities. That is where my knowledge and expertise lies. But I am more interested in feedback than selling.
I want to know how BIW's services can meet the needs of the government in its push to introduce the Egan agenda and sustainability.
What exactly does BIW do?
The main revenue-generating product is the Project Information Channel, an internet-based project collaboration service. J Sainsbury uses it on all its UK projects to manage data between members of the project team. We are also developing a service, called I-components, that captures "intelligent" CAD data about objects, from boilers to supermarket display units.
The design team or maintenance engineer can pull up project drawings on screen, then click on an object symbol, and find a database containing relevant information, such as height, size and material.
Where did your career start?
After a civil engineering degree at Cambridge, I specialised in soil mechanics and foundation engineering and gained an MSc from Imperial College. I got my first job in 1983, designing site investigations for the M42 between Birmingham and Nottingham for Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick. Before setting up my own civil engineering consultancy in 1990, I worked in forensic engineering, investigating building defects for big litigations with William J Marshall & Partners.
How did you get involved with the Treasury?
I started reviewing work done for the Highways Agency with my own consultancy. In 1995 I put together a manual on value for money for the agency. This included all those Egan principles such as value engineering, risk management and benchmarking. I was then asked to go to the Treasury for a short time to advise on exactly those subjects. This was in 1996, just as Egan was hitting the headlines, and after the 1997 election, the new government was looking towards saving money on construction schemes. I was part of the central unit on procurement working on best practice in construction procurement across central government. I ended up working two or three days a week until I left last September.
What sparked your interest in IT as a business tool?
I think the first time I really used IT in a useful fashion was when I was investigating the structural defects in the floor of Keddies department store in Southend. Keddies was taking developer Norwich Union to court over problems with the floor. I set up a big spreadsheet on a Wang computer to solve what had to be done to each section of flooring.
When did you really believe the internet would make a difference to business?
About 18 months ago I was trying to book a skiing holiday and I discovered that you could find out the state of the ski slopes by looking at a website for the resorts. You could also go on a virtual walk around the chalets. That was when I thought, "this is a concept I like". At that time, the resort posted digital photographs of the slopes; now they use a webcam.
Does construction realise the potential of the internet?
The industry is beginning to use the internet to reduce waste, improve knowledge sharing and facilitate continuous improvement. This is different from two years ago, when I wrote a report for an industry body that will remain nameless. In the draft, I suggested that much greater use should be made of the internet.
The draft came back to me with a comment in the margin from one of the steering group along the lines of "what is he on?". Even at the end of 1999, I felt there was little awareness of the net's potential. For that reason I started registering construction-related domain names.
Was this to make a lot of money selling them off later?
At that time I felt the industry couldn't see the relevance of the internet. I registered names like primecontract.co.uk and primecontracting.co.uk to preserve them because I was convinced the industry would not see the relevance. I have handed over the construction-related ones to BIW. We will offer others to Defence Estates, for example. The amount of money involved will be no more than I paid to register the names. I registered about 600 names, not all to do with construction. I would sell Breadandbutterpudding.com.
Is not seeing the relevance a general problem of construction?
It can be. For example, about two or three years ago, after watching a lot of Teletubbies with my children, I approached the commercial arm of a pan-industry organisation with the idea of developing a children's story character involved in construction. The idea was rejected as inappropriate because they couldn't see the relevance. Then along came Bob the Builder.
All ideas of cartoon characters thwarted, where do you hope to take BIW?
We want to be a global industry standard in electronic supply-chain management. I am already targeting potential prime contractors for Defence Estates and NHS Estates schemes. A lot of other portals are e-marketplaces where you can buy and sell bricks, for example. We have no plans to shift into online transactions. We will link with other firms in this area and provide the technology to enable that to happen. We have already linked with e-marketplace operator Mercadium.
Last year saw an endless launch of specialist construction portals. Where do you see this market going in the future?
Ultimately clients will dictate their preferred system. There will be a lot of consolidation. I think project collaboration tools that have been developed in-house will shut up shop quickly because clients don't want all their information resting with one part of the supply chain. And I don't see how you could do this on the side. We have 50 people here; to be competitive requires investment. You are either a construction company or an e-commerce firm, I don't think you can do both.
What was your first internet purchase?
In June 1999 I bought my wife, my three children, and myself an airline ticket to Palma in Majorca. And it worked.
Which internet site has most impressed you?
Last year I sold an old laptop on an online auction site called ebay.com. That was very impressive. The auction lasted a week and I had 34 bids. Users submit their bids and then you choose the one you want.
Is that safe?
After every transaction the buyer and seller are asked to fill in a questionnaire on the other party stating how smoothly the transaction went. This information is stored as a credit reference on regular users. You get a star by your name if you are good. This is the sort of thing the construction industry could use.
The Building Information Warehouse can be found at www.theBIW.com.