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INTERVIEW: Rob Legge, CEO of Servest UK & Europe

Author : Tom Kirkup, Future Leader programme, Servest

21 September 2015

Rob Legge
Rob Legge

Tom Kirkup, on Servest's 'Future Leader' programme, talks to his CEO, Rob Legge, in this exclusive interview

Servest UK & Europe started in 2007 as part of a strategy to develop a substantial FM operation across the UK and Europe. Rob Legge was born in East London and lived in the area until he joined the military, aged 17. After active service across the globe, he entered the business world; running various businesses and culminating in his present role with Servest.

In this interview he shares his thoughts on a wide-range of business and personal matters.

What was your first experience of business? I had my first cleaning business when I was 14. I had a car valeting business in London, I used to go around washing cars and valeting them at the weekend. We had some flyers done that we’d put through people’s doors and my father would always be complaining because people would constantly be ringing me up at home to get their car cleaned. I’d say we had a customer base of about 20; we’d go around on a Saturday and Sunday and clean their cars. It was great, I loved it; I always enjoyed cars so I also enjoyed cleaning cars.

I suppose this first business was somewhat prophetic, considering Servest’s cleaning operations? Well, yes, Servest UK and Europe grew out of a cleaning business I had called Ecocleen. Ecocleen was a franchise cleaning operation that was owned by a husband and wife team, I joined in 1997 when it was doing about £400k-500k turnover. They wanted to grow it but they were of retirement age and so wanted to sell the company. After about 3 years, the owners found a buyer; The Executive Group, who had recently been acquired by Servest (at that point a South African operation). After The Executive Group was sold to Mitie, I conducted an MBO of Ecocleen and by 2007 got the turnover to £18 million.

So when you joined Ecocleen it had approximately half a million turnover and by the end it was up to £18 million? Yes, by 2007 I’d managed to increase turnover dramatically. This is when I heard that Kenton Fine, currently Servest Group Chairman, was looking to get back into the European market and was searching for a business that could be used as a platform, something that could be utilised for the strategy that we have today. So I met with him and we agreed that I would sell him back the company. The strategy was very much as you can see today; to build a significant FM operation throughout the UK and Europe, which really started in earnest in 2007.

You mentioned Europe, would you say that’s a focus going forward? Yeah, we’re very close to Europe now; we’re trying to get a foothold in Ireland. We are potentially looking at Italy, we want to get operations in other countries; Spain, France and Germany. But we’ve concentrated most of our efforts on the UK.

What’s your proudest moment in respect to Servest? With Servest, it was probably joining the group again. When I found out that Kenton was coming back to the UK; I felt that we had unfinished business and I was really proud to be part of the journey again. Being given the opportunity by the South African team to head it all up was phenomenal really. Them having the confidence to back me and my team; we’ve been on quite a long journey together

What’s one characteristic you think every leader should possess? Desire. You need the desire to be successful, the desire to win, to be the best.

Tom Kirkup
Tom Kirkup

You’ve been a leader in business, and quite possibly in the military, for many years, you’ve got a lot of experience; what advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time? Don’t be frightened of having a go, I think it’s about taking yourself out of your comfort zone. It’s easy to do things you’re comfortable doing every day. Just be confident and believe in yourself. Don’t ever look back on life and say, ‘I wish I’d done that’. Trust me, I remember when I was the youngest person in my peer group who was running a business and when I look back on it, in the blink of an eye it’s gone. I’m now 47 and I don’t know where the years have gone. Don’t have any regrets and be the best you can be.

Touching on your forces background; do you think it has helped you in business? The military gave me a sense of teamwork, I was extremely driven because of my military training and background. Organisational skills are extremely important, I’m really disciplined in my approach to business. It all sounds a bit cliché, but it really does give you the skillset to run a large business. You don’t want to run it like a military operation, but it is very similar in terms of the structure; you have a hierarchical structure, you have support functions, you have operational people on the ground. You can liken all of that to a military operation. I wouldn’t attribute all of my achievements to my military background, but it certainly gave me a good grounding. It’s something I’d absolutely recommend to young people, don’t necessarily do it forever, but it’s a great basis to develop yourself.

This one’s a little bit more random; how would you describe yourself in one word? That is a random question! Driven. I’m very driven. Everything I’ve done in life; I won’t let go.

In your opinion, what’s the state of the FM sector? I think it’s very buoyant at the moment. I think if you look at the way the UK has recovered in the last seven years, you can see that the service sector in particular has had a massive influence on how the recovery has gone. All of the FM companies, support companies, outsourcing companies have had success and positively impacted the recovery. It’s an excellent market to be in, it’s a market that has massive potential and a great opportunity for a company like ours to grow. The government are talking of £100 billion of outsourcing in the next 5-7 years; they’re big numbers. Even if you have 1% of that, it’s a big number.

