How I Got Here: Oak Tree Group national facilities manager Dan Fullarton

by Sophie Berrill
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Dan Fullarton

“Work smarter, not harder.”

Some people think facilities managers just make sure the lifts are running and the lights are on. In reality, an FM wears many hats. From space management to sustainability and security in the built environment, responsibilities can vary from FM to FM. 

Facility Management’s ‘How I Got Here’ series chats to impressive people who have worked in the field to map out some of the paths taken and demystify this essential profession.

This week, we speak to Dan Fullarton from Oak Tree Group, who oversees the facilities management of 35 large retirement villages nationwide from his base in Brisbane. An early career in carpentry has given Fullarton an in-depth understanding of his trades – and sharp eye for good value.

Facility Management: Is it correct that you came to facilities management from a carpentry background?

Dan Fullarton: Yeah, I started off as an apprentice carpenter and then not too far out of finishing my apprenticeship I stepped into a management role where I was managing maintenance for the local council. I was managing the carpentry and building team and haven’t gone back basically.

FM: What was that transition like from carpentry into a maintenance role?

Dan Fullarton: I really enjoyed it. I wasn’t a big fan of getting up really early and driving all over the country to work in the heat and in the cold and stuff like that – but no, I really like it. I think it suits me more and I’m probably naturally better at this type of role than out there slaving away.

FM: Do you think that a background in carpentry or construction brings a certain advantage to facilities management?

Dan Fullarton: Yeah, I think it brings a really big advantage. Being able to clearly communicate with tradesmen, understand tradesmen when they’re troubleshooting, providing advice, reading plans, understanding different assets and the issues that could go wrong with them, how you best manage them: that’s the type of stuff you learn throughout your career. But I guess knowing that early on in my career was definitely a huge advantage. Probably the thing that is the biggest advantage to me now is plan reading. That’s second nature to me, having a trade background.

FM: Can you take us through the journey between when you got that initial role with the council all the way to your current role?

Dan Fullarton: I was once an aspiring rugby league player, so I didn’t take my career too seriously. It was just a job for me to pay the bills while I was playing footy, and I did an apprenticeship. 

Not long out of finishing my apprenticeship, I started working for Ipswich Council, who were the sponsors for my team, the Ipswich Jets. That was always just going to be a short-term thing until I worked out what I wanted to do. 

But probably within six to 12 months of being there, I got asked to come and give a hand to the team in the office managing a big list of small capital works projects, anything from a thousand dollars to $20,000. Then, not long after that, they restructured the carpentry team in the council and they asked if I was interested in applying to be – at the time it was called – the superintendent, who managed the carpentry team. I threw my hat in the ring and was successful with getting the job.

I was there for eight and a half years, then I decided I wanted to maybe test the waters and try something else and actually got into apprenticeship training, working for a registered training organisation (RTO). I did that for a few years and realised, all right, that’s not for me and the longer I do this, the further I’m getting away from the facilities management side of things. I went back and I worked at the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation, so I was a facilities manager there. 

Oak Tree retirement villages.

Oak Tree retirement villages

From there I moved on to Spotless, quite a large organisation which had a contract to deliver facilities management services to Cleanaway, an industrial waste company. I started off as a facilities manager and probably within six months I took over as the contract manager. Then I moved across to where I’m now working for a retirement village operator: Oak Tree Retirement Villages.

FM: What does your average day look like?

Dan Fullarton: I don’t think there’s such a thing as an average day. The way I look at it is you’re always putting out little fires. There are just all these little issues where people need your advice. 

Contractor management as well: dealing with contractors, setting up systems and processes to onboard them and make sure they’re compliant, making sure that the prices that they’re charging are fair value for money. Setting up service agreements too, to be more efficient with the way we operate as opposed to getting a quote every job. We get all the costs up front so that we can engage contractors. 

I spend a lot of time out at the villages as well. Yesterday, I travelled up to Yeppoon up in North Queensland, so I’m quite often on the road to physically go there and see issues or meet people on site and sort out things.

FM: Are those facilities all around the country?

Dan Fullarton: Yeah, all up the eastern seaboard of Australia. The furthest south one is in Kingston, which is in Tasmania, and the furthest north one is in Cairns.

