Microsoft UK's dynamic managing director is about to offer a cornucopia of supersmart IT devices to the construction industry, and he's eager to tell Marcus Fairs all about them …
The wristwatch gives it away. It's by Cartier and it's worth about three grand. It is, however, the only outward sign that Neil Holloway is one of the UK's highest-flying executives. Otherwise, his corner office at Microsoft's Reading HQ is comfortable but not excessively so; his casual shirt is open at the neck and he clutches a cup of vending machine coffee.

Yet Holloway, 42, has 1700 employees and 26 million customers. He's the chief executive officer of the US software giant's UK arm and ranks in the organisation's top 10 executives worldwide. Last year, Microsoft UK turned over £290m; Holloway himself is worth an estimated £40m.

This is a particularly busy time for Holloway. In the past few weeks, Microsoft has launched two new products – the Tablet PC and the Windows-enabled smartphone – but Holloway's attitude to his workload is as relaxed as his demeanour. "I work about 60 hours a week," he says. "Lots of chief executive officers work longer. I tend not to work at weekends."

Not surprisingly, Holloway employs advanced technology to help him get his work done by Friday night. "I am probably one of the most technology-enabled CEOs in the UK," he says, tapping the new smartphone in his shirt pocket and pointing to the Tablet PC lying on the office sofa. "That's not to be an advert for Microsoft, that's because it works for me. I'm not interested in technology for technology's sake. I'm interested in how I can get access to my data and communicate with people while I'm on the move."

Holloway wants explain how construction can benefit from his example. The industry has a bit of catching up to do: "In the last 10-15 years it's been hard for construction," says Holloway. "It takes money to invest [in IT] and perhaps the business cases haven't been there to justify it. Now, many of these things are proven in other industries and it's time for construction to invest."

Holloway has been with Microsoft UK since 1990 and has been CEO for four years. He is severely dyslexic and says he has trouble reading bedtime stories to his two children. He gets round this handicap by concentrating on a few simple key messages; sure enough, his excitable explanations of how technology works for him are refreshingly jargon-free and coherent.

He learned a fair bit about the construction industry when his team built the technology behind construction internet portal Asite, and he is up to speed with developments such as online collaboration and procurement. But he advises industry firms to start with the basics: "The first thing organisations should get is a way of communicating with their employees. It's amazing how many people don't use email as a way of communicating across their organisation."

After that, firms can start to benefit from e-commerce. Paperless purchasing on the internet, for example: "If you can do a purchase order electronically rather than manually, and you can track it through the system, you can take cost out. We did it at Microsoft. It used to cost us an average of $60 to purchase something, now it costs us $5. Most organisations that have introduced electronic purchasing are reaping the benefits."

Holloway is aware that many larger firms have been chastened by bad IT investment decisions in the past, which often left them stuck with overcomplicated, inflexible systems that became obsolete. But the rise of the internet as a business tool obviates the need for expensive hardware – application service providers can link these legacy systems to firms' supply chains, while smaller firms need nothing more than a standard PC and modem.

The trick, Holloway reckons, is to adopt a softly-softly approach. "Let's not try to change every process we've got; let's just get the basics right. Take some basic processes that are already defined and try to automate them. How do you do order management? How do you do purchase orders? It doesn't cost that much to get these [online] services plugged into your system. Use the service, get your benefit and then come back in six months' time and get the next one."

For construction, the real gains are still to come. The industry is made up of people who move around constantly, and today's mobile communications networks are inadequate for their needs. The "WAP" mobile phones that promised internet browsing were a flop, and wireless modems take forever to download large files. For supply chains to become fully integrated through technology, everyone down to the lowliest supplier will have to ditch their paperwork – and that means giving every white-van man high-speed internet access while on the road.

The mobile phone was first successful in the construction industry … So think what it will mean to have access to data on the move

"Probably the most important issue is access to data on the move," Holloway says. "It's interesting that the mobile phone was first successful in the construction industry. Why? Because people moving around wanted to make calls. So think what will it mean to them to get access to project data on the move."

Fortunately, the technology is on its way. The next generation of mobile phone networks promises access speeds "similar to what you can get on a modem at home", according to Holloway. "So that's reliable. Over the next 12-24 months you will see businesses beginning to use that as a tool to access data."

How will this affect construction? "New devices such as PDAs [personal digital assistants, or pocket computers] and smartphones are going to make a big difference. You're never going to look at a design on a mobile or a PDA, but the ability to track the flow of information, see where certain orders are, check availability, have a real-time chat with somebody, will be available on a small device that the guy on site can use."

Holloway whips out a stunning little mobile phone that runs a cut-down version of Windows, and can't resist giving the sales pitch. "A device we're very excited about is this thing called a smartphone. Today, most phones are primarily built to think about voice – to make phone calls. But when you want to send documents and images, you send it as data. A smart phone is a very small, simple device that enables me to send data and voice. I've got my data – my company – in my pocket."

He sounds genuinely thrilled about this, and demonstrates by keying in a "real-time communication" message to his secretary: "Hi, Diane." Diane smiles through the glass partition as her reply pops up on the phone: "Hello, Neil." What the smartphone does is create a chatroom on your mobile, with all the advantages that has over primitive texting – for example you know who is talking and who is listening. "This could be one construction guy who's got some colleagues in different supply chains, they could use real-time communication.

"Most people think it's just like another phone but it really is a new, exciting digital device," he continues. "If a contractor was on site, he could have a smartphone in his pocket, and he could look at the status of an order; he could communicate with voice and pictures."

Holloway has another toy to show off. "Something else we're super excited about at Microsoft is a device called the Tablet PC," he says, firing up the Toshiba model he has been road-testing. "Today the primary input device for PCs is the keyboard. But all of us were brought up to use pen and paper. The tablet PC is a next-generation laptop that lets you use handwriting to input data. I'm not suggesting we target this at construction yet – we need to tackle some basics first."

He demonstrates by daubing the screen with handwriting and sketches. "It definitely changes the way you interact. I take this to all my meetings. I'm trying to stop using paper. Most of the stuff I have is digitised in the first place, so why would I want to print it out?"

Indeed, looking around his office, there doesn't seem to be a piece of paper in sight. Holloway discreetly checks his Cartier and claps his hands to signal the end of the interview. As he escorts me out, he explains how technology and ruthless time management keep his in-tray clear. "If you spend a day out of the office you worry about what's happening back here. You want to be constantly in contact. So I dial into my email five times a day, and it takes me three or four minutes each time, so that's 20 minutes. I can make decisions or move some data around my organisation, which saves me time and stress."

Personal effects

How many emails do you receive?
On an average day I might get about 80, which is probably a lot less than a lot of people out there. That’s because I’m very focused to say I’m going to work on these things, make these decisions, but I’m not going to do others.
Do you reply to every email you get?
Yes. I think you always have to respond, but it’s how you respond and what expectations you set when you respond.
What do you do in your free time?
Spend time with the family, play golf, swim a lot, eat, drink and be merry.
What’s your experience of the construction industry?
We’ve just finished this building and we were super-happy with the quality and the timeliness.
Who built it?
I knew you were going to ask me that and I don’t know! I can’t remember.