The word 'passion' features frequently in the vocabulary of Julie Kortens, who took the reins as BIFM chairman in April. Here, she tells Martin Read how she intends putting her characteristic enthusiasm for FM to good use during her tenure.
17 July 2014
It's been a mere three months since Julie Kortens took over from Ismena Clout as chairman of the BIFM.
She's already opened both the ThinkFM and Facilities Show events with her brand of characteristic enthusiasm and unshakeable faith in the transformative effects of facilities management - and when we meet she is preparing to address the institute's annual general meeting. Add to that an appearance on the institute's new FM TV channel. and it's been a busy period. All this in a job she was not originally meant to take on until this month.
Kortens has been no stranger to these pages over the past five years. Voted BIFM facilities manager of the year in 2010, she's since been chair and deputy chair of the BIFM's Women in FM special interest group (SIG). And now, while continuing her day job with one of the country's most prominent broadcasters, she's taking on the institute's chairmanship at a time of significant change.
Kortens' role at Channel 4 has developed over the years. Formerly head of facilities management, she is now head of corporate services - a telling distinction. Today, not only does she deal with all of the broadcaster's property portfolio requirements - from compliance to sustainability but all stops in between. Although she's clocked up almost 30 years with the broadcaster, Kortens' job has changed roughly every two years as new teams, functions and responsibilities have come her way. (For example, she now manages all of Channel 4's indirect procurement - the direct consequence of her success in developing the broadcaster's FM contract structure.)
"When I got my first job in FM I was head of office and building services," she recalls. "FM as a job title didn't exist back then. In fact, I wasn't allowed to use the term 'facilities management' because at Channel 4 facilities meant the studio, and back then the studio was looked after by studio professionals. Now we look after all of it.
Back in the early days at Channel 4, anything above ground was run by what was then FM, anything below ground (where the studios were situated) was managed by the "real engineers" - the TV engineers. "Today, FM has the whole building," says Kortens.
Just before her crowning as FM of the Year, Channel 4 stopped broadcasting from its Horseferry Road headquarters in London and converted those studios into extra office accommodation - a project Kortens oversaw, just as she managed the move from a variety of single-service outsourced FM deals to a wider-ranging total FM contract. (Mitie has provided most FM services for the broadcaster, bar catering, since May 2011.)
As for that passion, it's evident in everything Kortens says about the profession. She continues to directly involve herself in Channel 4's careers forums, where she explains to school-age students the different roles within the business, with FM very much to the fore. And it's evident in all of her dealings with her peers since 2009 (as chair of Women in FM she was able to use Channel 4's HQ to host a memorable Women in FM conference in autumn 2012.)
"I'm taking over the chairmanship at a good time," says Kortens. "The foundations have been laid over the past few years and I think we're on the cusp of something very special."
And Kortens has distilled her priorities as chairman into three areas: inclusivity, agility and profile building.
"I'm thrilled that the things I feel very strongly about are aligned to what BIFM wants to achieve too," she says, "and the starting point for me is inclusivity. I passionately believe in the scope and breadth of this profession. There are around 130 people who report in to me at Channel 4, all who work within FM - but not one is called facilities manager. I want every single one of those people to feel that the BIFM is their home, the place to go for professional guidance, support and qualifications. I want them to feel involved, included and looked after by the BIFM. That's really important."
Then there's 'agility' - the ability of the institute to quickly follow and support important trends relevant to the sector without being distracted or over-committed on single issues. "There are an enormous amount of opportunities out there, so we need to focus on what is right for the profession," says Kortens. "We must never lose sight of what we are trying to achieve. With so many developments happening around us it is all too easy to get distracted."
This agility will also be seen at individual member level. Kortens talks with enthusiasm about the institute's forthcoming website, around which significantly enhanced member communication is promised.
"It's not just a website, it is the bringing together of a variety of systems including a new CRM into a fully integrated solution" says Kortens, "and this means a huge step forward for the BIFM in terms of engaging with our members on an individual basis. It will make us swifter and more accurate in everything we do. We'll know what members like and want and we'll be able to match that to the BIFM's reports, best practice and events.
"At Channel 4 we have a viewer relationship - well, this is a member relationship. We know who our viewers are and what they watch; BIFM knows who its members are, what they are doing and what their priorities are. It's a fantastic piece of work."
In the autumn the institute will also oversee a project to ensure that its regional and special interest groups events are complementary rather than duplicated and that SIGs make the most of each other's resources when planning activities. The new website will allow members to sign up with more than one region, thus becoming better informed about BIFM events close to both work and home.
"We also need to do more to publicise the amazing work going on with our SIGs," says Kortens, "for example our sustainability and health and safety SIGs are talking to government, feeding into white papers - but we just don't talk about it enough."
