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Looking back … and forward

19 February 2010

The Lifetime Achievement in FM Award recognises individuals who have made a significant contribution to the development of FM. Its first winner has used his expertise to improve FM strategies and practice, and promote academic excellence. Jane Fenwick invited Mike to elaborate on his career achievements and his consider what direction the FM sector will take in the future.

The first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement in FM Award presented at the PFM Awards 2009, is Michael Cant, Director of Larch Consulting.  Active in FM for over 25 years and one of the earliest proponents of FM as a professional discipline in the UK he continues to take a leading role developing solutions for his clients, and raise the profile and standards of the FM profession. 
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Q What attracted you work in the FM sector?
Having trained and practiced as an architect allowed me to follow my passion in design and art in my early professional years. Architecture touches people and organisations in a very visual manner - just like music and art. I loved being part of a design team developing and delivering schemes that you can touch and feel (and live in) once completed. However, the way support services add or subtract value to a business or institution is also a key part of the personal experience.  Great design with poor operational FM is awful. I believe that a poor architectural experience is often strongly linked to an uncomfortable personal experience of facilities rather than a poor piece of architecture – and vice versa.
By the mid 1980’s I was involved in designing and managing large portfolios of properties, heading up a team designing, developing and running prestige restaurants and hotels in the West End of London and all around the UK, including managing the FM services at the Royal Albert Hall, developing schemes in Covent Garden and renovating prestigious and historic country hotels such as The Bear at Woodstock. All this experience provided a fantastic professional perspective, and it certainly gave me an insight into what this and other business sectors can really do.
At that time I was particularly attracted to combining design (RIBA), property (RICS) and general management philosophies together, and during the 1980’s formed a JV company with a surveying and a design practice to offer broad-based and integrated professional services.
I soon learnt that things weren’t so easy to deliver in practice!  Our application to the Royal institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) was politely turned down, as an ‘integrated’ design, project consultancy and property management practice was not acceptable to the Institute at that time. Instead, I turned towards the facilities management sector, and more particularly consultancy, and founded Larch Consulting with Lucy Jeynes in 1995.
At that time, and to the present day, our clients tend to want more fundamental change than just simply outsourcing a particular service or activity to third parties. They want us to unpick their organisation as it relates to the links between their trading business and the way those infrastructure activities are supported. The concept of ‘outsource is good, in-house is bad’ just didn’t, and still doesn’t, work in most cases.
I consider the blanket view that outsourcing is the best approach is largely as a result of highly persistent, sophisticated and successful marketing over a sustained period by providers that benefit from such an approach.  Indeed, the practice of offering consultancy services as well as outsourced services should seem a little strange from a client perspective. In part the view that outsourcing is the option of automatic choice reflects a fundamental lack in understanding the business, financial and operational issues that sit at the centre of the economy.
At the time I started out in the sector, I wanted to influence both FM design and delivery (operations). For these two essential parts to work in true harmony requires real empathy as well as technical experience. In the same way architects shape our physical environment, so I wanted to influence and shape the somewhat invisible ‘organisational environment’. Shaping organisations enables us to influence at the highest levels, and down through to the intimate detail of a CAFM system or a training package for an engineer, for example.
Consider a beautifully designed car. A classic car combines so many emotional resonances. Humans respond emotionally not only to the shape or sound but to the feel, the workmanship, the colour, location, as well as how it actually drives (and sounds). It has to fit together as a singular, complete, piece, much as a classic song delivered with passion does. Music is similar - a great gig is more than a group singing and playing instruments. It’s about the stage, crowd involvement, light, colour and all the backstage support teams. When it all comes together, it adds up to so much more than the component pieces.
So I believe FM is a great deal more than just a bit of M&E, a touch of cleaning, some food delivery or a contract between two or more parties. At its best it fits seamlessly into the client organization - almost but not entirely invisible in many respects. The reception area and customer service staff tends to be a very visible part, as are some maintenance, catering or cleaning staff. But there are so many parts unseen and unheard, yet essential in making the whole work well. 
These less visible aspects make the design and operation of FM so interesting. Can it add value? Does it deliver efficiency or just tread water? More importantly, if these ’unseen’ elements (the staff) don’t feel respected or valuable, what chance do we have in getting high quality services delivered consistently or at all?   I like the idea of building FM teams alongside rather than instead of in-house teams, and in a way that uses the strengths of all parties rather than the weaknesses.
Q What has been your most significant achievement in FM?
That’s a tough one. The PFM Lifetime Achievement Award certainly made me think much more carefully about this. If I really look at it from a personal standpoint it falls into two linked themes.
The first is to see the pleasure in our working with global blue chip corporations such as Diageo, Hammerson, QinetiQ or De Beers over a number of years and to see the shift in their appreciation and application in FM. It’s also working with organizations that are challenging and work at an intellectual level – Imperial College, Sainsbury’s, Mars Confectionery, Edinburgh University and others – the need to absolutely take apart an entire support infrastructure and work collaboratively to put it back into a totally new form is very exciting.
