Growing up in Cairns, Rebecca Pelling discovered a love of the built environment very early.
“My father was an electrician,” she recalls. “My brother and sister and I would go out on construction sites with him when we could and helped him with cables and light fittings and assembling fans. Dad’s friends were architects and developers and it really inspired a love of the building process.”
As she progressed through school, Pelling, now the head of Project Services at Colliers International in Sydney, felt she had a lot to offer but wanted to break free from narrow career confines.
“When it came time for me to think about what I wanted to do I knew I didn’t want to be an assistant to anyone. My exposure to Dad’s world and his friends opened my eyes to opportunities and gave me a passion for design and building.”
Pelling has led a peripatetic lifestyle, moving with her family to Papua New Guinea when she was just two months old and coming back to Cairns at the age of eight.
“My father took a job in Goroka, in PNG,” she says. “I particularly remember the Goroka Show where tribes would come from all over PNG to participate and people from around the world just to see it.
“It was a great place to grow up – we’d travel around PNG a lot, staying in huts and the landscape was very unspoiled. I virtually lived in a bikini and, because we had no TV, learned to do lots of things.” One of those, Pelling laughingly recalls, was how to play poker.
But PNG proved to be a formative experience for Pelling for more than the idyllic lifestyle – it made her a strong advocate of equality and diversity.
“Making the adjustment to life back in Cairns was hard,” she recalls. “I really struggled to fit in again. I was never part of the pack; I remember defending an Aboriginal boy who got beaten up and wherever I saw racism I would be very vocal. I’ve always believed in social justice and diversity and when it came to choosing a career I think I was destined to look at something non-traditional. That turned out to be studying civil engineering.”
While her career has since taken her from infrastructure and mining projects across the world and into major buildings, Pelling’s professional experience and upbringing have combined to make her a strong advocate for workplace equality and diversity. She’s an active supporter of the National Association of Women in Construction and a champion of workplace health and wellness and the role facility managers need to play there.
“After university I wanted to get professional experience, but also to travel. I ended up in the UK working on rail infrastructure projects and then ran large- scale projects all over the country. It gave me a focus on creating contract documentation to the highest standard, holding people accountable for doing great work and focusing on servicing clients as well as I possibly could.”
And that has been Pelling’s mantra throughout her career. “If you engage well with your clients and listen to them closely, and operate to the highest possible standards, things tend to run smoothly. If you don’t understand the stresses then, inevitably, there will be problems.”
After her extended visa in the UK finally expired, Pelling flew back to Cairns. “I have to admit, I cried all the way, but when I got home I just got on with it. I arrived on a Monday and by the Friday I was in Perth working on a major land development project, which had been a tip near the Swan River. We created a marina and residential subdivision. Two years later the company transferred me to Kambalda, south of Kalgoorlie, to work in underground mining.”
And there the issues of equality and diversity reared their heads. “When I got out there, ‘Whose girlfriend are you? ’ was the first question I was asked.
“I was 27 and all this was incredibly foreign to me and I’m very pleased that the improvement in diversity since has made the workforce so different. But the experience did teach me some very valuable things – in situations that appear to be confrontational it’s easy to be fearful. I just focused on what I was being paid to do – and that was to achieve a great outcome for the client or project.
“When that is your core belief, then the other aspects are no longer so challenging. I also learned that I was resilient and adaptable… and that mining wasn’t necessarily my thing.”
Pelling then shifted to Victoria to a multi-site wastewater infrastructure site before a stint at Coomera Waters, back in her native Queensland, where she moved into a design manager role for the first time. Managing a team of 12 consultants was her entrée into a role with Colliers. “I understood the sales process and everything that needed to go into a developing a product that we could sell and that stood me in good stead when I came to Colliers and found myself part of a group of workplace strategists, interior designers, planners and technology providers.”
Pelling’s division, Project Services, is part of Occupier Services at Colliers. “In Occupier Services we represent tenants, predominantly, to identify premises or buildings that are suitable for their needs. I’ve had the privilege of working with facility managers and seeing them in action while we evaluate buildings on multiple criteria – everything from design [to] floorplates, access to natural light, concierge services, equipment and how well-managed and maintained the building is.
“And that’s where the facilities manager role is so crucial – we look at the condition of the base building, the arrival experience, car parking, rubbish removal, end-of-trip – all these things are under the control of the facilities manager.
“One of the questions we often get asked about facilities management from clients is how everything relates back to the business case – tenants want facilities that attract and retain staff, but in many cases they’re also looking to shrink their footprint – developing spaces that can be shared or flexible.
“There’s also a heightened demand to integrate health and wellness. We see a lot of difference between premium and A-grade and B- and C-grade buildings. The former have a more sophisticated offering around wellness and building amenity, while B to C-grade or older assets, often haven’t had a significant enough spend on them or an upgrade.
“I feel sorry for facility managers who have a landlord that hasn’t invested enough in the building. Without Capex (capital expenditure) planning to ensure an upgrade schedule it makes maintaining base building services very hard for a facility management team.
“We all have a greater role to play in educating landlords to understand the market and what tenants want. That is always going to make a facility manager’s job easier and better.”
This article also appears in the June/July issue of Facility Management magazine.