Before the BIFM there was the AFM - the Association of Facilities Managers. That organisation's last chairman, Geoff Gidley, played a key role in the merger of the AFM with the Institute of Facilities Management (IFM) to form today's BIFM. Here, in the BIFM's 20th year, Gidley talks to his successor and the combined institute's first chairman, Marilyn Standley, about the institute's earliest days.
14 January 2013
Geoff Gidley: After I got my first-class degree in chemistry from Nottingham University, I was invited to go for a PhD in research related to organic chemistry. After writing up my thesis and presenting it to my research supervisor, he told me he'd had an invitation to put somebody on the shortlist for a research post in Edmonton, Canada, at the University of Alberta.
I spoke to my wife and it didn't take us very long to say yes (when you're young, you make decisions without necessarily thinking through the potential problems). The job was a combination of research into a new field and the teaching of 120 chemical engineers. While there, I learnt a bit about the politics of life, human nature and diplomacy.
Towards the end of those two years I realised I needed to move into industry. Unilever was recruiting in North America, so I got in touch with them and they said, "If you happen to be in the UK, just drop in and see us at Sharnbrook." That was their facility near Bedford, where they had a thousand-person research institute looking into food and personal care products, as well as a big toxicology operation.
So I got a plane back to the UK and met with the head of the Colworth Laboratory. While we were chatting I could see a tree and some fields beyond, and I remember thinking how this would be a nice place to work. At the time he was the head of the Colworth laboratory on the Sharnbrook site, but in time he was to become the chairman of Unilever.
I joined Unilever as a bench chemist, dealing with the creation of food flavours. I did that for three or so years before becoming section head of analytical chemistry, heading up a 60-person analytical chemistry group. Then, after another three years, I got my first senior managerial role as divisional head of what was then the protein sciences division.
After that I was offered another newly created position. (In the course of my career I found myself moving into a lot of newly created roles rather than existing ones!)
Sharnbrook employed 1,200 people; there were a lot of different disciplines, all reporting in different ways to different arms of Unilever's business. The money to conduct research came out of the profits of Unilever's operating divisions, and they half-expected we weren't using it wisely. In my new extremely broad newrole I was meeting with the technical directors of these operating businesses, as a sort of research / salesman, moving between the research and operating environments, pointing out the things we could do to make their life better.
The question of what it cost for us to conduct research had been there in the background, but it just wasn't as important back then. Of course, that seems quite ridiculous now given the times in which we live.
When new scientists were brought in, they would ask for what they needed for their work - the chemicals, equipment, etc. - but there was no single, formally approved process. My work involved adding some structure to that, and it was very satisfying work; I could see that I was attending to foundations of the place. It was the kind of work that suited who I was, and I suppose that's why I got into FM.
MS: At what stage did that early career with Unilever progress into what we now call facilities management?
GG: The job I got that was most akin to FM was resources coordinator, a position I held in my last five years with Unilever. I suppose somebody had spotted that I liked variety and could cope with it, and FM was certainly starting to appear as part of that variety. It's at that stage that I started to meet up with the emerging facilities management world in the UK.
There was an extension on the Sharnbrook site built to take its capacity to 300 people, but that building, after about three years, was already unsuitable for its requirement. Technical research laboratories are complicated things compared to offices, because they need things like fume cupboards and safety gear; they have to be built in a particular way. This one was not very flexible, and you had these people who were doing their work in the same space that they were doing scientific research, with their different needs for apparatus, chemicals and so on.
After the issues with that extension, Unilever started to look more closely at costs. I had a part to play in developing systems so that, for the first time, the wider business would get a picture of what their money was being used for. We had to make our people and financial resources go as far as possible and we needed to get organised, establishing a basis for prioritising decisions. So I got into what was then the emerging world of IT, using the early spreadsheet packages available at the time to try to put the picture together. For the first time, the board could relate one activity to another - they could see who was doing what, how much time they were spending on it, and so on. That may seem quite primitive now, but at the time it was quite radical.
MS: How did you first get involved with the FM professional bodies?
GG: I'd been searching around for some shared knowledge, and had befriended the administrative heads of Shell Research in Sittingbourne and BP, who were also running laboratories. They had people doing my sort of job, and they didn't refer to it as facilities management either (they used terms like 'site manager' instead).
They asked if I'd heard of the Association of Facilities Managers (AFM). I said no, so they gave me the phone number. I phoned the then chairman, Derek Butcher, a real get-up-and-go person, and he asked if I'd like to join the AFM's events committee. He sold me on the idea that, if I did, I'd get to know quite a lot, because in the process of organising meetings you'd get many different people meeting each other. Then, just a short time later, Derek asked if I'd like to chair that committee.
By nature and by activity I needed to be an organised person, and I could see that the one thing the AFM lacked at that time was organisation.
Even though their vision of what they wanted the association to be was frequently pronounced, you couldn't see beyond the next couple of months! So I think you, Marilyn, were involved with the AFM at the time and helped me put a business plan together. It was all hands to the pump back then, and yet the association was growing quite fast and there was definitely something there.
The other factor was that we were starting to get approaches from the International Facility Management Association (IFMA), who were saying "why don't you come and join us, we'll look after it all for you." I was stubborn at the time, and I could see that there was a place for an institute that was specifically British and FM focused.
MS: One of my abiding memories is of you, as chair, taking a lead role in the negotiations between the old AFM and IFM (Institute of Facilities Management.
GG: That was tricky. The IFM was born out of the Institute of Administrative Management (IAM). It started earlier, but we in the AFM had close to 1,000 members - individuals as well as companies - so we were no mean set-up ourselves. The merger process took quite a long time. It started in 1990 and didn't finish until 1992.
