A first for everything
From the colourful world of luxury hotels to the corporate world of FM, Paul Schmeja has seen and done it all. He tells TIFFANY PACZEK about his unique career journey, how he ended up as CEO of a hugely successful company and everything in between.
Let’s face it, facilities management is quite the niche career. There’s no typical path into FM, just as there’s no typical facility manager and no typical role within the industry itself. Each job is as different, as varied and as unique as the individual who embodies that role. It’s what makes the industry and its participants’ foray into the world of FM so interesting and unconventional. There is no stock standard journey, no set of requirements, no beaten track into the FM universe – each member very much blazes their own trail.
This is evident in the many diverse stories we tell within our FM profile feature, and perhaps none more so than our latest. Paul Schmeja may not be the most obvious choice when we think of facility management, but he’s a prominent and an important figure within the industry.
Schmeja is the chief executive officer of First Contact, the leading provider of corporate reception and workplace concierge services in Australia. Much like the industry of FM itself, First Contact is very much a behind-the-scenes operation, merging into the background while working hard to ensure a building’s front of house service operates as smoothly and seamlessly as possible to the benefit of all – facility users, visitors and employees.
But long before First Contact and facility management, Schmeja got his start in the hotel industry – and this was something that he’s had a deep fascination with since his youth. It all began with an early trip to Disneyland – the home of so many childhood dreams, and for Schmeja it was the dream of a hotel running like an exciting and tightly-run ship. It was witnessing the wonder and magic of the Disneyland Hotel that sparked his interest in and love for the hotel industry. More explicitly, he was intrigued by how a well-run hotel can make guests feel and how the front-of-house interaction can significantly improve their holiday experience.
“The whole experience of Disneyland is amazing,” Schmeja says. “I mean, people write books on Disney and how well they do what they do in terms of delivering a fully-packaged experience.
“My experience of the Disneyland Hotel and the impact that made on me as a child, I think, was what triggered me to always want to work in and be a part of the hotel industry – it was such a memorable experience.”
And so, it was this that put Schmeja on the path to where he is today – the successful CEO of a facility service experience company who’s about to expand the business overseas and spend a year or two living abroad.
It’s a journey that, inspired by the magic of Disney, began its first steps in hotels and saw Schmeja study at the Blue Mountains International Hotel Management School – an interesting facility in itself. It’s the only higher education institution that exclusively teaches hotel management and operates as a working hotel itself, thus allowing students to experience both theory-based learning as well as practical experience in administering and receiving hotel operations.
“In addition to their academic hotel management studies, the students are actually working in the hotel,” Schmeja explains. “They’re working in the kitchens, the restaurants, the housekeeping department of the hotel. When they’re not working, they’re also guests of the hotel – so they’re staying in the rooms, eating in the restaurants… It’s a great closed-system set-up. They’re experiencing it from both sides of being the employees and the guests, which creates amazing respect for the industry.
“You don’t get that in a typical university – the discipline of getting up early in the morning, being at your classes on time, being at your shifts on time, wearing the correct uniform and adhering to the strict grooming standards. Students are coming out of this particular school with an absolute respect for the values that are important to succeed in the hotel industry. And it was an amazing experience.”
From there, Schmeja made his entrance into the industry, and working in hotels for a number of years has given Schmeja a plethora of juicy stories (not that he’ll share them – the hotel code of silence is an unwritten law!). But he does reveal what it was like working at the Grand Hyatt when Madonna and Michael Jackson toured in the 1990s, or being the night manager at the Como (and doubling as a sounding board for the likes of Gene Simmons and Jon Bon Jovi when they couldn’t sleep).
“It never felt like being at work,” he says. “It was a lot of fun and I got to go to a lot of concerts during that time as well, so that was my 20s – spent hanging out with rock stars and movie stars.”
From rock stars to sports stars – Schmeja’s career then took him from the celebrities’ playground to the (literal) athletes’ village, when an unusual and unexpected opportunity arose in 2006. He was asked to set up and manage service operations at the Athletes’ Village at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games.
This experience is one that Schmeja lists as one of his proudest career achievements, for through meticulous planning and preparing and his hotel-like management of the unique event sector, the Melbourne Athletes’ Village was one of the most – if not the most – successful in the Games’ history. It went off without a hitch, and that’s exactly what you want in a village full of sports stars. Schmeja says that while it was a fantastic opportunity, the experience also highlighted to him that the skills he learned and gained from his hospitality background are needed, desirable and transferable in other industries.
“People go into hotel management thinking that that’s the career they’re going to have and all they want to do is be a hotel general manager – because that’s what’s drilled into you at hotel school. But what I’ve learned is that, because of the focus across all industries now on customer experience, those skills are so transferable, because hotel-trained people are the masters of customer experience – that’s what they do.
“So, for me, having those opportunities to go and do things like the Commonwealth Games, and then the work we do with First Contact, has revealed that those hospitality core skills and values are in demand. And we’re seeing more and more demand now from people out of hotels and working in FM, which is something that, when we started, didn’t really happen,” he says.
