Copyright: David Lawson - appeared Property Week Jan 1999Home page
Overpowering, over-confident and over here. The American revolution took on a new meaning as US investors swarmed across the Atlantic in search of European growth. Retreat in the face of financial reversals at home have not weakened the message: the Old World must adapt to new ways of handling bricks and mortar.
Customer service leads the charge. It is already accepted wisdom that the Americans know more about how to keep occupiers happy. That is why they can offer short leases; satisfied customers rarely leave. We, meanwhile, fidget and fret over obscure terms like facilities management, which change meaning according to whoever is struggling to pin down a definition. Is it just toilet-cleaning, as many surveyors imply? Or is there something more fundamental going on, turning property management into a a more important strategic science? Surprisingly, we seem to be able to teach the New World a few lessons.
If anyone was going to show us the shining path, it would be Computer Associates. Everyone has heard of giants like Microsoft but few will recognize CA. Yet it is among the global elite, with annual revenues close to 5bn dollars and 11,000 staff spread across 43 countries. It provides much of the software that supports business computers. Over the last decade the company has quietly grown out of the US into a major global operator. In the UK alone it has 400,000 sq ft concentrated around Slough and a purpose-built 250,000 headquarters is now coming out of the ground nearby.
Facilities management is seen as a critical function in the company because of the way CA views staff as a prime asset that must be cosseted and retained. Their comfort and efficiency are paramount. Take the new HQ, for instance. Developers queued to offer sites and buildings in all the hot locations a couple of years ago. So why choose a brownfield site at Datchet, near J5 of the M4, rather than snuggle up with other high-tech giants on a spiffy business park?
'We needed the right location for our child development centre,' says European facilities manager Caroline Bootes. 'Children need outside space.' That a staff facility should be crucial to this multi-million-pound decision rather than some incidental bonus is startling. It could be a lesson for new locational priorities in the coming decades. Even more significantly, Bootes plays a similar critical role in every property decision across Europe. Yet she is not even an American. Much of this is a home-grown philosophy.
Bootes sees her role as strategic rather than administrative, and this is where the UK offspring could teach its parent. CA is rapidly expanding across Europe. Bootes estimates she has 1m sq ft under her wing - although she can't be sure as new premises come in almost daily - and a budget of around 25m a year. Finding new accommodation and rebranding older buildings that have been taken over, is the crux of her role. For new premises, Nelson Bakewell draws up shortlists then Bootes and FM consultants Delta Doric visit each one before making a choice.
Delta is another crucial element in this relationship. Bootes chose them three years ago as partners because it was a young, small company with the flexibility to help develop ideas and provide a fast response to problems. Delta does the nitty-gritty work a well as implementing strategic decisions. That ranges from moving 43 CA staff over a winter weekend around the nest of headquarter buildings in Slough, to ensuring every building in the firm's growing European estate meets the same space standards.
That is not as simple as it sounds, says Delta's European project manager David Hanson. Premises range from a 'Dickensian' building just acquired in Germany to the slick high-tech headquarters now taking shape. Yet every one must have the same staff facilities, the same workstation, even the same colour scheme - although CA has granted a choice of four hues to make allowance for cultural differences. This strategic approach, gradually being rolled across Europe, is beginning to interest people back in the US. That does not surprise Corrie von Kotz, just appointed by CA to look after northern Europe. 'The UK is much further down the FM road than the US,' he says. 'We also give it a much wider remit, taking in a lot more of the infrastructure which supports core business.'
He sees no reason why this cannot go further, with FM managers looking after facilities such as car leasing. It is a message that could send cold shivers through many UK professionals, particularly as FM takes a more central role in property management. Neither Von Kotz nor Bootes are surveyors. He came in via IT administration and a diploma from the College of Estate Management in Reading. Bootes has a business background and worked her way to the top at CA over the last nine years. 'FM is not about having detailed technical skills but being able to understand all the various elements,' she says.
Such ideas hold no fears for David Owen, FM course director at CEM. 'Companies like CA are establishing standards of work environment across every country which go well beyond mere property management,' he says. Surveyors will need to adapt to this new approach to survive. This is not the conclusion of some ivory-towered academic. He is a former RICS building surveyor's president and set up the institution's facilities management skills panel. He runs his own management consultancy after working for Richard Ellis, Chesterton and FM2.
Another FM guru with deep roots in the private sector, Ashley Dabson, UK property manager for Compaq, shares responsibility for training at CEM. Many lecturers are also pulled in from private practice to give a view of the way FM is developing away from the conventions of pure property management. So it is not surprising that it produces managers with views like von Kotz among the output of around 120 graduates each year. The two-year, distance-learning course eschews the detailed technical skills that many surveyors still believe is the core of FM.
'We aim to produce people who do not concentrate on property as the centre of importance but understand their employers' business and think strategically about how to match the two,' he says. CA and CEM seem to have reached the same conclusion via different paths. In fact, they are so attuned that Bootes has also taken on another CEM graduate, Eric Kemp, to run southern Europe, while Delta Doric has employed a third.
Owen calls CEM's approach a method of giving FM professionals the 'big picture'. Bootes has her own, not entirely flippant,view. 'It's making sure you are able to tell when someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes.'