MS: What impact do you think bringing the AFM and IFM together had on the profession?
GG: It had a big impact on potential members. Back then, FMs were not clear about which association to join. I remember getting a letter from a member of the IFM asking why the two associations didn't simply join together, because they, as a member, wanted to belong to only the one organisation.
It was at that time that John Crawshaw got involved. We'd recruited him as one of the first members of paid staff for the AFM; he was the association's chief executive from August 1991, so he came in towards the end of the negotiations.
It also had an impact on the organisations we now describe as corporate members. They wanted a forum to meet people. FMs were increasingly the people who specified the office furniture, maintenance programmes and so on, and they could see that these were important people to keep in touch with. At last they had a single organisation through which to meet these people, rather than having to go to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and others.
MS: It brought about some clarity and integration for the profession.
GG: And initially, it created some friction with the purchasing side of organisations, who saw FMs as taking over their function; they quite enjoyed meeting with suppliers and weren't so sure about some new organisation getting in on the act.
MS: I seem to remember that there was a fairly last-minute stumbling block, where you couldn't quite agree on a new name when the two organisations came together. Do you have any memories of how you got around that?
GG: It needed to be a merger of equals, and this is where John Crawshaw made some really good moves. He was the honest broker; he used to play the card that he wasn't actually an FM, so he could be neutral. John got the job done, and I must put on record how much I appreciate what he did; his was a very significant contribution.
MS: Another momentous thing that happened when you were chairman was the development of the BIFM's first educational qualification.
GG: I had a long-standing interest in that, right up to when I left the BIFM in 2007. The qualifications were based on the idea that the best thing we could do was to help get the right people in the right jobs with the right skills. I wrote a paper in around 1990 about the value of vocational qualifications; the marriage between understanding the job, understanding the knowledge behind the job, putting those two together and moving them forward together.
Quite early on, there was a recognition that we shouldn't be in the business of delivering the qualifications, but that we should be setting the standards for them. We put together the core competencies; this involved a small group of us thinking about what the identifiable learning areas would need to be, for whatever qualification we did. And those core competencies have survived through to this day, even though they've needed to be torn apart and reconstructed.
MS: Looking back is there anything you would have done differently, knowing what you know now about how the profession has developed?
GG: I think I would have been less single-minded about both creating and delivering it, and instead encouraged the BIFM to become an awarding body at an earlier stage. It had quickly become apparent that we wouldn't be able to make money out of both creating and delivering the courses. That's when we came to the arrangement with Quadrilect to use their skills in delivering the training. And at this point I'd like to recognise Valerie Everett, who was an early joiner to the BIFM and who sweated blood over this challenge.
MS: What challenges do you see ahead for FM?
GG: There's the continuing job of connecting FM with influential people, whether in business, government or society in general. We also don't talk enough about local authorities, the influence and relationships that businesses need to have with their local authority, regarding the goodwill they need to get permission to do things. I think FM has got a place to play in that.
Also, for me it's about keeping it simple. Scientists are always accused of choosing the complicated way to explain a simple thing. When you've got a complicated story to tell, it's easy for it to veer off into obscurity. So we need to remind ourselves who it is we are talking to, and register whether or not they are glazing over, or whether they're actually understanding what we're saying. We can do a lot of good by understanding that.
Keeping up to date will continue to be a struggle, whatever it is - new ways of doing things, new legislation, technologies, etc.
Also, in order to get a job it's always tempting to promise the earth and make your package sound good before realising that, when it comes to it, you have to back off and do what you can afford, in order to get a profit margin. We need to avoid that.
Finally, we need to recognise that everything is delivered by people. Of course we talk about the technologies, the buildings, the bricks, the steel. At the end of the day, it's a case of one person talking to another person, deciding on what they're going to do and how they're going to do it, and being able to deal with compromise without having to go to war over it.
MS: Do you think any of those challenges differ from those that we faced twenty or thirty years ago when we both started down this route?
GG: We've certainlt seen changes to today's pace of life, and the pace of expectation. We're not very good at learning from history, but I think that there's a lot to be learned from the period of time we are currently going through; this will be gold dust in the future. FM seems very good at finding a way of getting things done. That's one of its strengths, and that's what will continue to draw people to facilities management.
MS: You have such an interesting background; in your career you've managed to span the worlds of science, scientific endeavour, business, product development and business management, and then there are your dealings with the AFM and BIFM in the world of professional bodies. Are there any lessons you've learned that you would pass on to the current generation of leaders?
GG: Standing back, looking in the mirror and thinking about what you see - that's always a good discipline. Actually, I think the BIFM does look at itself quite frequently and asks if it is going in the direction the membership wants. Of course, there are projects that take a long time, and people's values and attitudes change in the meantime. So I would say, when you're looking at what you're doing now and comparing it with what you want to be, make sure that you've got the troops with you.
MS: What do you think we in the FM profession should be doing to help deliver that sense of moving forward together?
GG: Be outward-looking, take a look at other industries. The retail business is something that we can learn from; there's so much to learn by looking at how they perform. If you think about it in the context of FM as a profession and the BIFM as an organisation, there's quite a lot to learn there. Very often, they are ahead of the game in terms of communicating with people, communicating with customers
and so on.
MS: And in terms of information, they really know about their customers. So now we come to my final and probably most difficult question; can you sum up FM in three words?
GG: I'm going for, "multi-skilled juggling." The action of juggling your tasks in the day, all your ideas and deciding which ones you're going to allow to drop, and which ones to hold, paints a good picture of FM. It doesn't describe it, but it's a picture of what it is like to be involved in FM.