In his retail and financial FM roles over the years, Chris Newton's natural enthusiasm has seen every operational and property management function in the book gravitating towards him. Now, he's the BIFM 2014 Facilities Manager of the Year. Martin Read reports.
3 November 2014
Chris Newton, son of a civil engineer and a schoolteacher, has lived his entire adult life in the city of Durham.
He'll be moving soon - to a house slightly closer to the city centre. But career-wise, Newton has travelled an extensive journey leading to his current role as Mitie's contract managing director for Lloyds Banking Group (LBG), where he is responsible for setting and delivering the group's FM strategy.
It started with a fascination for construction instilled in him by his father. "He'd take me around the sites he was involved with at the time, including motorways and bridges," says Newton. "I knew early on that I wanted to follow in his footsteps." (Naturally, when Hugh Dennis announced Newton's name from the Grosvenor House stage last month, his father was one of the first to receive a call.)
Having transferred from an HND to complete a quantity surveying degree at the then Newcastle Polytechnic, Newton took a series of placements in construction before entering full-time work with Rivergreen Developments, a regional property and construction firm with a reputation for developing large and prestigious buildings in the North-East.
But the job turned out to be not entirely as advertised. Newton had joined as a quantity surveyor - "but gosh, it was so much more than that," he recalls. "I did the VAT returns, the accounts, the payroll, client presentations, marketing; I was supported in all this by my MD, Peter Candler, but really it was just me and him driving the business. I know now how lucky and privileged I was to get a job with so much more to it."
Over time, Newton gained a reputation for his then unusual fusion of QS and business management capability, moving to a number of other regional building organisations before making the move into corporate management with retailer Asda. It was an intense and formative time, says Newton. "I definitely served my apprenticeship!"
Aged 25 and with a young family, Newton next sought a role with a blue chip firm. Responding to a loosely worded national advert for project managers, Newton saw Asda appoint him to a role that came together during the interviewing process to incorporate something new to him - facilities management.
Newton joined three months before the handover of Asda's newly constructed Washington Distribution Centre with the brief to set up the operations and develop a facilities team.
"I didn't know what a forklift truck was," recalls Newton, "and I had to do organise my own health and safety training. So I did my NEBOSH certificate at Sunderland University - worse than getting my degree - and just got on with it. We started with four people but ended up with a thousand."
The Washington Distribution Centre went on to win awards, and Newton now sees his time with the retailer as crucial in developing his people management skills.
Newton was also organising everything necessary to run a retail distribution centre - a steep learning curve. "I remember organising a crèche, and realising that if I extended its opening times it would be deemed a care home. It was that level of detail. We set up the restaurant, the M&E, the refrigeration - all the facilities support required."
As Newton developed his role at Asda, the retailer's hierarchy had to consider how best to further develop their rising star. Customer services was added to his brief, meaning he was dealing with all the operational problems coming from Asda's stores.
"If there was a mispick, a cage missing, some ice cream delivered to Stockton when it should have gone to Washington - it was my team sorting those issues out. Now that was real customer-facing work!"
Asda and Newton then came to an agreement by which the retailer would sponsor Newton to take an MBA part-time through Durham University. After Asda, Newton went to work for marketing software firm Acxiom, running the firm's non-US portfolio. Again, Newton's law of attraction somehow saw him taking on procurement and general services responsibilities - and thoroughly enjoying it. Then came a return to retail with the Co-Operative Group.
"I thought I was just going to run the group's logistics property portfolio," says Newton of the interview, "but I soon became involved in the rejuvenation of the entire supply chain."
Responsible for restructuring the requirement and building a range of new 'super shed' distribution centres in West Thurrock, Coventry and Durham, Newton spent five years with the Co-Operative Group.
By now, Newton's portfolio of property management skills had grown to include acquisitions and disposals - but he wanted more. "I thought: here I am, a chartered surveyor and quantity surveyor, I'm seen as a builder and as a facilities manager - but I wanted to get the full property life cycle picture, to show that I can do the estates management piece. I went to the University of Salford via distance learning and trained as a general practice surveyor so that I could talk the science of rent reviews and valuations."
Then, in 2007, HBOS approached Newton with a view to introducing his retail and customer service expertise into the financial sector.
"The original intention was to run all of FM for HBOS," says Newton. "At the time that was cleaning, security, managing the people, et al - classed as customer services role for group property because we were customer-facing for anything that happened in the buildings. That was the original scope of the position. But again, more was bolted on as I moved through HBOS. I took on property shared services, and then they bolted estates management on, too."
Newton was soon appointed head of estates, facilities and property shared services. Again, it's tempting to wonder just what it is about Newton that's seen all this work attracted to him?
"I've never ever canvassed for extra work," he says, "but for some reason it's always come to me. In every place I've worked, I've created FM as a business within a business."
Newton started with HBOS in autumn 2007, but the issues in 2008 were to prove pivotal. Lloyds TSB acquired HBOS in January 2009, the merged operation becoming the Lloyds Banking Group (LBG) we know today. The estates roles for LBG were split into three distinct roles - asset management, design and construction and facilities management - with Newton "lucky and humble" to be appointed FM director.
