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Career ladder talks to Turner and Townsend’s Principal Consultant

Q: What was your first job in the FM sector?
In my early 20s, I was taken on as a temp in the landscape and horticultural department at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Soon after, my manager moved on, and I was offered her role. I didn’t have a clue about plants but learned quickly. I worked my way up to Contracts Manager managing a budget of more than £500,000 for external hard and soft landscaped areas and repairs and maintenance within the borough. FM wasn’t known as FM really then – it was more about maintenance.

Q: When did you first hear the term ‘facilities management’? And what did you think it meant then?
It was at the Woolwich building society in the mid-1990s that I first heard the term. But it was still very much maintenance focused at that stage – more to do with maintenance than influencing the workplace. I understood ‘facilities management’ as taking a more strategic approach to buildings which I thought was real progress at the time. The approach we were taking then was far more reactive – fix it when broken.

Q: What made you choose FM as a career?

Like many people, I had a natural progression into FM rather than choosing it as a career. I was a Building Surveyor by training and worked in that industry before moving gradually into FM. It seemed to me to take a far more holistic and strategic approach to property than surveying at the time, which felt more narrowly focused.

Q: How did you progress through the profession to your current role?
From the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, I moved to the Woolwich to manage the helpdesk where I co-ordinated maintenance and repair works for 415 Woolwich properties nationwide. I then moved supply side for what was then Dudley Bower FM working on the M&S contract managing the maintenance contracts for the retail giant’s properties in southern England. I enjoyed the work but wanted to get more involved in other areas of FM outside of maintenance. I was particularly fascinated by PFI which was then really coming to the fore. I moved to EC Harris, now Arcadis, where over a four-year period I gained extensive PFI and wider FM experience in various sectors including healthcare, education, retail and the defence. I was keen to gain experience with the residential sector, so worked for six years for an architectural practice in Surrey project managing high-end residential projects. At the time I had moved back to the Sussex coast, and an opportunity arose in Brighton to go back to my PFI roots as the Special Purpose Vehicle Manager responsible for the delivery of hard FM services to three high schools under the Brighton Schools PFI project. After three years, I was offered the opportunity to work for Turner and Townsend and spent time on secondment with a leading global investment banking firm and global financial services company. I now work on a variety of projects for different Turner and Townsend clients.

Q: Do you have any qualifications or training in FM? And how have you benefited from them?
I have a degree in BSc in building surveying from the University of Greenwich and I then went back to university in 2000 to take an MSc in facilities management at the University of Westminster. Qualifications not only give you technical and professional knowledge, that you wouldn’t otherwise gain, but they also open doors and show people that you serious about your career. I have definitely benefited both financially and through increased opportunity.

Q: What is your greatest contribution to the FM sector, or your current role?
At Turner and Townsend I developed a quality management system based on risk and delivery. It’s a type of benchmarking tool which analyses the processes behind the results.

Q: What’s changed most since you started in FM?
The biggest change over the past 25 years has been that FM is now increasingly getting involved in the early design stages of a facility and influencing asset selection and design. FM now shapes the entire lifecycle costs – both capex and opex – not just the operational side of things. There is still some way to go but great progress has been made.

Q: If you could do one thing differently in your career in FM, what would it be?
I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve had a diverse career working both client and supply side, and as a consultant, for corporate and residential properties involved in the full gamut of FM service delivery. If I had to make a change, it would be back in my operational days. I would spend more time implementing policies and procedures rather than being reactive. I would spend more time getting it right first time.

Q: What would make the biggest difference to the FM sector? And how can that be achieved?
I know it’s been something that’s been talked about for years, but I still think having FM involved directly at board level, and not just through the CFO, would make a big impact on how seriously the workplace is taken at board level. The Chief Workplace Office, as proposed by the Stoddart Review, is a great concept which could transform the FM role by taking HR, IT, property and FM under the one remit. That would far better link workplace strategy with organisational objectives.

Q: What advice would you give to young people coming into the profession now?
Go down both the academic and vocational route to gain the most useful blend of knowledge and experience. It’s also important not to specialise too early. Getting a good grounding in operations is useful so you understand how assets are operated, maintained and managed.

Q: What qualities should a good FM possess?
The most important quality is the ability to communicate to all levels within an organisation, from the boardroom to the boiler room and everyone inbetween. An understanding of business is also essential, good analytical and reporting skills. And a cool head to deal with the inevitable crisis.

Q: What do you enjoy most about working in FM?
I love the variety FM offers – no two days are the same. The opportunity to work on challenging projects in different sectors and to feel that you’ve made a real difference in enabling clients to better manage their assets, operationally and financially, makes me want to get out of bed in the morning.

About Sarah OBeirne

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