The right stuff: Graham Constable and FM
Whether he’s exploring the world, or his imagination, Graham Constable has always wanted to get the most from life.
Thinking back to his days in the Royal Air Force (RAF), Graham Constable says he is struck by the parallels with modern facilities management.
“In the air force, everyone’s role was geared to ensuring that the pilots could fly successful missions,” he says. “In facilities management, our role is to ensure our organisations are also able to fulfil their visions.” While ultimately a long career in the air force was not to be, Constable, the author of the engaging ‘Connections’ column in FM magazine and a long-time industry consultant, has never lost his desire to aim high.
“I got into FM via an operational career in the air force, but that wasn’t my original plan,” he recalls. “I was born in Ghana, West Africa and spent my first six years there. My father worked for a big construction firm; postwar Britain didn’t offer a lot of opportunity for ambitious, intelligent guys and when Dad came out of the Royal Navy, he decided the expat life was the best way he could provide for his family.
“I spent a further six years in Hong Kong and so as a family we flew around a lot and I decided I wanted to fly aeroplanes. Everything I did subsequently at school and university was geared towards that.”
But the teenage Constable found life to be “full of distractions”.
“To cut a long story short, I didn’t work hard enough to fly fast jets, so my lifelong goal came crashing down. It was a hard lesson in life! I went back to my education in electronic engineering and became instead a communications engineer in the RAF. My years in the military taught me many skills – self-forgiveness and resilience being key.
“My last commanding officer in the air force left a few months before me. He was headhunted by the Xerox Corporation to turn around its property portfolio. In Britain it was a bit of a mess – non-performing, projects late, losing money, staffed by people unskilled in what was needed. He sought me out and I landed in FM by accident really.”
Having initially left the air force to join the Canadian telecoms giant Northern Telecom, Constable received an offer to go across to Xerox. “We achieved what we set out to do within three years and, as a small team, we started to wonder, ‘what’s next?’
“During those Xerox years, we created an integrated model that was unique at the time and we built our own management systems that managed every facet of the built environment. This was the early ’90s and, as we helped our clients digitise and then reorganise their workplaces to meet their business goals, we were at the forefront of what is now workplace design.
“We floated the idea with Xerox leadership of a buyout, so we could take the model we successfully developed within the Corporation to the open marketplace.”
Xerox UK and US backed the project, becoming an equity partner, along with asset management and construction consultancy Currie & Brown UK. The firm was originally known as CBX.
“We had a lot of amazing blue chip clients, including Microsoft, Britain’s Channel 4, Ernst & Young and L’Oréal, and provided true integrated management. Because we were a management team, divorced from delivery, we were able to challenge status quos. It wasn’t about just soft and hard services, we were welcomed into and had consistent input at the executive level, co-developing strategies for the clients’ property portfolios. That’s where I developed a lot of my skills.”
Constable was inspired by the company’s leaders at the time, one of whom subsequently went on to form and build global facilities management business Mace Macro. “My MD, the ex-military CO, was a true visionary, a very clever man,” Constable says. “He saw our role was to support the client’s business, to understand their drivers and to help them be more competitive in their marketplace. We hired people and moulded teams that would match delivery to the business needs of our clients.”
The bottom line was ensuring the building could support the business. “We were able to bring business acumen to work with our clients at the executive level, the board level, in terms of influencing portfolio choices. I find the discussion now about FM trying to gain influence in the C-suite to be a bit surprising, but perhaps not entirely because I do believe the industry has let the opportunity slip.”
In 1998, Constable was lured to Australia. “Currie & Brown Australia liked what we were doing in the UK marketplace and wanted to recreate something similar. They recognised the Aussie FM market was at the start of a boom period.
“I volunteered to come out, with the intention of being here five years, but within two years CBX had been bought by a large Swiss engineering company. As things changed, the new business direction didn’t look to support Australia or Asia. I could either stay here unsponsored or go back to the UK.”
