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Career Ladder talks to Gather & Gather’s performance director

Q: What was your first ever job?
When I was a student at catering college in Hertfordshire I worked as a kitchen porter at a country house hotel – it was a great way to observe how kitchens worked and make sure what I was learning during the day matched (or not) what happened in the evening and at weekends.

Q: What was your first job in the FM sector? 

They didn’t define it as a facilities role then, but in the 1990s I was running the catering team within the support services operation at Lloyd’s of London. The catering worked as a single service stream that sat within the property team portfolio.

Q: When did you first hear the term ‘facilities management’?
And what did you think it meant then? 
After Lloyd’s of London, I joined Catering & Allied and managed a number of City operations. We had a range of clients and they were generally in property functions however the name FM was not common. I had a much better idea and more exposure when working at Westpac Banking Group in Australia as a senior facilities manager. My role covered a number of service streams as part of a single integrated outsourced model. It was during this time that I realised that catering and other support services were just one element of FM. It’s a very broad industry.

Q: What made you choose FM as a career ?

Catering was my first choice of career, but I really got the bug for FM after working at Catering & Allied. It gave me a real insight into what makes the workplace tick. Then, after joining Westpac, facilities services really took off for me – managing the change process for a number of support services as part of a rationalisition with 10 properties consolidating down into a single property of 6,000 people; dealing with supply chain as we managed integrated services across 25 corporate locations and 650 retail branches.

Q: How did you progress through the profession to your current role? 
I have fallen deeper and deeper into FM, despite catering being the career I trained for. The two disciplines are connected and as the role of catering in the workplace has expanded so has my connection with FM. For example, the workplace trends now treat employees more like guests, almost as a true hotel model.

Q: What is your greatest contribution to the FM sector, or your current role?
I’ve gained experience from working in a kitchen, right the way up to being a senior manager on the client side. In all that time though I’ve never lost my passion for great food and service. I am passionate about how food and service, coupled with great design, can transform the workplace and I have enjoyed working on a number of transformational projects that have played a part in changing the industry perception of food in an FM model.

Q: What’s changed most since you started in FM?
Food is now considered more than a function. It’s a combination of design, fashion and travel – it’s an experience that our customers are looking for. It is certainly not taken for granted; it’s dynamic and sophisticated than ever before with tastes and expectations driven by television, magazines, celebrity chefs and a desire to just eat well through focus on health and provenance. FM and the workplace have to respond to that change. We now have a work force with very high expectations around technology, systems, workplace experiences and above all else – food.

Q: If you could do one thing differently in your career in FM, what would it be? 
What we are doing now at Gather & Gather is really exciting. The market is ready now, but if we had the hypothetical chance to do it earlier – say when the changing attitudes to food really kicked in – and educate customers, the FM sector and workplace consultants about the impact food can have on a workplace who knows what the sector might look like now. I still think we are leading the way so lots to look forward to.

Q: What advice would you give to young people coming into the profession now?
Worry less about moving fast up the career ladder and instead make sure you gain some hands on high quality experience – in particular find out very early on about the importance of great customer service and learn from the best businesses. For me, learning the basics as a kitchen porter was invaluable. For young people today lessons learned via working in cafes, bars, waiting on tables or hotel reception will really help with understanding service and relationships.

Q: What would make the biggest difference to the FM sector? And how can that be achieved?

There is too much focus on box ticking and basic functionality; we should be working at a higher level. We need to engage with clients and the consultants influencing them further up the built environment hierarchy and we need to make that connection at the earliest possible stage in the decision making process. Experts in specific fields such as food, workplace design and HR for example, need to be included so that FM provides real strategic value. The knowledge is there – we all just need to be proactive about setting the aspirations and needs of our clients. With a bolder, more positive approach we will attract high quality people into the industry, focusing on collaborative well thought through solutions and not just functionality.

Q: Who’s your mentor (either in FM or outside) and why?
I am a big believer in mentors and I have had lots of people who’ve inspired me and given me a chance as I’ve gone through my career with a few stand outs. Marc Vestringhe, chairman of Catering & Allied, taught me how to manage people through encouragement and also ensuring you really listen to what the customer is saying. In Australia, a chap named Kevin Bouchier recognised that my hospitality service skills could translate into managing FM and backed and mentored me into being successful with the role. Two years later, Kevin set me another challenge and took me into Retail bank, where I managed a change process that refurbished 200 bank branches over two years. Not being a specialist in construction or banking, I learnt through this process and with Kevin’s mentorship that influence and relationship management is often more important than ‘command and control’.

Allister Richards our current MD has been a good mentor and has really challenged my thinking to develop my personal aspirations and skills.

Would you, or someone you know, like to be featured in our career ladder column? If you’re an operational FM with more than 10 years’ experience in the sector, then email charlie.kortens@kpmmedia.co.uk

About Sarah OBeirne


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