Career Ladder Q&A with Neil Fergus
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.
This Feature was originally published in the Facilities Management Journal.
Toby Heysham on the bright future of energy
During COP26’s Energy Day, Toby Heysham, MD of Pinnacle Power, explores the future of low carbon heat
The world is watching the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) with excitement. What new commitments will arise? How will the world change as a result? It is really exciting to be working in Pinnacle Power as policy announcement after policy announcement comes out supporting the industry we are in, all at the same time as we are actively engaging with Government to speed things up. There is such intense pressure to not only deliver, but more so to deliver much faster. This gives me real confidence that the coming decade will be one of seismic shift for us as a country, but more so for anyone in the industries trying to deliver on this ambition.
The government is legally bound into its “Carbon Budgets” and has recently passed the 6th Carbon Budget into law. Looking at the graph beside, the firm line shows the carbon emission drop that has already happened. The dotted line is the pathway we need to be on in order to hit the legally binding targets. In very basic terms the drop you can see has come from the decarbonisation of the power sector (producing electricity). This has been achieved by turning off the coal fired power stations and the deployment of renewables.
This has been a huge success. It is very hard to argue with this success, but you can see from the graph how much further we need to go. The next “super challenges” that need to be faced are the decarbonisation of heat and transport. It is the heat bit that Pinnacle Power focuses on.
To hit these targets, we cannot continue to burn fossil fuels in our houses/ businesses anymore. This is a point often missed when we consider our own carbon footprint. Most of us have a supply of fossil fuel running into our homes, where we burn that fuel (typically gas or oil) to create heating. This not only emits carbon, but it has a terrible impact on air pollution. A friend of mine went to the doctor recently with her 2 year old son who was coughing up black gunk, the doctor looked at it and said “oh don’t worry that is just London Lung”. She was as horrified by the acceptance of this concept as the fact that it existed.
There is a huge amount of heat wasted in the UK every day. It is widely believed that 100% of the UK heat demand could be met by the heat we waste. Use a power station as an example, those cooling towers are doing exactly that… taking usable heat and cooling it down. Imagine if that could be turned into usable heat for your shower? You may have been on the tube network, imagine if that inferno could be turned into usable heat?
This is what Pinnacle Power does – we take heat from a variety of different low carbon/ waste sources and transport that through large pipes around a city, town, estate or community and then into peoples’ homes. Inside the house we then use our system to heat the customer’s property (hot water and heating). The interesting part of this is that we can, and will, change the source of that heat as time goes on. At the moment it may be one source, but in 5 years it will certainly be different, and probably in 10 years different again. We can run the lowest carbon, lowest cost heat into people’s homes.
The challenge here is for us to get the pipes running round the dense urban environments. As soon as the pipes are in we can then find waste heat, low carbon and cheap heat sources and plug them in. We then plug in the buildings, homes and businesses in the area and suddenly they are not burning gas or oil inside that building, there are no flues and both carbon performance and critically air quality improves. We start making significant progress on the fixed line of the Climate Change Committee graph.
The final critical piece of the puzzle is the price of the heat. We cannot be in a world where we rely on the vast majority of consumers to change from high carbon to low carbon heating if the ongoing costs, or the initial costs, are high. Perversely this argument is being helped at present with the massive spike in the cost of fossil fuels. The main heating fuel in the UK is natural gas. This price has recently gone through the roof rising c300-500%. This is not yet fully being felt in the domestic market, but it will feed through to retail prices over the coming year. The value of a heat network is that as soon as the infrastructure is in place it is relatively easy to plug in very low cost or zero cost heat. The challenge is getting the infrastructure in place to take advantage of that cheap low carbon heat.
To this end the government has released a consultation on zoning which looks to insert a “heat zone” into every appropriate urban environment. This will be taking advantage of the government looking to remove gas from the built environment. This is detailed in the Heat and Building Strategy. These two policy drivers will make a significant impact in the growth of low carbon heating, but they will not get to the targets that the government set out. As a result of this we are working with government to provide an investment framework which will bring more than £60bn into low carbon heat networks in the coming decades. By way of reference this would be double the size of the current UK’s offshore wind industry. This industry is widely seen to have been a massive success. We are one of the worlds foremost offshore wind countries and this industry is the benchmark by which many in the heat industry view the future.
This is a thrilling time to be in the low carbon industries and we are excited by the challenge ahead.