Gail Tracey: creative solutions
Growing up in the north of England, Gail Tracey loved to paint and draw. She flirted with the idea of becoming a fashion designer and enrolled in one of the UK’s last pure art and design colleges to study fine arts.
“Most of the other unis were offering a range of subjects to get as many students as possible. Cumbria was just for the arts – drama, graphic design, painting. I was completely surrounded by arty types,” she recalls. “I always thought art was my calling.”
But Tracey, who has recently clocked up 17 years in facility management, knew shortly after graduating that struggling to get by as a receptionist in an art gallery while waiting to be ‘discovered’ for her paintings wasn’t going to be for her.
“I’ve always been a realist,” she says. “And, after uni, I didn’t know many people I studied with who went on to successful careers in the arts. I had rent and bills to pay and I needed to find something to do.”
Tracey moved to Manchester with her partner at the time, who was in a band. “Many in my social group were musicians and artists, and my boyfriend had huge aspirations about being the next big thing and Manchester was where it was all happening.”
At the age of 22, Tracey started temping. “I found myself at Siemens working on a facility management help desk. I had no idea what FM was or what the job entailed. They sat me down in front of a phone and gave me a notepad. We had a computer system, but we didn’t log the calls on that. It was all noted down – time, who was calling, what the problem was, how urgent it was and who was contacted to resolve it. I’d phone one of the maintenance guys or find someone with a mop to send along to whatever needed to be done.”
And, within a very short period, Tracey found herself hooked.
“My first six weeks was a huge learning curve, but I got my head around the fundamentals of FM – essentially taking care of the health, safety and well-being of everyone in the building. I recognised it as a vital service that I never knew existed.”
A six-month temp contract turned into a full-time role and Tracey hasn’t looked back. “I spent seven years with Siemens and I came from the grassiest of grass roots, learning everything I could and progressing up the chain. I was lucky enough to have great managers and mentors along the way who shaped my vision of what FM is and what it could and should be.”
Tracey still remembers her first calls on the help desk. “I had never had a ‘real job’ before and I had to deal with some pretty senior people at the other end of the phone who, more often than not, were unhappy and complaining about something.
I didn’t have any customer service training, but I quickly discovered that one of the biggest strengths you can have is listening to the customer and being sympathetic to their needs.”
The first lesson Tracey learned was ‘nothing is trivial’. “Maybe that’s why this industry isn’t for everyone. Other people had temped on that desk before me, but only the ones who ‘got it’ could ever imagine FM as a career. I became acutely aware that little things matter. In my view what stands people apart in FM is how good they are at dealing with customers and understanding their needs – aligned with a good amount of common sense.”
That was lesson number two. “So much of our industry is about taking a logical approach to problem solving. If you don’t have that I can assure you, you won’t enjoy FM and you’d get lost quite quickly.
“I enjoyed it from the outset; there’s a creativity about it and that’s why it appealed to me. Creativity in FM means thinking laterally and thinking differently. Yes, there are procedures and, when it comes to the built environment, there’s a lot you do by the book. There are times, though, when throwing the book away is a good approach; it helps if you’re not fixed to just one idea.”
Tracey’s career with Siemens grew quickly. “They saw something in me at a time the FM department was growing. Siemens had an internal FM team, but it wasn’t mandated throughout the Siemens group of companies, which at the time was around 20 to 30 different organisations in the UK. “The FM team had to prove to each of these companies that we were offering value for money. It made us very competitive, and the senior managers started to recognise good people.” Tracey was soon promoted from the help desk to service coordinator and grew her visibility among the wider Siemens team.
“I think one of the reasons I stood out without having had the history in FM was my people skills. I had a knack for dealing with individuals, listening to them and stopping things from escalating.”
It came as quite a shock when Siemens decided to outsource its FM. “They were my ‘work family’; they helped me become a grown-up and the professional woman I am today. The decision to outsource the Siemens FM function coincided with the GFC (global financial crisis). I was involved in putting the spec together and taking it to the market, evaluating whether the companies would be good enough to fill our shoes.”
While a number of her colleagues joined the incumbent service provider, Tracey decided to look at a change of scenery. “I stayed with Siemens, but spent a year in mergers and acquisitions. It was a strange year given they weren’t acquiring any businesses at the time and indeed, when the GFC hit home, they started divesting businesses.”
Tracey had worked for a few years with Lionel Prodgers, dubbed the ‘father of FM’ by a UK journal, when he was seconded to Siemens FM as managing director. “He always maintained an open door policy and, being the person I am, I went in and introduced myself. We’ve been work colleagues and friends ever since.”
In 2009, Prodgers invited Tracey to join him in a new UK consulting business. “It was a leap of faith; I was used to a big corporate environment and I found myself working from home, with just a mobile phone and laptop. The industry was obsessed with flexible ways of working and I had an opportunity to try it for myself. ”
“After a few months, I got into the swing of things and found an excellent serviced office nearby that I would call into a couple of times a week to get my bustling-office fix. For a consultancy like ours it was a great solution – no rent, just convenience all the way at very little cost. Years later, if I find myself needing a ‘water cooler chat’ I simply call a colleague on Skype, wherever in the world they may be, to talk about the latest episode of Game of Thrones or our weekend plans.”
Carrying out strategic reviews and improvement programs for several large clients – including PRUPIM (Prudential’s property investment arm) across its huge UK portfolio, Maersk Oil in Qatar, the International School of Kuala Lumpur and the Ministry of Education in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – Tracey found herself enjoying her new routine until another challenge raised its head: establishing their business Agents4RM (RM standing for responsible management) in Australia.
With Sydney-based business partner Chris McKeon, Agents4RM opened its doors in Australia in October 2016, plugging the local business into its global network of FM experts and built environment professionals. Now, as her career heads towards its third decade, Tracey says the profile of FM and FM consulting is growing. “I wouldn’t say it’s easy to get meetings with board directors, but we certainly have more clout these days. There are many highly experienced and knowledgeable professionals in our industry that deserve to have the ear of the board; they have things to say and impactful solutions to propose.
“I think we’ve chipped away at the ‘us and them’ mentality; I don’t see the frustrations now that I used to see and that’s partly because I’m more experienced, but also because the conversations we have and the improvements we make are more strategic.
“We’re not in the C-suite’s face all the time; we just make sure FM is on the agenda and gains the recognition it deserves. It’s important to the business to keep their employees happy and well and, without FM, that wouldn’t happen. A comedian once used a phrase at an industry dinner in the UK, calling us ‘Magical FM Fairies who come out at night and do all the dirty jobs before the office opens again the next morning’. It was a common perception in my early career and I’m very glad that FM has become much more visible.”
Tracey has lived in Australia since March 2013. “Being here was the opposite of culture shock. Coming from an arts background I adore what goes on in Melbourne. I have a wall planner in my kitchen and there’s something on every weekend – a gallery, a gig or a jazz high tea at the Arts Centre. For someone who wanted to do something in the arts, this is absolutely the next best thing.”
This article also appears in the October/November issue of Facility Management magazine.