Following his success with the Athletes’ Village, Schmeja was presented with the opportunity to support commercial real estate company JLL in the opening of the ANZ Centre in Melbourne’s Docklands. The project was to be designed around providing a service experience outcome, and Schmeja’s role was to deliver a unique approach to front-of-house in commercial buildings.
It was a two-pronged approach:
- to provide an engaging and agile workplace for employees that promoted flexibility in ways of working, and
- to provide a customer service experience that aligned with the brand values.
And it was here that First Contact was born, created by a team of ex-hotel professionals of the highest calibre, which established a new and never before seen approach to the commercial office concierge.
FC and FM
Schmeja became CEO of First Contact in 2015, and the business and all it has achieved is clearly something he’s passionate about. He and the FC team take what they’ve learned from the hotel industry and transfer it to office and building front-of-house interactions – a concept that was quite revolutionary in the FM space.
“First Contact was a part of the beginning of this transformation [of concierges] into workplaces becoming service experience environments, and it’s been fascinating. It’s been very rewarding to have been part of that transformation,” Schmeja says.
While First Contact’s concierges are the first thing most visitors to a building encounter in the facility, the company itself is essentially invisible, for the concierge integrates seamlessly into the building management and appears as a complete component.
“We don’t see ourselves as an outsourced service provider; we’re completely partnered with the organisations that we work with,” Schmeja says.
“Our staff carry the responsibility of being the face of an organisation. The interaction that one staff member has with a customer or employee will help shape that person’s perception of that brand, so it’s an awesome responsibility and we’re really appreciative of the level of trust that our clients place in us to represent the face of that organisation.
“It excites me that we have staff everywhere and our brand recognition in the industry is strong, but to the outside world nobody knows what First Contact is – nobody’s heard of us and yet our staff are representing these local brands. We’re like the invisible brand that powers the face of all these different [buildings]. And that’s really exciting to me that we have this white label brand, if you like, that sits behind these powerful FM companies, banks, finance companies, tech companies, energy and resource companies and the like – we’re across all industries, but nobody’s ever heard of us outside of the industry that we serve, which is exciting.”
There are big things on the horizon for Schmeja and First Contact. The dawn of the new year will see Schmeja relocate to Singapore, where he will be expanding the company and opening a Asia-Pacific (APAC) office.
“It’s very exciting, both professionally and personally,” Schmeja says. “I’ve always wanted to experience working overseas. I never got to do a gap year – so this is my gap year, in my 40s.
“But it’s very exciting for the business. Singapore has excellent foundations in five-star hospitality, great hotels and a great service culture. Hotels like Raffles, which has been around for over a century, provide world-leading customer service, but what we haven’t seen in Singapore yet is that level of service move into commercial buildings and into the FM industry.
“First Contact has made such a big impact in Australia. We’re in every capital city and we’ve established a great reputation for what we do. In facility management, Australia is regarded as a leader in many aspects of the industry, and others do look to what’s going on here. We’ve got some exceptional talent working in FM in Australia and it really does look like, in many ways, Australia is seen as a bit of an incubator of talent and new ideas, and other parts of the world are noticing. And that helps me to think about the possibilities of where First Contact may go,” Schmeja says.
In building the APAC office, First Contact hopes to replicate its operations and the success it’s had in Australia, and customise and adapt it for the local market. Schmeja will be overseeing the operations and introducing First Contact to the FM industry in Singapore.
“In many ways, it feels like starting again,” he says. “But we’re doing it now with a lot more knowledge and experience, and resources behind us that we didn’t have when we started pioneering this service in Australia.”
A hotel service
Schmeja says that, throughout all his career experience, what’s stayed with him is the idea that managing a hotel is about much more than selling rooms. “You’re creating an experience, you’re creating memories – and that’s what has impacted my career,” he says.
“Where I’ve done all these diverse and varied things, from the Commonwealth Games to opening and servicing amazing commercial buildings, for me it’s always been about the user experience.”
One of the things Schmeja loves best is getting feedback from customers about their First Contact experience. It could be as simple as a staff member impacting one person’s day, and the experience meaning so much to that person that they take the time to sit down and write him an email – “that shows the level of care and passion we have in our team members”.
One of the biggest changes to the way First Contact services facility management is the introduction of the workplace concierge – that is, according to Schmeja, having the help desk located inside of the building and servicing the internal workforce rather than the traditional reception desk outside that only serves external visitors. These concierges assist with anything to do with working in the building – from how to obtain a locker to finding the best location to work for the day, how to book a meeting room or how to adjust the temperature. With all of these issues, which are universal across most buildings, having a central source of help makes solving them quick and easy and, in turn, means the building users can be more productive.
