A learning curve

As the FM market slowly starts to evolve in the region, Stephen Barker, director of Operon Middle East and Group GM of Quality Group explains why education is vital to the future success of the industry.

With the region developing at an extremely fast pace, it’s easy to see why FM has to pick up speed and try to deliver the best possible solutions.

But careful thought and a full understanding of what FM can do and how it can help businesses, is needed by all those involved.

Stephen Barker believes education is the key to the development of a successful facilities management industry in the Middle East.

"FM is still a very new industry here but it is expanding and being acknowledged very very quickly.

Therefore, importing expertise from other mature FM industry markets is bound to create teething problems so there is an evolving education process going on at the moment."
He recently met with one of the top family businesses in the region and was shocked at what he then heard.

"By default they are a major holder of a substantial property portfolio here.

This was a very educated local gentleman, a great forward thinker and he asked me the question ‘what really is FM?�

“This well respected family conglomerate owns a number of prestigious developments including landmark office towers, residential compounds and villas, which runs into a multi billion diram portfolio.

He now realises that to be efficiently operating those buildings, he needs be implementing an FM strategy.�

So it seems industry awareness and education are interlinked.

“If people like that are still struggling to understand the importance, the depth and the value of FM both at the design stage, handover and on service provision then we�ve still got an awful long way to go to educate our local market,� states Barker.

“I feel that FM as a mature industry which we all recognise back home in the Western World, is going to go through immense growing pains here.

We are familiar as a consultancy and a provider with the whole depth and spectrum of what the FM industry provides on behalf of its clients, but many potential clients here are still unaware of what FM can provide them and its long term value.

You�ve got a conflict of interest, a conflict of education.�

Consider FM contracts, for example.

In the UK, contracts are typically termed at five years in length with the option to renew and in many cases are positioned at 20 and 25 years.

“It is a struggle here with some potential clients to make them understand a five year contractual period of commitment because it�s not in their mind-set.

Why would they want to commit to somebody for five years?

“Both individuals and companys here are reluctant to spread the initial capital costs over a longer period of time.

While this is standard practice in the UK, people over here are so wary of doing it.

Again, it comes back to the education process,� explains Barker.

On a visual basis, Dubai seems to be fairly advanced already – the vast number of impressive buildings, the service and the expanding array of facilities.

But behind the materialistic façade, the FM industry is only just starting to progress.

When Barker speaks about the efforts of the FM industry becoming apparent, he says: “It�s already started but in very small numbers.

For the industry to be accepted and for clients from a multitude of sources to accept that FM should and needs to play a role, it will take another two, three or even four years.�

“We want Operon to play a leading part of the education process.

The industry has got to make it�s own mark.

The lead has to be driven by the providers, not from the industry which it serves.

My call is that it�s up to the providers and major players to set the benchmarks because without this, clients will be awash with all sorts of standards,� he adds.

Another place Barker is looking at to help with the education process is the Government.

“If you go back to the grassroots and the fundamentals as to how the authorities are taking FM on board, in most cases they�re not because they are still coming to terms themselves with the intricacies of what it is.

There�s no benchmark of standards, no authoritative voice.�

But the education of FM is relative to its position within the market place.

Because it�s such a new and thriving industry it�s bound to need experienced people explaining what it is and how it can help.


Let�s look at the real estate developers.

Real estate developers as in what we see now have actually only been an entity in the last four to five years.

What we had previously were private individual developers and quasi government developers, basically developing to build and sell,� explains Barker.

“Now the market for them has completely changed. They are recognising that they have to think about the full implications of life-cycle costs.

They now have to consider energy costs for example.

So in my view it�s a 100% education process for an industry that is still so, so new.�

With many major developers forming joint ventures to create facility management companies, Barker asks why there is a need for this to happen?

“Is it the home territory being afraid of what the away team are going to do and bring to the table?

Is it intrinsic in the mind-set of how business is done here?

Is it lack of fundamental knowledge making developers scared – so as to ensure a form of security and that they don�t expose themselves to getting it wrong, they get into bed with a “provider� by forming a joint venture, thus everybody is accountable and tied in legally?

– not to mention the developer ensuring a share of the profits of looking after his own building.�

He goes on to say that he thinks in many situations it�s naivety on the part of the potential client.

“It�s a large element of being afraid of what they don�t know because when you go to a client and start discussing FM in detail, they are very often lacking in basic knowledge of what the industry can provide and how it can help them.

On the flip side of this, Barker is seeing another emirate in the UAE learning from the mistakes Dubai has made.

“Funnily enough, we�ve seen an increasing number of enquires from Abu Dhabi.

The type of enquiry we�ve been getting and the tone has far more knowledge attached to it than what we had nine months ago in Dubai.

“So there�s a whole UAE learning process evolving as the role out of many of the projects that Abu Dhabi are going to be delivering are significantly larger than the ones in Dubai.�

Operon Middle East is a joint venture between Operon UK and a Dubai based Facility Management and Interior Fit Out company, Quality Group.

They officially launched Operon Middle East at the FM Expo show in June this year.

Barker thinks that one of the problems with some UK and European companies setting up a facilities management business in the Middle East is that they expect to conduct business in the same way they would back in the UK.

“A lot of companies that come here don�t get it wrong as such, their expectations are just too high.

It does take time.

The lead time from first contact to closing contracts can be up to two years and often contract negotiations can be extremely frustrating along the route.

I have been here for 12 years and am very familiar with the territory, it�s a way of doing business that�s unique to this area.�

“I feel that a lot of European based companies that have set up over here recently see it as streets that are painted gold.

Of course there is substantial business to be won.

But it is hard fought and the delivery standards should be equal to those benchmarked in the mature markets of the world.

That in itself will perform the basis of ensuring world-class benchmarked FM provision here in the UAE.�

“ We�ve still got an awful long way to go to educate our local market�


“ In most cases the authorities are still coming to terms with what FM is�



Name: Stephen John Barker

Job Title: Director Operon Middle East & Group General Manager of Quality Group (Joint Venture Parnter Co)

Company: Operon Middle East (OME) & Quality Group

Core services/products: FM Services and Consultancy, Interior fit-outs

Number of staff: 1,000+

Largest contract: Department For Transport (DFT) London. AED200 million.

Total FM Service provision, nine year contract.

Based in: UK

Your background: Architecture and Interior Design in the UK.

A number of senior/ high level construction industry and manufacturing posts held here in the UAE over the past 12 years.

Memberships: RIBA, IoD, FCMI

Most enjoyable part of job: Creating business winning group strategies, implementing them and seeing the results mature.

Pressure – the greater it is the better I perform.

Least enjoyable: Loosing any contract which we have bid for.

The management post mortum on those are usually pretty painful!


Operon Middle East offer a full range of integrated facility management services, including:

FM consultancy, M&E design, “front-end value engineering and life cycle costing, professional managing agent services, real estate management including leasing, mobile maintenance teams, project and construction management, energy management including planning, design, monitoring and conservation, CAFM, CAD, health & safety, operating and maintenance manuals, building maintenance, interior design and fit-out and building refurbishment and upgrades.

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