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EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Sarah Bentley

23 September 2015

Sarah Bentley
Sarah Bentley

David Strydom interviews a feisty Sarah Bentley, CEO of the Building Futures Group (BFG), and discovers she’s determined that the trade body will continue to make a difference to FM companies

There’s a lot of criticism towards BFG from various sources. To what do you attribute this?
I listen closely to our members but regularly engage with people at all levels across industry. From the conversations I’ve had with them, they aren’t criticising. In fact it’s the opposite. We’re unique – we’re a trade body, training company and sector skills council rolled into one. I accept people don’t like change, and it’s easy to look back fondly on the past. BFG members joined because we share views, aspirations and a commitment to do things – not just talk about them, or even worse, complain about them. We’re committed to making a difference to every member; and to give them the value of their membership back each year through the services we provide. I want to work with our members to help them be the best businesses they can be. If we’re not doing that then why should we exist? If members criticise what we do then we’ll listen and take action. Until then…

Has being a woman made it more difficult operating in a traditionally male-dominated industry?
I’ve never had it pointed out to me so much that I’m a woman as it has since I started working in this industry; I’m still surprised now when it happens. It’s unfortunate that like many sectors FM needs to address the inequality in senior positions and that has brought with it challenges for me. There are reams of evidence to back up the fact that we need balance in companies – be it gender, race, sexuality – and we’re getting there slowly, and must do to compete in an increasingly diverse global market. If companies can’t recognise the commercial power of diverse talent they’ll lose out to competitors. Sadly, there have been times when I’ve witnessed outrageous discriminatory behaviour aimed at myself and my colleagues by a minority who’ve not moved with the times. Thankfully these men and incidents are few and far between. Their reach and influence is miniscule, but what heartens me overall is how welcoming the FM sector is. 
 
Why do you think there are so many women at middle management, and so few at the top level?
This is a key issue for every sector in the UK; FM isn't unique. Slowly things are changing. We’re seeing more women taking on top-level jobs, it goes without saying that women like Ruby McGregor Smith, CEO at Mitie, are leading way and through the Young Managers’ Forum more women are getting involved and moving up the ranks of the management structure.

Would you consider joining the Business Services Association, for instance, as its skills wing?
There’s definitely room for consolidation in this industry. With the BSA though? I don’t know. We have very different views and cultures as organisation. To be honest, it isn’t for us to decide. If the industry wants it, it should make a stand and call for it. We’d have to respond then. And as for BFG being the BSA’s skills wing – why couldn’t the BSA join us as the policy wing?

What is the state of the FM sector overall, in your opinion?
The FM industry is facing serious challenges and opportunities which won’t affect it now, but into the future. We see lower margins and greater competition while awareness of the essential services it provides to everyone across the UK is minimal. FM must promote itself better to shake off the invisible industry status. We of course are doing our best to bring FM out into the open by our work with key stakeholders in government and beyond, plus initiatives such as #secretjobs which reached 8.5m people across the UK. FM needs to be seen to lead the way in areas such as innovation, technology and energy efficiency where it already does fantastic work. What we also need are industry ambassadors who’ll promote FM outside the FM industry.

How do you find out what your members require from you, apart from directly asking them?
Like any membership organisation we have a range of two-way communication tools to enable us to find out what our members require from us. Our regular networking events provide us with excellent face-to-face feedback and all those who work for the organisation take pride in talking with, listening to and responding to member’s specific needs. Additionally, we study the latest research into the sector, plus our membership of the CBI and other national and international trade organisations helps us keep abreast of industry and economic issues which affect members.

How do you divide your time between the different aspects of BFG?
I’m fortunate to have a strong, varied skills set within the BFG company and this allows me to ensure that every member or customer has the best person working with them. This also means my time is carefully spent on those areas that give the best benefit and value to our members /customers and ensuring our budget and cash-flow plans are monitored carefully. We’re still a new organisation and only in our second year of operating as a truly commercial organisation. For our members, this year my priority is to get to know our members better; to develop those relationships so I can help steer our services towards their needs. Also I hope to continue to be invited to speak at events – pushing the messages about FM and securing even more skills funding opportunities for the industry.

