An Audience with Bill Heath
FM Magazine spoke to Polyteck Group non-executive director and former Mace Macro Chairman, Bill Heath, about his latest career move, Dubai, and the future for facilities management.
You’re an industry veteran with a formidable reputation. Is that a help or a hindrance?
I take that as a compliment! The long response would be to clarify for whom any help might be intended: clients, FM businesses, institutions, or colleagues?
I did not choose FM as a career but was fortunate to get the opportunity to be involved in the industry back in the early 90s. I have learnt an enormous amount about FM and how to develop and run a business, in fact I still learn today. It is nice to be recognised for ones achievements and the spin off is that people and organisations look up to you as an expert and value your opinion.
However, there are many experts out there and with differing opinions, which is good to balance views. My desire has always been to deliver quality services with a focus on the ‘cost of quality’ i.e get it right first time. The simple answer to the question would be ‘yes it is a help’.
You joined Polyteck Group as a non-executive director in 2018. Why?
I am not ready to retire as many people have asked or even suggested! I am keen to transfer and share the knowledge and experience I have gained in the FM industry over the past 30 years. Having known the owners of Polyteck for some time, and seen their rapid growth, there was mutual respect to work together at a Non-Exec level.
The Group has a good reputation for self-delivering building maintenance and MEP services. But isn't the market for integrated service providers in the UK already over-saturated?
The market is competitive but there is always room for a quality company that delivers services to a high standard. Polyteck is, in some respects, unique with their current client base which is linked strongly to social housing and development projects. The time is perhaps right for them to break into the wider FM market and broaden the service provision.
The company places great emphasis on self-delivery which is very attractive to clients and customers. They know that they will ‘buy’ somebody who is part of a close family-run organisation, so the attentive and close nature of their work is a big part of the attraction.
Does Polyteck's position as a small but focused UK supplier with international exposure through FM joint-ventures with Brayan in Dubai, and Brayan and Tasweek in Abu Dhabi, represent the future of FM outsourcing?
Size is not the ultimate driver but to look at new markets makes sense for some companies.
The UK's FM industry is very competitive so looking overseas in markets that offer good growth opportunities make sense provided the inherent risks are appropriately managed. It is not as simple as going overseas, setting up business and thinking one can replicate what happens in the UK as there are many factors that need careful thought.
You anticipated the fashion for spinning-off FM departments at Xerox, and even preempted current Level 2 BIM requirements as long ago as your 2005 interview with this magazine, when you described an information-driven FM delivery system that "looked at the overview of the design, the service charge, the model for that, and how [building owners] should run and operate the management structure". Do you own a looking-glass?
You're making me smile. No, I do not have a looking-glass. However, even before 2005 with the FM experience gained on many developments small and large, and with my earlier background in managing construction projects, is was not difficult to recognise the need for FM involvement in the early stages of any development scheme. The logic is to connect the information flow, and rationale for it, from concept, design, construction, defects liability and ultimately operational steady state. It is just sad it has taken so long and that the lowest cost build is not always best value in the long term.
In the UAE you managed the biggest city-scale developments in history. Did this require upscaling processes you’d developed in your early career or re-inventing FM services delivery?
The UAE and wider Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) market have given FM companies real opportunities to be involved in some exceptionally exciting projects that are of a scale and complexity which dwarfs projects in UK and many parts of the globe.
The challenges are not so much about upscaling processes but to think laterally about the operational issues faced such as height, climate, and new technical built solutions. The focus on many developments has been to involve FM capabilities early in the design and development stages, and also get the operational teams involved up to six months or more before construction completion.
Given the economic recession in the early 2000s in the Gulf region, weren't you taking a risk in establishing Macro?
The involvement in the UAE came in 2004 as a consultancy opportunity to help one of Mace’s major clients with the very significant Jumeirah Beach Residence development, which included 40 plus tower blocks and infrastructure housing a community of over 25,000 people. Between 2004 and 2007 there were also other FM projects we supported from a consultancy perspective.
But, to really grow the business, a fulltime presence was required. So I relocated to Dubai in 2008.
Even with the financial crisis and global downturn of 2009 and beyond, we were still able to grow the business, year-on-year.
In the past, Heath has identified a potential conflict of interest when facility service providers also deliver management advice to Total Facilities Management (TFM) clients. So what are his views on TFM today, and on the recent fashion for contractors to describe themselves as client 'partners'?
Sometimes the word, "partnership", is used too liberally, as there will always be a formal contract arrangement unless there is real creative thinking to bond client and provider in all respects. It would be true to say that the more thought and effort that goes into a two way relationship will open up for better service and stronger commercial trust.
But mightn't focusing on consulting and managing third-party sub-contractors require facilities managers to develop entirely different skillsets?
This is just one approach in the myriad of ways of dealing with FM solutions. For me it is the right approach because it delivers, in my opinion, the best value for money but not necessarily the cheapest. More FM thinking needs to go into new developments to maximise the potential future FM efficiencies and deliver them at optimum cost.
The skillsets needed include learning how to get the maximum output, how to control and manage situations, developing strong but fair commercials skills and appreciating how good communications, can make a big difference.
Heath has typically established (or joined) companies at an early stage, only to leave when their turnovers have grown to between £70 and £100 million, and FM Magazine wanted to know whether this was by accident or by design?
When I was given the opportunity to be actively involved in my first FM business venture, CBX, the director who led the venture from the beginning said to me he would not want to be controlling businesses greater than about 500 people.
I have come to understand the logic of this statement better over time. What smaller businesses provide is a greater intimacy between employees and clients, ‘small cog in a small wheel versus a big wheel’ analogy applies. Clients generally have immediate access to the business owners and senior management, where as in much larger scale organisations this intimacy can be lost.
Personally, I have loved the challenges of the all the start-up situations I have been involved with and inevitably there always comes a time to hand over the reigns. Other factors come into play such as business strategy and overall direction. Larger corporates tend to require more stringent business controls and this can stifle flare and entrepreneurship and, more importantly decision making.
My current desire is more about focusing on sharing the business experience I have gained with like-minded people.
Heath has stated in an interview with dmg events that he does not foresee automation revolutionising FM service delivery—a point that deserved further inquiry.
Given the right approach and use, automation could make a big difference. But it requires tools clients can associate with true benefits in a cost-effective manner.
The challenge is to really apply technology to its full potential, rather than utilising only ten or twenty per cent of it. Indeed, an analogy can be made with electrical gadgets which are rarely used at full capacity.
Of course automation requires employee and client alike to embrace technology, and even dispel any fears they hold.
So what advice does Heath have for people starting facilities management careers today?
Adopt the right attitude towards clients by always being positive, courteous and consciously deciding to go the extra mile - whilst treating work colleagues with respect and always listening and applying the best principles of teamwork
Develop the skills needed for your area of expertise, and never stop learning.
But, above all, work hard but have fun!