The concept of agile workplaces and the modern work environment impacts First Contact and the way the company delivers its services. Gone are the days of rows and rows of identical drab cubicles and employees working like bees in a hive. The workplaces of today are transforming into environments that people are excited to come to – facilities equipped with cafés and wellness centres, function rooms and convenience shops. And, of course, the way people work is changing. No longer are workers chained to their desks; technology allows the concept of agile working to be a possibility for many roles and occupations. This means that over the course of their days and weeks, people can work in a multitude of locations based on their task needs – whether they need a quiet space to work in isolation or a communal location to confer and work as part of a team. Or perhaps they’re working from home, from a coffee shop, from a sunny park… The world of work is changing and many progressive, leading organisations are creating the infrastructure and the facilities to accommodate it.
“It’s no secret that companies want to create a positive and engaging, vibrant community for people to work in,” Schmeja says. “It’s fascinating from our point of view because it completely changes the way we service people and these buildings.
“We’ve learned, as part of the challenge, that no two workplaces are the same, no two companies are the same. We really have to adapt our service style to suit the culture and the brand values of that organisation. And that can extend to everything, from the design of the workplace to the selection of uniforms, to the style of staff. For example, what works for a bank is going to be completely different for, say, a tech company like Google or Optus. And we’ve had to learn to adapt our service style, and sometimes our entire approach, to suit very different environments.”
The constant in a changing world
The technological age has brought with it changes to every part of our lives, perhaps, most notably, the way we interact with each other. If we so choose, we could go days or even weeks, without physically speaking to another human soul. We can work from home, we can shop online, we can have cyber conversations, we can purchase our groceries in machine-automated transactions… The progress of technology can, essentially, allow us to become recluses while still surrounded by people and conducting everyday life and business. And it’s this rise in automation and technology that, conversely, has highlighted the need – the absolute necessity – for human connection.
There are two sides to this coin. Technology is a beautiful thing – it’s made so much possible and it makes so much easier; but it also has created a distance between people, meaning we must work harder at things that used to come easily, naturally and inevitably.
Schmeja says the question he’s asked most often is whether the rise in automation will remove the need to have a concierge.
“Absolutely not,” he says firmly. “We’re actually seeing an increase in requests for our services, as an overlay to automation. It must means that we’re doing things differently. Instead of having people sitting behind desks and processing transactions, those transactions are now becoming interactions where those staff are coming out from behind the desk with iPads or headsets and assisting people through those automated processes, making sure that a warm welcome and greeting is still offered, and helping people get to where they need to go – offering the right level of service. We’re seeing demand for that increase, but we’re doing it differently.
“The service will become more important than ever, but it will also be done differently – and it already is in environments where automation is being brought in. But we’re certainly not seeing automation replace customer service,” he says.
“We will see a time where, I think, reception desks as we know them won’t exist at all. Buildings are being built without reception desks, but with a roving concierge.” That is, staff without a fixed desk but roaming with headsets and tablets, able to approach and assist visitors and staff alike. Like many services, the role of the concierge won’t die, but it is evolving.
“There’s also a degree of technology fatigue, the more technology gets applied into these environments and the more things get automated,” Schmeja adds. “I think it only enhances the value of what we do, because people crave human interaction, connection and experiences, and it can be something as simple as empathy.
“Being able to identify that someone coming into a building may be stressed because they’re running late, or maybe they’re attending a job interview – we need to be able to pick up on those signals and help that person, get them a glass of water, get them where they need to be quickly, help them calm down and prepare them for whatever it is that they’re there for. Machines can’t yet pick up on these signals, they can’t demonstrate empathy, so that only enhances the value of what a well-trained, emotionally intelligent concierge can provide.”
The path untrodden
Schmeja says he always tells people they shouldn’t get hung up on where they think their career has to go.
“The best opportunities that have happened to me in my career came from things I missed out on. Going for a job that I had my heart set on and not getting it pushed me in another direction, which ended up being one of the best experiences of my life. Missing out on a corporate traineeship at the Hyatt, which I thought, as a 21-year-old, would be career gold, meant that out of that I ended up moving to the Como, where I had probably the best experience of my life – it’s where I met my wife!
“The second time was when a hotel changed hands and I was made redundant as part of the process. That was what led me into First Contact. I would not be here now, leading First Contact, if I hadn’t been made redundant.
“So, this is what I say when I talk to graduates and young people: some of the best experiences that have ever happened to me came out of opportunities that I’d missed out on. Missing out on one opportunity has opened up a whole other path.”
Schmeja also says that one of his greatest career achievements has been “the privilege of being CEO of First Contact, and hopefully inspiring and enabling another generation of service leaders”.
“The biggest message I have for people and the biggest thing I’ve learned is the impact that front of house staff – and all employees in a service environment – have on delivering their piece of the experience. Whether you’re in housekeeping, maintenance or concierge, you’re all impacting the visitor experience in one way or another. And when it all comes together seamlessly, like at the Disney Hotel, it can deliver a perfect experience every day.”
This profile was originally published in the Dec/Jan 2019 issue of FM.