From the archives: Malyon facility manager Sumeera Wijesooriya

by Sophie Berrill
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This month on Facility Management we’re revisiting some of our most popular and inspiring articles from the last year. Malyon facility manager Sumeera Wijesooriya takes the cake for a jaw-dropping first gig as a facility manager –  commencing his career in the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa.

Facility Management: When and how did your career in FM begin?

Sumeera Wijesooriya: I studied a facilities management bachelor’s course back in Sri Lanka. During my last semester exams, I started applying for overseas opportunities and before my final results came out, I was selected for an opportunity at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). I signed my contract even before I finished my degree and I started my career at age 26, just a week after university.

I didn’t know during the interview that the position they were hiring for was for the Burj Khalifa. It wasn’t exactly a facility management position. A service company called Cofely (under Engie worldwide) which operated the whole hard FM contract for the Burj Khalifa, hired me as an assistant engineer in energy management.

FM: Did you have an engineering background?

SW: No, I just completed various modules to study the basics, including engineering, energy management, electrical and mechanical services, fire, and hydraulics.

FM: Is it common for facilities managers to have studied courses in FM?

SW: No, I don’t think so. The course I studied in 2011 originally launched in 2010 in Sri Lanka. That was one of the primary FM courses then in Southern Asia – I was not aware of any others.

The general practice was for civil engineers or mechanical engineers to perform facilities and maintenance manager roles. BIFM (currently known as the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management) was the only body to provide a pathway to facilities management discipline back then.

FM: So your first job was at the Burj Khalifa. You went straight to the top at the world’s tallest building!

SW: You can say that with hindsight, but it was a long random shot! There were no job openings in the Sri Lankan job market for facilities managers then because we were only the second batch out of that course. In the last semester, a couple of new management bachelor’s courses were introduced in Sri Lanka, so there were more people to compete with. My mates and I applied to agencies recruiting overseas. On my third interview I got the job at Cofely, but there was no mention of the Burj Khalifa until I reached the Cofely office in Dubai.

FM: How did you feel when you found out you were working at the Burj Khalifa?

SW: Oh! [Laughs.] In my uni days, the Burj Khalifa was called Burj Dubai and I had been following the drawings and videos about how it was built. I thought I would definitely work in the Burj Khalifa in ten years. I would perform and I’d reach it someday.

I actually can’t explain the feeling I had the moment I got there! A driver drove me from the airport to the Cofely office. I saw the building and said, “Oh my God!” Even my driver didn’t tell me I’d be working at the Burj Khalifa when I asked him to stop to take some pictures.

FM: What’s inside the Burj Khalifa?

SW: Burj Khalifa is a mixed development. From the ground level to level 16 is the Armani Hotel, then level 19 to 108 is owned and leased residential. From about 112 to 154 are corporate offices and in between are tourist observation decks. From 155 up it’s all communications, such as radio. Level 160 is thought to be something like a VIP area near heaven.

FM: What was it like to work there in your role?

SW: It was a huge hard FM services contract. My role included energy monitoring, analysing and reporting, and applying plans daily with the operations team. I had to record and analyse a lot of data about the temperature, humidity, maintenance and so on and generate a performance dashboard every day to support the energy manager’s reporting to the client technical directors.

That was my first few months. I was then trained as a replacement for someone who was going on leave for a few months. They liked my work and offered me a position to take over as assistant manager of the energy department.

I was fourth down the line in operations and from there was appointed as a junior FM. That was my first engagement in FM operations. We had 130 technical staff on board on an everyday basis.

FM: How long were you in Dubai?

SW: Nearly 10 years. From my role as a junior FM, I got promoted to deputy manager and moved to other roles as an operations manager, FM and senior FM. I was at the Burj Khalifa until 2017.

FM: What brought you to Australia?

I actually had a good career in Dubai. My final appointment – if I passed everything – was reporting to one of the royal sheikhs. This was a huge property portfolio across the UAE, where I’d be directly reporting to the CEO.

I was at the peak of my career but under tremendous stress. In Dubai, you don’t get a residency visa, you get a work visa. If something doesn’t work today, you’re out of the country tomorrow along with your luxuries.

I was after a better quality of life and a long-term settlement in a county that offered a residency. My brother was living in Australia and said why don’t you try coming here.

FM: Have you found better work-life balance in Australia?

SW: Indeed. Can’t compare. It took me four to six months to come out of that stress and work culture.

FM: You studied in Sri Lanka, worked in Dubai and then came to work in Australia. Are FM skills easily transferable internationally?

SW: I would say certain operational knowledge is, but the challenges are the building codes and knowledge about what is required for compliance.

Service delivery expectations are also quite different in Australia compared with Dubai. In Sydney, it’s more realistic. You don’t scrub the pavements every day so they’re gum-free. Back in Dubai, you had to run gum-removal machines to keep up the appearance.

The whole market is also different. In Australia, there are less in-house tradies. Nobody keeps an electrician in-house unless it’s a huge operation as it’s so costly. Whereas back in the Middle East, tradies don’t work for themselves and it’s either through a service provider company or in-house operation. Both in-house and outsourced structures are there.

The expected time to get things done is also different. For example, at Burj Khalifa, we had a service level agreement of 16 hours to contain and 48 hours to rectify a critical failure. If I failed to do this three times, I got a 4000-, 8000- or 16,000-Emirati Dirham penalty on top of my monthly invoice, so we had to have someone ready immediately. Here, clients absorb more of the cost as it’s extremely expensive to maintain such a high response time with a comprehensive contract.

FM: What’s your current role?

SW: I manage three residential properties. Some are luxury and have quite high service delivery expectations compared with other residential properties I’ve come across. Two of them are also marina-side so have some significant groundwater management and engineering issues.

FM: What’s your favourite part of your job now?

SW: People management. I’ve actually never managed clients or end-users directly before – I was managing staff and contracts and reporting to a customer management department. Here, I get to deal directly with committees, share-persons, and strata managers. Lots of first-level stakeholder management. It’s demanding, but I take the call and work it out with my team.

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