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Do FM suppliers need a facilities management trade association to represent the sector?


With the establishment of a UK IFMA chapter, FMs can now choose from three professional bodies; RICS, IFMA and IWFM to help them develop their skills and enhance their careers. However, with all the negativity around outsourcing which has tarnished facilities services, do FM suppliers urgently require a Facilities Management trade association to represent the sector? And if so, how can this be achieved?


Does the FM industry need a functioning, effective trade association? It’s a question that seems to appear at the traditional FM industry curtain raiser, Workplace Futures, on an annual basis. And this year, as with the last, the dramatic backdrop was the Carillion collapse and the rocky times at Interserve.

It would appear that FM businesses feel underrepresented. The Business Services Association (BSA) speaks for outsourcing in general, so what could be missing? Perhaps folk are feeling that the FM sector at large needs particular attention, especially given the current macroeconomic climate and focus on some of the larger outsourced services contracts.

IWFM is regularly asked to comment on behalf of the industry but as I argued at this year’s event, representing the industry’s interests is not our role; professionalising the industry is – ensuring that facilities professionals excel at their profession.

Past attempts have been made to set up a bespoke trade association. A movement to do that some years ago gathered pace, but then faltered when would-be founders couldn’t, when it came down to it, make the necessary investment. That surely begs the question of whether a facilities management trade association is a solution looking for a problem. Perhaps it goes to the heart of the identity of the profession itself.

During our recent name change IWFM went through a process of redefining its purpose. We went back to first principles and re-articulated a core mission which is built on professional excellence; enabling and empowering professionals to have the best career possible; collectively creating the conditions for the profession to thrive and grow. The profession, that is, the 135,000 people who work in it, is our core audience and focus.

Does that mean IWFM does not engage with the industry? Far from it. We work hand in glove with the industry. Corporate members, play a huge part in our community, bringing innovation and fresh perspectives to everything we do. Our thought leadership work benefits greatly from partnerships with its major industry players.

We help them to engage with their target markets, and in realising best practice and leading- edge thinking. But we’re more than facilitators. We don’t just connect our members to best practice, we acknowledge its trends and push it to the forefront, challenging with ideas and tools – enabling its wider implementation.

We’re at the heart of many conversations on ethical procurement, contract templates, social value and much more; and we are committed to supporting outsourcing as a valid model for the important role it can play when done well – but this is all done from the point of view of the professionals carrying them out and ensuring best practice is front and centre.

So, to trade association or not? Ultimately, this is in the hands of industry. As an organisation which has just undergone a core purpose reassignment, we have learned that if something doesn’t already exist, its invention needs a solid rationale – not to say sustainable backing.

Professional bodies have a distinct purpose and IWFM’s is clear; not to represent a business sector but instead to be the voice to show how a profession can excel. If industry wants to have its interests collectively protected, then that can only come from them and that will take concerted action and investment. 


One’s immediate sense is that there is no pressing need for an FM trade association to represent the sector, otherwise the industry would have got around to sorting one out. But perhaps the issue is thornier than that, and revolves around what suppliers might get from a trade association, and how that fits with the future of the market.

It seems relatively obvious that the major service providers are capable of looking after their own interests, at least up to a point, with their own lobbying and contacts, as well as their existing memberships of umbrella groups like the BSA. But while we might not expect them to take a lead, an effective FM association might well give them the benefit of an independent voice as well as a facilities market oriented one, and in turn they might lend credibility to it. So, there could be benefits for them, provided the purpose is clear and the execution professional. Thus, while a trade association might not begin with them, it should keep the door open to their joining.

Small businesses, on the other hand, probably have neither the time or finances to begin the process of growing an association.

That leaves the mid-market players to take the lead. Why would they?

The answer lies in their need both to change the way the market works and to establish a more level playing field with buyers. The problems which the industry faces are primarily around buyer confidence, with failures in service reliability, unnecessary complexity in pricing, reporting and measurement, and questions over financial resilience all contributing to a view that outsourcing is a high-risk activity. Ironically, since most of these issues flow from either buyer behaviours or the failures of a few major suppliers, this damages smaller companies’ brands and marketing efforts more than it does the large established companies.

To address these concerns (which do nonetheless also afflict the major FM players if they result in more services returning “in-house”) requires an industry body which is committed to the development of a set of standards of behaviour – on both sides of the contract process – which is ethical, transparent, consistent and meets buyer needs, while at the same time permitting genuine competition on cost, service and innovation.

All this has to be part of a trade association remit which aims to rebuild confidence in a market which, especially in the public sector, has become quite toxic as a quasi-monopoly buyer (the Government) has pursued cost cutting and low tenders at the expense of any semblance of sustainable finances or, indeed, service quality. The result has been a series of corporate crises and failures which have had a significant detrimental effect on the reputation of the whole industry.

It seems therefore that a trade body which is able to advocate independently, to set and maintain standards in terms of, for example, bidding behaviour and financial stability, and to educate buyers in the realities of FM economics, might well be a valuable resource for the industry as a whole. How to get there from here requires a coalition of businesses to agree on that way forward, provide some funding and find a credible programme to move forward. That it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it is impossible, and perhaps the current circumstances are such that it is a requirement for the future growth of the FM industry, rather than a luxury. 

About Sarah OBeirne

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