What does a contract manager need to be?

by FM Media
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The skill set required for a facilities management contract manager is debated by PREETI BAJAJ, director of business development at Brookfield Multiplex Services.

We often think of the delivery of facilities management services as a technical skill – a perception that is both cause and effect of the sector’s tendency to attract technicians and personnel with trade backgrounds. In this era of technology and the service economy, however, the evolution of facilities management is posing a serious challenge to the traditional technical skill set of the industry. As the pace of business continues to quicken, the ability to make rapid, astute commercial decisions becomes increasingly important to managing your clients’ risk – and your own, for that matter.
Service providers and clients are debating what this means for the skill set of a facilities management contract manager. Do we want a technician who can solve all our operational problems, or do we need a management professional who can challenge our philosophy, and bring commercial nous and partnership attributes to the table? Or do we want a combination of both?
In the outsourced property and facility management services environment, where partnership is the key to success, the question needs to be asked: what does a contract manager need to be?

To consider this question, I talked to Andrew Leppinus, regional manager of infrastructure at Brookfield. Reflecting on our experiences of delivering contract management and regional management services, we distilled the core competencies of contract managers to the following attributes:

  • the ability to run a business – after all, contracts are the administrative and logistical equivalent of a small business with a range of departments (in the case of a property contract, these happen to be facility management, property management, finance and management information systems)
  • the ability to manage complex stakeholder environments – the contract manager has to understand the client environment in which they are operating, as clients are seeking credible contract managers to work with and to take to meetings with the chief financial officer (CFO), confident that they can make a good case for benefits realisation through the property services team, and
  • the ability to think outside the square – client property departments are being increasingly pressured to prove their tangible value and, to do this, they need a contract manager that can spot the opportunity, articulate it in the context of the client’s business and (sometimes) be bold enough to convince his/her own employer to change the service model to achieve the desired outcomes.

So, why the ‘technician versus manager’ divide in the contract manager debate? One could say the industry consists of traditionalists, early adapters and first movers, and that the traditionalists simply have the majority. They believe that facilities management contract management is about fixing chillers and pumps, that the person who understands the technical side of facilities management is the person who should run the contract.
While the traditionalists have clung to this view, the expectations of CFOs have moved. The conversation in boardrooms and in the public sector is about total cost of occupancy, commercial models and how to capitalise on ideas from the service provider’s core business. Our business language seems to be stuck – we cannot make the link between what we do and how it adds real value to our business.
The industry has been dumbed down. In Australia 25 years ago, engineers aspired to enter the facilities management industry, bringing with them technical expertise and acquiring commercial acumen along the way. Sadly, in our drive to ‘add value’ through reduced outsourced contract costs, we have also driven ambitious engineers and graduates out of the industry.

Across the industry there are encouraging indications that the mood for change has arrived. Facilities managers/aspiring contract managers are realising that they need to have business management skills. But this is not one-sided – clients need to make this journey too. The partnership can only work if the counterpart contract manager takes the same approach. Sustainable commercialisation is an imperative – not just for our industry, but, one could argue, for the world.
I urge the facilities management industry to kick up the pace of change and seek out contract managers with the business management skills to deliver services. While the initial investment may be higher, it will deliver a greater return for both client and service provider.
The debate will continue, but I hope it is the backdrop to a (peaceful) revolution. To borrow a phrase from Mahatma Gandhi, we need to be the change we want to see.

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