FM's changing role
Kortens is excited to be taking over the chair at a time when FM is gaining wider recognition.
"Yes, FM is changing," she says, "but then the world around FM is changing too. As FM is becoming more vocal about the contribution we make to business, society and the economy, so to is the world waking up to what FM contributes. Historically we've been fragmented but we're coming together generally and the institute is leading that push. We're becoming more mature as a profession.
"I also think the downturn in the economy had a big part to play in raising the profession's profile. The scale of FM contracts since 2008 and the profile of FM at events like the London Olympics has done wonders."
And for the first time we're able to quantify what FM contributes.
"The facts and figures are there now. We're no longer talking in the abstract, we can point to the valid contribution we make."
Much of this has its roots in the work produced by the BIFM in recent years, says Kortens.
"Not only is the BIFM qualifications framework complete, but people are now referring to it, universities offering courses based on it and recruiters beginning to ask that candidates have the qualifications that feature in it. Service providers also want to be part of that push for professional qualifications, and in the last couple of years they've had something to refer to."
Has being the in-house FM at a major broadcaster meant more flexibility in the development of the FM role? Are such 'creative industries' more likely to foster innovative approaches from senior management to their FM requirement?
"Potentially," she says. "Channel 4 was set up to take risks, to do things differently. I've had a voice here from quite early on in my FM career because we were able to demonstrate how we in FM could allow everyone here to focus on their core activities. That applies in all industries, but perhaps there's a mindset in the creative sector that allows us to talk about it more readily; we get more opportunity to take risks.
"If I want to do things differently here, the conversation is not so much about cost, but about why I want to do it, and how. That's the kind of environment I want to breed for FMs everywhere.
"Years ago we were the ones who brought in structured cabling here because we could see how the business could move forward with it. After that particular project, people realised that we knew what we were talking about then we started getting dumped on (she says with a smile); people would give us everything, because we were showing what a great job we did. And that can be an issue for FM - we can become a 'catch-all'. But that can also be a positive, because it means that we're being seen as the people who deliver."
As a former HR professional herself, Kortens is a keen advocate of the BIFM's recent collaboration with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) - and she expects more such partnerships to emerge on her watch.
"You get the best out of the people you're working with by treating them with respect. You work better with your colleagues in the business by understanding what they need. So, for example, if your IT and FM teams work together, that means you get the best infrastructure. I don't think we should be frightened at all. I hate silos; we need to talk to each other."
Kortens speaks of "truly collaborative" partnerships with other membership organisations.
"If we're going to develop as an institute we shouldn't hold back from having the conversations that matter with our peer organisations," she says. "Ultimately, we're all here to support the economy and society; working together helps us to deliver that."
Passion to the people
Kortens is always keen to promote the passion she has for FM, but is also passionate about straight talking. "Transparency, honesty and integrity are really fundamental to me," she says.
"My team is all-important, every single last one of them. I passionately believe in getting the best out of people, and to do that you enable those people by listening to them and their needs and wants. To get the best out of people you need to be honest and transparent, and that in turn makes them more sociable."
It's too easy to reinforce stereotypes about particular facilities roles, says Kortens. "Yes, an engineer could be the least sociable person in the building if you just stick them in the basement and never speak to them or allow them a presence or profile. But I've just come back from an awayday with my team, and the people who did most of the fundraising were engineers."
And when Kortens won FM of the Year in 2010, it wasn't the CEO giving her a congratulatory bunch of flowers that most affected her - it was the bottle of wine and card she got from her team of cleaners, the fact that they'd called her down to present it to her - and that they told her how proud they were of her achievement. "That's what's really important to me. You can have all the accolades from senior personnel, but it was the cleaning team who wanted to tell me that I made them feel proud."
The immediate future
Time to strap in, folks. Julie Kortens is nothing if not a straight talker and that will surely prove to the benefit of the BIFM during her term as chair.
"I get so fed up with people saying 'we don't talk the language of the boardroom', she says. "There is no such language - you just tell them what it is you'd like to deliver, and you tell them it in plain English."
This frank approach will yield positive results in the next two years - all that passion isn't going anywhere soon.
"Why am I so passionate about FM? Because we're the doers - we genuinely deliver. And I've seen so many professions that don't deliver."
Finally, does Channel 4 see Kortens' appointment as BIFM chairman as beneficial to her day job? "Oh absolutely. When we finished refurbishing this building (Channel 4's headquarters) and had come to the end of that project, I had a conversation with our HR director about what would be my next big challenge. Putting my name forward as chairman of the BIFM became that challenge, because it gives me the intellectual stimulation I need. And what's more, I think I can make a difference."