There are those tough days where it all goes haywire, and others where it all slots together. But when a client sits down and says ‘we really didn’t realise what you were after, but now we can see it and it’s fantastic’ and then it’s worth all the team effort. I also think back to some of my earliest work in the sector, such as restructuring FM delivery at Leeds University, and the reputation we’ve subsequently built in that sector. Larch has worked with over 30 universities, and it’s very satisfying.
The second is in some respects more important to me. Our consultancy work has to be objective, and sometimes this leads to major changes taking place in our client teams, and often involving re-structuring and major staff changes. We are often asked whether these interventions are fair to individuals whose careers may be impacted as a result. The most significant achievement I think I and my colleagues at Larch have done is to work with everyone from the boiler house engineer to the boardroom CEO to fundamentally reconstruct FM operational models that are designed specifically for the client requirement, and they and we don’t pander to either outsource or contracted-in marketing hype or pressure.
We are honest and focused, and the way I see it is, that if I can work collaboratively and with mutual respect with all manner of individuals and organisations, it’s all worth it.  It can touch people personally, but we always hope for the best, no matter how hard some decisions need to be.  And it’s this element that has taken me to where I feel my involvement needs to take me more directly into setting up and running operational contracts in the future.
Q Where would you hope to see the FM sector develop in the future?
I don’t feel I’ve yet done enough to marry and merge all the pieces in order to believe that I’ve achieved what needs to be done. It’s probably at very best described as half way there.  Let me explain this more carefully.  2010 in some respects represents the watershed for the UK – economically, politically and socially.  Much has been achieved but the challenge ahead for businesses large and small are going to be of a different quantum than experienced before. Where some ‘low hanging fruit’ - usually fairly simple re-organisations and aggregation of services, perhaps a bit of training, a new CAFM system, some new sub-contract squeezing, and so on -  used to generated the 5-10 percent savings that clients were happy to accept, the new order will want to achieve 20-30 percent downsize, along with massively improved service levels.
FM has somewhat boxed itself into a self-limiting and constrained ‘self-made sector’ which is now evolving into something very different. The standard FM offering of a mix of catering, M&E, energy or helpdesk, and so on, bundled in various ways (in-house, outsourced, managing agent, shared service, PPP, DBFO etc) .is falling well short of meeting future challenges – financially, socially and economically. However these models are potentially restricting the extent to which fundamental change will be possible in order to meet the demands of the new economy reality. They constrain and restrict rather than enable.
How did this occur? During the 1980’s and 1990’s we needed to create a brand identity – a flag to fly if you wish –and ‘Facilities Management’ suited that aspiration. Unfortunately, we didn’t see the longer term risk.  There was the ‘What is FM debate’ and we had trouble defining it relative to other endeavours such as architecture, portfolio management, MIS, etc. FM falls into the greater descriptor I generally consider as ‘Social and Economic Infrastructure’.  At present however most of what is done on the ground is service by service delivery of (say) maintenance, cleaning or security. Integrated services are often really just separate operational services packaged for the client in order to appear integrated.
The FM sector needs to break away from the whole ‘core – non-core’ stance which encourages clients to disengage from both the FM staff serving them and the services provided under the FM banner to the client. The multiple-layer supply chain approach providing a range of services via a managing (TFM) contractor/ agent is going to be hard pressed to deliver the sort of performance and cost challenges it promised in the heyday of FM in 1990’s and early 2000’s.
I hope to see organisations, whether public or private sector, retail, educational, financial or elsewhere, take a more integrated view of the pluses and minuses of what has been achieved or otherwise to date. I see the FM sector benefitting from being more intellectual and more involved in the client viewpoint, actively taking real rather than notional risk in engaging with the client, and delivering more value than presently on offer.
Q What have you left undone?
A great deal.
  The next few years will be an exciting and critical turning point for FM and the business infrastructure market. Watershed or not, the combined challenges represented by declining public sector investment, tough economic restraints, limited funding, increased global competition and demand for improved customer service and value will stress test our prevailing models. The recession has hit our sector hard, but this is presenting silver-lining opportunities for reshaping and reworking within infrastructure services and amongst suppliers. It is in this dynamic landscape where I will be fully engaged from now on.
Q What are your work plans for the future?
I’ve enjoyed the consulting/ advisory side of the market for some years now.  However, having sold my shares in Larch a couple of years ago I have been fortunate enough to be able to have the time to spend time researching and developing some new models that take a more collaborative approach to infrastructure support contracts to clients.  In conjunction with a number of organisations and individuals we’ve been working on a number of JV’s/SPV’s with selected clients to address some of the challenges I’ve have already mentioned. 
I feel that the time is right to go back to my roots.  I’m wanting to provide clients with purpose-built and flexible FM services, designed from the inside out, and with the financial support to assist in the whole journey from strategy, design, funding to operational support and risk sharing.  It’s about collaboration rather than becoming adversarial, simplicity rather than increased complexity, focus rather than broad-brush.  It’s exciting to see the market moving to its next phase, and I’m enjoying working alongside other individuals and parties in offering something a bit more dynamic and competitive to the market.
I’m really enjoying the debate as we continually challenge current conventions, and look to work in a different way with both clients and suppliers – to mutual benefit. Read More

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