What is your view on how HR should be working with FM to strengthen the sector?
HR professionals within FM are doing a sterling job in recruiting talented, hard-working people into various jobs. One thing HR can do to help strengthen the sector is to explore how we can raise awareness of FM in schools and colleges to develop a pipeline of FM-aware potential candidates. Our #secretjobs campaign was viewed by more than 8.5m people in the UK, and we’d love to talk to HR directors about how we can work together to help their companies adopt this brand to aid their recruitment needs.

Is the ‘race to the bottom’ having a negative impact on the industry?
Having spoken to hundreds of people in the FM industry over the past year a recurring theme that comes up is the ‘race to the bottom’. It’s apparent the demands of clients are increasing and yet the margins for FM services are decreasing. A particular issue is the involvement of procurement consultants who act on behalf of the end-user and have a particular focus on reducing cost, in effect to prove their worth to their clients. This leads to ever-decreasing margins which is having an impact on FM companies. Without adequate profit margins how can FM companies be expected to deliver quality services on which every single person in the UK relies, and invest in their staff through training, education and adequate remuneration and other benefits.

What is the solution, in your opinion?
One solution the industry can develop is to prove the costs and savings to clients and show how investment in FM services can lead to greater productivity and increase clients output, staff satisfaction and aid recruitment and retention. As a trade association we’ve actively campaigned to raise awareness of this issue and discuss it with relevant trade bodies and government departments. One thing is for sure if the industry doesn’t tackle this issue it will face an even tougher future.

What are your views on the relationship between BIFM and CIPD?
The Building Futures Group is also the Sector Skills Council for the FM sector, as a result we welcome initiatives like this one that help to raise standards. However, like all new initiatives we will be interested to see the impact of this measure and what impact it will have on skills, and the help it provides to those in HR to embrace FM skills development in the workplace. If it increases all of these things then it will have been worth it.

What is the relevancy of a trade association these days when you can network in so many different ways?
There will always be a need for trade associations, but like many organisations there’s always a need for them to evolve and not just rely on networking and providing the same services. As the sector changes we’ve changed to deliver what the sector needs. While we provide excellent networking opportunities for our members in person and virtually, we also provide so much more through lobbying on behalf of the sector to representing the industry at the top tables of those involved in the UK economy.

What was your background before becoming head of BFG?
My dream was to be a blue peter presenter – and deep down I still want to be!  However, my professional background has always been in skills, business and enterprise. I fell into a job in an awarding body when I was 22 and fell in love with skills then. After working at Open College Network of the South West for 3 years I secured a role at OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA) Examinations running their business interfacing division developing qualifications on a commercial basis for large companies including Norwich Union, Standard Life and the Army. I then dipped my toe into the world of skills policy, securing a job as a Policy Manager at the Learning and Skills Council head office (now the Skills Funding Agency). This was where I was first introduced to the fascinating world of government, politics, policy and strategy. Whilst at the Learning and Skills Council my partner and I bought a newsagents business which we also successfully ran for years before selling up. After 18 months at the LSC I was successful with a post as the Director of the East Midlands Regional Skills Partnership – a position that made me the youngest director within the LSC at the time. This gave me a much broader understanding of the complexity of the skills environment working with agencies across the UK to coordinate spend to best benefit people in the East Midlands. The Partnership consisted of JCP, LSC, Government Office, SSCs, RDA. I was then approached by the now CEO of UKCES to join his company Centre for Enterprise in Leicester as their Director of Business and Enterprise and then quickly became Joint-MD when he left to join UKCES. I spent 2 years there before moving to London to run Asset Skills; which is now The Building Futures Group.


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