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PROFILE Martyn Freeman, MD of FM at Mitie

Author : David Strydom

16 November 2015

In the December print edition of PFM, we'll be running a wide-ranging interview with Martyn Freeman. As part of that larger feature, we profile the man himself.

Being brisk and breezy without being brusque can be difficult to achieve, but Martyn Freeman does it with ease. In fact, during my hour-long interview with him at Mitie’s offices near London Bridge, Freeman shows chinks in his business-like armour by revealing a wicked sense-of-humour.

When I ask him to clarify his responsibilities, given Mitie’s federated corporate structure, Freeman explains that he’s directly responsible for soft services. He supervises soft and integrated FM contracts, while Peter Mosley oversees hard FM, Colin Dobell manages healthcare and immigration-related contracts and Bill Robson is in charge of property services. All four operational heads sit on the executive committee, reporting to CEO, Ruby McGregor-Smith

The first thing you notice about Freeman is a wide smile and a twinkle in his eye – I suspect he’s great fun socially. I ask him about his management style. “I’ll tell you once you’ve turned off your recorder,” he quips, before burying his head in his hands. “I’ll tell you what I’ve been called…”

But such flashes of frivolity don’t derail his on-point message. “I’d like to think when people want to talk to me about something – a difficult situation, a problem contract, a financial issue, a people problem, or even something fantastic like a contract win or retention – whether they want to talk to me about something that’s good or not so good, they know what they’re going to get.”

Freeman points out he’s not one to ‘react emotionally’. “I don’t want people worried about talking to me for fear of how I might react. I have a stable management style – you know what you get with me. I listen when I need to, and I absorb. I always go around a room, talk to people. I won’t just sit at a desk. I’m very open, a good listener when I need to be and I give clear direction. I talk to people and ensure that it’s not just lip service.”

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His career in FM has been ‘varied and interesting’, Freeman says. He’s always worked in the service industry, having started in London hotels including what was the Forum Hotel in Cromwell Road, Grosvenor House and the Cumberland Hotel at Marble Arch.

“I worked hard during those early days in my career in London - seven-days-a-week. There was a lot of fun, drinking and smoking - although all that’s in the past now.”

When the Ministry of Defence outsourced contract requirements into the private sector, Freeman started working with Aramark, where he remained for several years before switching. He then worked for an early FM outsourcer, describing the experience as ‘probably not the best in my career’, before being made redundant during the late-‘80s recession.

“It was a blow,” he says. “I had a young family then and a mortgage with interest rates at 15%. Most people won’t have heard of rates in the upper teens but at the time that’s where they were.”

What happened next was a remarkable departure from the norm: Freeman decided to set up a ballroom dance studio – ‘as you do.’  “It was a service of sorts,” he says. “There were seven or eight ballroom dancers, sort of Latin American, old time, modern, tap, that sort of thing.”

He managed that for a year before realising that ‘working in such a female-dominant sector is quite challenging. Parents can be very competitive with their children with respect to dancing and that plays itself out in an interesting political dynamic. But it was good experience’.

That was when Mitie entered the picture. Freeman went for an interview but was unsuccessful. His response to that was typical: “I’m not good at taking rejection. I phoned the director in Mitie and said ‘Look, you’re making a big mistake not taking me on’.”

Freeman went further, offering to work unpaid for a month, ‘and if you like me and I like you, we’ll have a chat and if not, we’ll just move on – no risk, no pain – and the rest, as they say, is history. That was 1992’.

Some might say the urgent need to find a job triggers this ‘do-or-die’ attitude, but in this case, I think the anecdote speaks volumes for Freeman’s chutzpah. In hindsight, it was the best gamble he ever took. “I’m really proud of everything this Group has done. It’s been really hard work. Investments into many minority companies have been very beneficial to the shareholders and to me personally, and for that, I’ve been very grateful. I’m proud that I head up the largest part of the group, which has over 57,000 people and turns over £1.3bn.”

The aspect of his job that Freeman enjoys the most is the autonomy he’s given to run his business within the organisation. “We do work within rules, regulations and governance, as you do in any corporate, but we’re given the freedom to run the business in a flexible way that’s right for our clients,” he points out.

“Mitie happens to be our employer, but our whole life is based around working for our clients. I enjoy focusing on providing clients with great services delivered by great people. And I enjoy our clients being happy with what we’re doing. If we can continue to extend the critical contracts we’ve got and add on other services, then it demonstrates that the client is satisfied.”

His division has a particularly high client retention rate, which Freeman says excites him. “I like winning, I like keeping the contracts we’ve got. I enjoy the results-based aspects of running a business. Ultimately, you have to have a result, and there has to be a payback. For all the effort you're putting in to supply great services, you’ve got to recognise the need to meet targets and objectives – some financial, some non-financial.”

As much as he enjoys his job, Freeman also revels in his holidays. The best time of the year for that is Christmas. “The industry is generally quieter, and I can switch off and rarely get contacted by email or phone. In the weeks between late December and early January, most clients tend to go away, and they certainly don’t want to come into London. That’s when I get on the lounger, read six or seven books and sleep during the day.”

At home, he enjoys gardening and golf. “I’ve just been fitted for a new set of clubs for the first time. I’m not a fantastic golfer – I don’t take it overly seriously. I play off around 18, which is OK. I get around without embarrassing myself too much, but I have two or three good holes. I like walking around the courses, looking at the scenery, chatting to people and hitting a few balls as I go.” And then, it’s back to work, where he’s engaged 24/7.


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