So Constable returned to the UK, but the ties to Australia remained strong. “I’d met my future Australian wife. She came to the UK in 2001 and we stayed there until 2006 when my father died.”
Constable returned to Australia in 2007 and joined a consulting firm. “As soon as I first set foot here, I loved the country – the climate, the work/life balance. It was easy for me as a consultant to get to clients who were willing to listen; it’s a lot harder to cold call in the UK. The majority of people I see here now are still open to having a chat.
“But when I was first here, there was a lot more experimentation going on. Outsourcing was a buzzword and people were eager – for many reasons – to go down that path. Oftentimes, I cautioned companies against it because they didn’t know their own business well enough.
“I just get a sense with the clients I meet now that there’s a scepticism around the benefits that a carefully outsourced FM model may provide. I understand there’s been some underwhelming delivery in some clients’ minds.”
Constable says he has always worked to bring about a change in attitude and approach, to ensure client satisfaction with the facility, to reduce risk and to find financial wastage impacting the bottom line. “There was a bit of cynicism,” he recalls. “A lot of people said it sounded great, but wouldn’t work. Well, it does work, but it requires a lot of effort and commitment to building relationships.
“We also need to turn around the conversation about cost. Cost is a means, not an end. I’ve seen a lot of companies looking to outsource, hammer down the costs and then pay more and more in the ensuing years dealing with non-performance. It doesn’t make sense. Everyone loses.”
There was also resistance about investing in internal teams. “I remember one senior person asking me why the company should invest in developing its people when they will then leave. My response was: ‘what if you don’t, and they stay?’
THE FUTURE OF FM?
Constable says exploration is part of his DNA. “I remember reading as a kid about Thor Heyerdahl’s expeditions. To me, that was like going to the moon. I remember watching the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions and Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World on TV. They were exciting and expansive times.
“Everything I’ve done in my private life in terms of exploring comes across into my work. I seek out new things and get fresh perspectives. I’m passionate about FM practitioners widening their skill set and seeing beyond just a building. It’s an ecosystem that needs to be fed and nurtured and lots of people’s lives depend on it.”
Now senior consultant at BigPictureFM, Constable hopes to see more collaborative thinking. “I see so much time and money expended on waste at the moment, particularly around the way we work and make decisions,” he says. “The FM profession has a unique opportunity to really influence the ecosystem called work.
“If you listen to some of the predictions around, we won’t have buildings any more, but there’s always going to be a need for the workplace. It provides pride and dignity and a purpose, and we’re in a unique position to enable people’s livelihoods at the base level.”
Constable says the profession has treated him well. “But I believe we should always be looking to develop and improve ourselves. I don’t subscribe to the ‘I’m in this job until the day I die’ attitude.
“We need to make sense of – or ‘sensemake’ – all the influences out there and bring them all together. Whatever is driving you, the FM profession provides amazing opportunities to tap into a lot of different things that, at first glance, may not have anything to do with the built environment, but can bring huge benefit to the people you work with and for.”
THE JOY OF MENTORING
The idea for Constable’s FM column had been germinating since his Xerox days.
“My boss there was an exceptional leader, a visionary, and he used to take me under his wing and explain all the different facets of business and facilities management and the work we were doing. And not just that, he would cover the multidimensional human factors of what would or wouldn’t work. He coached me.
“It was a life experience. And each time that he explained things it was like a story and, when I look back on that, if I’d recorded it, it would be a series of chapters in a book that took me from an apprentice, if you like, within business and particularly facilities management, to someone who was able to go out on my own and do the work that he wanted us to do.
“So, I wondered, how do I replicate that? Maybe I write a book about this fictitious FM practitioner with a wide range of skills, and apply a novel approach where he comes across someone rather like me when I started in the industry, who had a desire to be better, and then take him through a series of exercises in real life that he’s encountering and solving problems, and turn it into a story.”
This article also appears in the December/January issue of Facility Management magazine.