FM: What are the challenges of having to manage facilities all around the country? How do you stay on top of that?

Dan Fullarton: Time management is really important and prioritisation: making sure that you’re attacking the bigger ticket items first.

Organisational skills as well, because a lot of it might be a phone call or a quick email, or you’re in a meeting and someone asks you to do something. It’s just really learning to stay on top of your workload. As soon as you forget to do something, that’s when you’re going to upset somebody.

FM: Do you have quite a large team working under you?

Dan Fullarton: No, I don’t. When I started with Oak Tree, they didn’t have a facilities team. I was the first one that they put on. Since I’ve started, I’ve now got an asset planner and a facilities manager. They don’t report directly to me, but we also have the grounds staff out at our villages who do the grounds maintenance.

FM: What did Oak Tree do before they had a facilities team?

Dan Fullarton:  Oak Tree has a very skilled development and project management team.  They were able to assist the operations team with all maintenance matters. This was very evident when I started, particularly the presentation of the villages, which are all of a very high standard. But this was no longer sustainable due to the company’s growth. It was taking them away from their core role, which is building new villages.

“I know that if I’m steering people in the right direction, I’m making their lives a lot easier.”

FM: Would you say that, as time goes on, more companies are realising the value of having a facilities team or a facility manager?

Dan Fullarton: Yeah. I think where the facilities manager is most important is with the compliance side of things. I’ve been doing this since I left school basically and the compliance is something I still can’t get my head around, particularly with fire assets and your fire maintenance. 

A lot of companies probably feel like they’re doing a good job – the presentation of their assets or their facilities might look good, their customers, whoever they are, might be really happy. But there might be something that you can’t see that could become an issue down the track that’s to do with compliance. And compliance is something that only really raises its head if you have an incident on-site or there’s some type of audit done. If it’s serious enough, it can land the company in a lot of hot water if they’re not compliant.

FM: What is the facilities manager’s role in making retirement villages places that people want to live in?

Dan Fullarton: We want our facilities to be as comfortable as possible for residents, but presentable as well. Somewhere that they’re proud to call home, just like we’re proud to call it one of our villages.

FM: Is technology something that you rely on more now?

Dan Fullarton: Yeah, definitely. Technology is something that I’m really big on. My favourite motto is: ‘Work smarter, not harder’, so if there’s technology out there that can make your life easier, streamline processes, make you more efficient, then I’m all for it. 

We recently just brought onboard a contractor management software that helps us onboard new contractors, ensure that they’re compliant, that they’ve got all the credentials that we require and they’ve done an induction. They also use this same tool and they sign in and sign out of a site every time they go there. That’s a good example of tech, plus there’s all the asset management software too, which is really involved as well.

FM: What would you say is the hardest part of your job?

Dan Fullarton: I would say the hardest part now – and this seems to be just since COVID – is the trade shortage. Nationally, it was only four or five years ago that you had the luxury of multiple contractors across every service line to engage and to do work. If they weren’t performing, you’d let them know about it or use somebody else. It was easy to get fair value for money because often they were quoting up against each other. 

They know that now there’s a trade shortage. I’m not sure where all the tradesmen have gone. No one seems to be able to answer that, but just being able to find resources to complete the work in a timely manner is an issue. 

Obviously with a trade shortage comes inflation, which is what we’re dealing with at the moment. What used to be a fair, reasonable price five years ago has probably doubled now. That’s probably what I see as the biggest challenge. 

And also not having the luxury of multiple tradesmen to choose from where you can handpick who you think is the best one or who’s going to provide the best value for money with the best workmanship. You don’t have an option of anybody else and the workmanship may not necessarily be of the standard you require.

FM: Do you think the fact that you come from a trades background gives you more of a discerning eye about that?

Dan Fullarton: Yeah, definitely. Obviously having an eye for not just carpentry, but across all the trades. A carpenter works pretty closely with all the trades, so I have a pretty good eye for them. I completed a defect inspection yesterday actually. 

FM: What is the best part of your job?

Dan Fullarton: I like helping people and just being useful. My phone rings all day. People just need help, need advice. I like being able to steer them in the right direction to get an outcome. I know that if I’m steering people in the right direction, I’m making their lives a lot easier, so making their work life more enjoyable.

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