When I researched Servest, it struck me that Servest was somewhere between the really small players and the massive corporates. You could liken the big companies to an oil tanker; they’re relentlessly going forward but maybe they can’t manoeuvre quite as quickly as a company like Servest can. In your opinion, does this analogy work? I think if you look at the sector, you’ve got lots and lots of companies that might class themselves as ‘FM’ but I think they’re more bespoke single service line businesses, more niche-type players who are probably south of £50 million in turnover. You then get to £50m-£100m and there’s a few better, slightly bigger companies who class themselves as ‘FM’. Then you get to £100m-£500m and there’s a massive void, and that’s the space we’re currently in. I think there’s a fantastic opportunity for a company like ours to continue taking market share from the big players; we become an alternative to the PLCs.

Do you think, with Servest’s growth, that this is changing? How long that lasts will depend on how we run and operate the group; as long as we’re aware of why we’ve been successful and we continue to apply those principles and values as we grow, then I think we’ll be fine. I think the nature of size definitely has an influence on the way you can run your business; once you get to a billion revenue and go beyond, you are a much bigger organisation and things, I suspect, do change. We shouldn’t lose sight of why we’ve been successful; it’s because we care, we care about our customers, we care about the service we provide and we care about our staff.

If you were sat here a year from now, celebrating what a great 12 months it’s been for Servest, what happened? We would’ve had a very successful year in the public sector, that’s our focus at the moment; to rival the bigger companies in winning some of the larger FM contracts that are coming out of the central government. I think energy in particular would be a success for me, if we could have a really strong year in energy.

Because you’ve recently acquired Llewellyn Smith (an energy efficiency business)? Definitely, I’d be really pleased with that. I think generally it’s about growing the business, growing the contract base and having a better environment. I think we’ve got a good environment for our staff already, but improving on that. Probably some more training and development programmes, looking at some more leadership initiatives, all of these things will bring success. I think it’s about evolving into those, I think we do a lot of that really well but we can always do better.

Talking about acquisitions, what are the main challenges in that process? Having done a lot of acquisitions over the years, the successful ones are where you select the right cultural fit for the management team and staff. It has to be right for both parties; it’s got to be right for the vendors, they’ve got to feel like they got a good deal but yet they’ve still got to be engaged appropriately with the business going forwards. We’ve also got to feel good about the business that we acquired; it’s got to make the expected profits and it’s got to deliver the service at the right levels. Then, it’s all about the integration; making sure the new people feel part of the Servest family.

What’s on your bucket list? I’m very keen on being involved in the business long-term; I’m not somebody that will just disappear, take the money and go. That’s not for me, I’m here for at least another 10 years; but probably not in the position I’m currently in. That would free up time for some more travel; I need to go to Australia. I’m keen to spend more time with my family as I have deprived them of my time over the years, because that’s what you have to do when you’re building a business. So definitely spending more time with my family.

A bit of a clichéd one; your house is on fire, everyone is safe; which three things do you carry with you out of the door? Probably one of my watches, I’ve got an IWC watch that I really love. I’d definitely want to keep that. I’d want to save my wok, I’ve had it for nearly 30 years now so I need to retain that. Lastly, I’d make sure that one of my cars was OK.

Lastly, I know that you’re an Arsenal fan; how do you think they’ll get on this year? I think they’ll be top 4 but I don’t see them winning the Premiership this year, I’m afraid. It’s because I don’t think they’ll buy anybody, in this transfer window there’s massive talk of them buying a quality striker but I don’t think they’ll do it. Man City have got Agüero, Chelsea have Costa, United have Rooney and Liverpool have Benteke; although I don’t necessarily buy into that one. If Arsenal want to win something they need to go out and get Benzema, Cavani or someone of that calibre.

* Tom Kirkup is on Servest’s ‘Future Leader’ programme, a scheme designed to unearth talent within Servest’s organisation and to provide a path for graduates into the FM industry. Prior to working with Servest, Tom spent 5 years teaching abroad in Ukraine, China and The Czech Republic. During his time with Servest, he will spend time rotating throughout their various divisions, gaining experience of all their current service lines and head office functions. It is from these rotations that he draws inspiration for writing a semi-regular blog on Linkedin and on Wordpress. Through his blogs he shares his thoughts on Servest and the FM industry as a whole. So far he has explored why FM is still an often unseen industry, shared an aspect where its impact shouldn’t be overlooked and detailed his time spent with Sean Fisher; one of Servest’s MDs. You can find his blogs on https://www.linkedin.com/pub/tom-kirkup/b3/30b/173 and https://tkirkup.wordpress.com/


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