The move to Mitie
Mitie had supplied services to both Lloyds TSB and HBOS in a relationship dating back to the 1980s. A variety of services had been provided to the LBG's constituent brands over the years, leading to Mitie becoming one of LBG's key service suppliers following Newton and colleagues' rationalisation of its service supplier portfolio from c550 to just 17. At this stage, Mitie was contracted to provide services including cleaning, pest control and landscaping.
But then, LBG looked at "intelligence across the UK and elsewhere," deciding that FM and asset management was now mature enough to be moved to a single supplier from 2012, with a view to making multi-million pound savings over a five-year contract term. Mitie won the contract, with FM within LBG reverting to a "thin client" model comprising a small specialist LBG property team responsible for setting the strategic direction of group property. In addition to hard and soft services, Mitie delivers building fabric, scanning and document management, landscaping, water treatment, capital works and life cycle planning and manages the gyms.
Newton was identified by LBG's then group property director as the man to lead the newly outsourced FM operation, so he TUPE transferred over to Mitie a month before it began. At an unsettling time for employees, having Newton make the big step across helped settle the concerns of others in the team. Indeed, much is made of Newton's abilities as a team leader, and, he says: "One thing I've learnt is to restructure quickly; to give people destiny and purpose. In 2012 we restructured over seven weeks across the entire organisation; that meant plenty of face-to-face interviews, asking people about the role they wanted and matching them to tasks."
Just as before, Newton is now running a business within a business. "The retailer in me is back," he says. "I'm the same person doing the same job. But as well as running a budget for LBG, I'm also running a P&L for Mitie. To keep both bosses happy, I have to make sure I constantly communicate, maintain relationships and keep both parties abreast of what's happening in both organisations. You've got to tell things as they are, so from day one it has to be a very transparent relationship."
One major benefit Newton sees in his Mitie role is making sure members of his team have new opportunities for their own career progression.
"I'm proud that a number of people who transferred across with me into Mitie have since gone on to flourish elsewhere on other Mitie contracts. I love that aspect of the relationship. Richard Piggin, for example, who worked as a regional FM for me, is now head of property for the entire Mitie organisation" and Julie Fawcett, former chair of Women in Property, also works for Newton.
Newton hopes to help develop the FM structure tailored for LBG into a stronger offering for Mitie's other financial services clients, talking up the prospects for a service function he is clearly proud of. "I think the goodness is in the way we relate to the managing of the people," he says. "The buildings should operate seamlessly, that's the default - but the real difference is in the client relationship and people management elements; that's the bit of what we do that I think can be transferred elsewhere."
As for the wider FM profession, Newton thinks new IT offers facilities professionals the chance to make more of a mark on their organisations. He sees new IT allowing greater empowerment at LBG.
"It's about decisive decision-making," he says, "FMs using the information they gather to force more interventions. What is that information telling you? I also think we have more opportunity for local empowerment. Why can't each building be its own business unit with the correct controls, checks and balances? It's a big step, but the technology that Mitie is introducing will quickly start to allow that empowerment."
Already, tablets have been deployed to FM personnel on the Mitie LBG contract that allow Newton to assess all of the issues in each building at the touch of a button. A new portal, designed specifically for the LBG contract, allows Newton to take the pulse of the facilities operation.
"We know any problems before anyone in the organisation, so that whatever the problem is, we can say that we're dealing with it."
He is also involved as non-executive director for NCG, one of the largest education, training and employability organisations in the UK. "My family is all in the North-East and I just wanted to give something back to the people who backed me," he says. "It also allows me to develop."
The future of FM
When I ask what he thinks are the next steps for FM as a profession, Newton immediately reaches for a pen to sketch it out.
"Architects, estate managers and building service engineers used to operate in isolation in a vertical process of delivering a building - FM wasn't even thought about. It was a hierarchical structure that followed the process of how a building was built. Now FM is starting to eradicate the vertical lines within an organisational structure. The key now for FM is to start integrating horizontally. We in FM are the building owners because of all the intelligence we have of how buildings operate, the people in there, their whole life cycle. I believe that encompassing more of those functions within FM activity will bring us further up the food chain."
Finally, Newton wonders whether the word 'facilities' adequately reflects the sector's breadth of operational expertise. Perhaps no surprise, given what his experience has taught him about FM's potential.
Chris Newton - Career File
Qualifications and training:
Bsc (Hons) 2:1, Quantity surveying, construction management, Northumbria University
MSc, Real estate and property management, real estate, University of Salford
MBA, Business administration and management, general, University of Durham
FM Job history:
2009-present Facilities management director, Lloyds Banking Group, London
FM director/managing director, Lloyds Banking Group/Mitie Group PLC
2007-2009 Head of estates and facilities management, HBOS, London
2003-2007 Head of property services (logistics),The Co-Operative Group
2000-2003 European general services leader, Acxiom
1998-2000 Facilities and customer services manager, Asda Stores Ltd