Neil Fergus, Managing Director – FM, recently took part in a Q&A discussing his journey in FM, the impact of the pandemic and the future of the industry.
Q: What first attracted you to working in FM, did you have much awareness of the profession?
In the first decade or so of my career, I was a Housing Manager. During that time, we were using a series of sub-contractors to provide FM services, some good and some bad. We then made the decision to start bringing some of these services in house. And that’s where it all started for me.
Q: How did you progress through the profession to your current role?
It started with the management of cleaning and GM services in the housing contract I was running that covered some central London housing estates. From there I made the move across to a fully-fledged FM role when we took over a local authority DLO that delivered cleaning and GM services to schools and council buildings.
My role has grown alongside Pinnacle’s growth in FM services. The next key point came when we took over a company delivering Total FM services to Education PFI projects. I managed the transition of this company to Pinnacle and while it was very challenging it’s become a great success.
From there I became a Director and was appointed MD in 2019. I’ve now been with Pinnacle for over 20 years, which is not what I would have imagined at the start of my career. However, both the company and my role within it have constantly evolved and that’s kept it interesting and motivating.
Q: What have you found the most challenging experiences working in FM?
There’s no hiding the fact that I don’t come from a technical background, so there’s been many challenges around this aspect of the work over the years. This was definitely a test for me in the early days of Total FM service delivery. However, I’ve been lucky to have had some great technical people working alongside me. I really appreciate the fact that they’re still happy to break these issues down for me, even after all these years.
Q: What have you found most satisfying about working in the sector?
We’ve become a bit of a specialist in turning around difficult contracts, particularly in PFIs and it gives me real pleasure seeing our team go about this transformation.
My strongly held view is that customer service is the backbone to all FM services and I love seeing our teams go above and beyond for the clients or communities they serve. There are so many people working incredibly hard (often for modest reward) in our industry and yet we never struggle to find people that are willing to go the extra mile.
Q: What qualities do you think are most needed for a successful career in FM?
There are so many different roles in FM that I feel like there’s a place for most people. But there are certainly some overarching qualities that can help. Of course, you have to be resilient and flexible. One of the great things about FM is that no two days are the same and one of the demanding things about FM is that no two days are the same. It helps if you’re the type of person that is ready for that. Emergencies will be thrown at you and everyone will want an immediate response.
And then it comes back to the general interpersonal skills that are required to provide really good customer service. You need to be able to listen, understand and empathise with your clients and customers and then have the ability to explain the reasoning behind decisions you have made.
Q: What has changed about your job role since the COVID-19 crisis? E.g. home working, furloughed, redeployed?
I’ve spent a lot of time working from home and had similar experiences to most others in those circumstances. You find that working from home does have a rebalancing effect on work-life balance, but it’s also emphasised that meeting and working collaboratively with others is really important, particularly when it comes to making important decisions in a crisis. Communication has likely been the biggest change, in that the way we communicate with customers, clients and colleagues alike has by necessity become more open, transparent and available.
Q: What is your organisation doing to ensure the wellbeing of staff – whether working at home or returning to the workplace?
I think we’ve worked really hard to ensure the wellbeing of our colleagues remains our top priority. Initially, this came in the form of extra PPE, sanitation, a flexible approach and a host of practical measures to protect the health of our staff.
We have also been conscious of the new challenges presented by the shift in working patterns – both for those working from home and those continuing to go to their workplace. We took a proactive approach, implementing new ways for colleagues to interact, ask questions and also worked hard to ensure that colleague’s concerns were heard and action was taken.
Over the course of the last couple of years, we have also placed mental health at the top of our agenda through training, sharing advice, holding virtual events and spreading awareness to ensure that each member of staff feels supported and able to speak with someone should they need.
Q: Do you believe the pandemic has highlighted the important role of the FM sector and what areas do you see as most key?
Yes, it’s been great to see some overdue recognition of the role that our front-line workers play. In our work in schools, we’ve been continually reminded of the vital backbone of support provided by FM services to ensure children’s education can continue. Across the board, the focus on sanitation has become key in helping to ensure that the communities we serve can utilise their spaces safely, and facilitate a return to some level of normality.
Q: What advice would you give to someone coming into the profession now?
It’s a great profession. It’s not always easy but the varied nature of the work is what keeps it interesting. There are loads of learning and development opportunities out there, so take them whenever they’re available. And you are doing a job that makes a difference, it’s important to always keep that in mind.
Q: Which of your achievements are you most proud of during your career?
I think we’ve built a business that is values driven. We always strive to deliver excellence and I genuinely believe that we’re a great company to work for. We’ve won some awards, which is always nice as it gives some external validation of the work our teams put in every day, but mostly I’m proud of the fact that people enjoy working for us.
Q: What do you predict could be the main changes to the FM sector post pandemic?
I think we all know that the work environment has changed. This was happening anyway, but it’s been dramatically accelerated by the pandemic. The role of the office will change for most people and work life balance equations will be made. Even as the industry makes technological advances, many FM roles still require people on site to physically complete tasks and wellbeing will remain a top priority for all workers. What we have seen is that FM is incredibly resilient and flexible.