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What Dubai can learn from Bangalore

As the giants of the FM sector stake their claim in the booming economies of the GCC, Serco’s Andrew Barker explains why more firms are looking East rather than West to fill key management positions.

When Andrew Barker arrived in India almost a decade ago, there wasn't really an FM sector to speak of at least not in the way we understand the industry today.

Now the Serco Gulf manager says that the FM industry in the Middle East could learn a lot from the Indian approach to doing business and retaining clients.

"I'll probably upset a few people by saying that the quality of service delivery in Bangalore today is better than it is in Dubai.

"The quality of building stock may not be so good, but the level of service delivery is."

The explosion of the outsourcing industry in India over the last five years has been well documented.

With graduates manning the phones, willing to follow the English football to make small talk with the customers of their clients and even cultivating regional accents to boot, it is hardly surprising that outsourcing has taken off in the way it has.

Less well known has been the equally dramatic growth of the FM sector in the country, which is becoming an increasingly important recruitment pool for the industry in the Middle East.

"A lot of the people I know here, worked with me at some stage or other predominantly in India and there seem to be a lot more experienced practitioners coming from India now than from the West because of the difference in salary levels.

"Western processes and western systems are fine, but the basic need here is coalface service delivery.

"It doesn't matter how good your processes and systems are - you are only as good as the guy who is coming out with the spanner," says Barker.

He adds: "Trying to use Western management techniques on a different cultural workforce who have different value systems is actually quite hard, so it is good to have a group of senior managers who have been to the sub-continent and understand what makes these guys tick, what motivates them, how to talk to them in their language and instill a sense of pride."

The rapid development of the FM sector in India has provided a huge pool of trained professionals who are now being targeted by companies in the UAE and the wider Gulf.

"When I arrived in 1997 there was nobody in the FM industry there, today I'm guessing there are probably over 5,000 practitioners in India.

“There is an international FM institute there, you can get a post grad diploma in facilities management and there is the national academy of construction offering training courses.”

While Serco's presence in the region dates back to 1947, Serco Gulf has only been active in Dubai since 2002, when it tied up with the Ports Customs and Free Zone Corporation.                                                                                                         
The two companies operate as independent entities in Dubai although out of the same office.

Barker took over as operations director of integrated services for Serco Middle East in July while simultaneously taking on the role of general manager for Serco Gulf.

He doesn't believe his dual role and the two operating companies causes confusion in the market, although he concedes that there sometimes is confusion about what Serco actually does.

"People know Serco when they touch us. Some people think we are a consultant, others a maintenance company and others an air traffic controller.

In the UK we run prisons, we run schools and lots of other things so how do you present a company that is so broad and diverse and made up of various business units?

You can only do it through brand."

So how do people know Serco when they touch the company?

Barker believes it comes down to a difference in approach to client servicing which is less about systems and more about people.

And this is another reason why the company is doing so much of its white collar recruitment in India, where most of the blue collar workforce of the Middle East also originates.

"There are a lot of companies delivering services here and they are going out and selling the systems and processes rather than concentrating on the training of the workforce, which is where the improvement is going to come from."

He recounts a story about a training course he ran two years ago that was attended by several dozen FM's from all around the Asia Pacific region.

"These were all knowledgeable guys and when I stood up to do a presentation I apologised to the Australian contingent, saying 'you've been doing this a lot longer than many of the other people here, so bear with us as some of it may be old hat for you.'

"At the end of the course we put out course evaluation forms and got straight fives from the Australian contingent who said, these are great processes, where can we get them?"

Barker says the FM sector in Australia is an example of one that is system-driven and is not easily exported to other markets.

"They started out well, but they are an island and the world has overtaken them, so there are very few Australian companies working in Asia. 

In Australia, the systems driven process fits the market very well.

But you can't transport it to India or China or Japan."

He believes that the market in the Middle East holds massive potential for companies like Serco because of the myriad services it offers, but establishing exactly where the company’s bread is likely to be buttered in Dubai and the wider region is not yet clear.

He acknowledges that the demand in the short term at least, is likely to be property management-driven which in time will develop into more of a sophisticated FM offering.

"We have a market here where property management wasn’t developed, estates management wasn't developed, residential management wasn't developed.

So the needs here are much more total infrastructure-related."

But adding real value through the application of what have become well documented FM processes may have some way to go here.

"You read about reduced lifecycle costs and protecting the value of the asset while maximising returns and not accelerating capital expenditure.

"You can read all about it in the trade press but how much is getting through to the end users, the clients and developers is limited.

"Where it is happening it is because they brought in people who have an understanding of what is required."

Now that companies like Serco are becoming more active in the region, they are finding an appetite for their services from a receptive market.

But clients may first need to decide, or be told, what they actually need.

"What’s happening is that people are saying we need all of these FM services and they are grouping all of these requirements under the term facilities management, which is great for the industry and it is particularly good for Serco, as we have a broad range of services.

"But what we are finding when we are going out to see people is that most of them have an idea of what they want, but not what they need and I think the larger companies have a part to play so when we go to present to companies, we say 'Ok you are asking for this but you need these control mechanisms and you need to consider these things'."

Like many of his peers in the industry who are enthused about the potential of the FM market in this part of the world, he is also aware that there may be a few growing pains to endure before the sector reaches its full potential.

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