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Today ain’t right…

Julian Fris, Director at Neller Davies with some indispensable advice for getting client-supplier relationships right

I recently decided to do something different. I wanted to break the mould and ‘do good’.

So, I decided to record a rock n’ roll album evoking memories of the fifties, sixties and seventies – when life was seemingly simpler.

Why? Firstly, I have been playing piano longer than I’ve been in facilities management. Secondly, the project was largely about collaboration and proving how, by working together with lots of different parties, we can produce a product that we are all really proud of and pleased with.

One song, ‘Today ain’t right’, started as a three-minute blues riff then developed into a great little tune about the Faustian effect of social media. With the help of musicians Kevin Hall & Gayle Fraser, we helped to raise a tidy sum for the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity.

Why is this relevant to FM? Well very much so. Typically, my career has been influenced by hierarchical corporate entities who regularly over-use the term ‘partnering’, ‘partnership’ or ‘joint venture’.

In the purest sense, it suggests that a cleaning company is working shoulder to shoulder with, say, a leading accountancy firm. But is that reality?

Or where various companies come together to provide a generic FM service, all starts well until various partners move in different directions because of changes in risk profile or a particular company’s fortunes. Over the years, we have seen many of these partnerships dissolve – because they have achieved their aim, have moved into a merger & acquisition mode as a dominant partner buys up shares, or the service delivery has broken down due to fundamental disagreements. Or even liquidation.

The principle of collaboration, team working and shared values are essential. However, in FM & catering we see companies buy in to too much of the hubris around working for a brand, end up over-promising and under-delivering.

In reality, the ‘brand’ company just wants its buildings serviced on a consistent and value-driven basis. What they want is a trusted supplier who delivers time and time again, is honest about their intentions and has motivated staff who are interested in doing a good job, and have great career opportunities backed up by proper succession planning.

However, many contracts I see are more like treaties and ‘partnerships’ are really just euphemisms for economic abuse. FM can be a soft cost target and is driven by goodwill. We are partners, right? “Well give us back 20 per cent because we’re struggling here, oh, but services have to be to the same standard or better.” The rest is a downward spiral or ‘race to the bottom’. As everybody is now realising the industry cannot survive on two per cent margins in the long term and some more savvy clients are starting to realise this.

Meanwhile, the core organisation fails to deal with its own cost issues, it falters and everyone loses out. There are plenty of examples of that in the papers, especially on the High Street.

Many of my colleagues have said, and I agree with them, that FM & catering techniques could add so much to a client organisation. The real question is how to achieve that in a meaningful way.

We read more and more about ‘Vested’ outsourcing. The argument is that FM is invariably a grudge purchase and is task & process driven and despite the term output driven, it is actually quite the reverse.

Specifications, contracts & performance management systems are all peppered with limiting ‘you will do this, or else’ type statements. Consequently, innovation is viewed with suspicion and is only available once it becomes affordable, and by that time it is mainstream and everybody’s got it! So what’s the point?

Vested moves towards a more collaborative space, but seemingly works best when hierarchies are flattened. It assumes that FM companies are already successful because they know what they are doing. Interfering inputs get in the way. Short-term decision making is a big issue.

A really good example from our world is the catering concession for a sports stadium where the team and the caterer inextricably linked to the success on the pitch. The profit model is linked to a team doing well and getting into cup matches – getting to the final of a particular cup is the crowning glory. So, this is about payment on results, but the hospitality company has to work really hard not only to meet the match commitments but also maximise the benefits within the stadium on non-match days to help the team invest in facilities, the team and its brand. It’s a circle of fulfilment. It’s how this is translated into the military, hospitals, banks and so on and changing attitudes.

Vested will only work if there is trust and respect between the client and service providers so maybe we should talk more about them as ‘Trusted’ solutions. My own company has been built on those principles; it’s not all about facilitating another tender, although an essential part, it’s about sharing the highs and lows of a client organisation through the complete business cycle from strategy to delivery.

This enables us to take a longer-term view which both parties can build on. Where we have clients and providers we act as ‘mediator’ or ‘catalyst’ to facilitate discussions, change and opinion shift.

Partnership evokes the sense of sharing on an equitable basis. It is a word which is heavily bandied about, but is it really achieved? There are many forms such as a legal partnership or a group of GPs, but the definition for that is interesting as partners (depending on the jurisdiction) have limited liabilities. In an LLP, each partner is not responsible or liable for another partner’s misconduct or negligence – so it’s not really vested in that sense. A marriage, however, is a partnership where everything is equally shared through thick and thin. So, we can already see that there might be confusion. Trusted relationships, where both parties have to work at and respect each other, delivers results which our recent musical/social responsibility project showed.

So, maybe today ain’t right, but tomorrow can be.


▶ Build trust with each other

▶ Collaborate on all sorts of things

▶ Learn from each other’s experience

▶ Use mediation as a catalyst

▶ Engage, communicate & be honest

▶ Be altruistic

About Sarah OBeirne

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