This interview with Dana Nelson, Managing Director of BGIS APAC, is extracted from Vol. 14 No. 4 of Facility Perspectives, and was authored by Leanne Cluley, Founder of Reduxo and Co-Chair of the Diversity Portfolio Group for the Facility Management Association of Australia.
Dana Nelson, Managing Director BGIS APAC
Leanne Cluley (LC): Please provide an overview of when you first started in the facilities management (FM) industry. Was this your first chosen role?
Dana Nelson (DN): My background is in health science. I studied orthoptics, which is an ocular health science. Through my study and subsequent years, I always enjoyed being in a service-based industry – I enjoyed engagement with customers and helping them find the right solutions. My first ‘real role’ was within hospitality and leisure, and over time through the companies I’ve worked for, that’s how I really transitioned into the FM space. I never practiced what I got my qualifications for, I have always gravitated to an industry that is a contracted service-based industry.
LC: What was your first role?
DN: As a student I worked for Peter Rowlands Commercial Catering and worked for them full-time when I came back from overseas. My first senior management role was with Delaware North Australia. I was in my mid-20s as an Area Manager, looking after multiple accounts, both hospitality and leisure based. When I joined Spotless, I was given greater exposure to the integrated FM market, which I found interesting and challenging.
Delaware North is a privately owned US company. I was Managing Director for a number of years in Australia. Their business is large venue, leisure-based contracts and airports, with some soft services, but the line of business was hospitality. From there, I joined Spotless. My role diversified, particularly when private equity came in, and we went from being a service-based business to a sector-based business. The sector I inherited had multiple services, including quite a large portion of FM in the government and commercial space, aviation and a range of local councils.
LC: What has been your journey in the industry, and what have been the highlights and challenges?
DN: I was Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Spotless, followed by CEO of Spotless and am now President and Managing Director of BGIS. I’ve worked under multiple business structures such as private companies, private equity ownership, public-listed companies and managed business subsidiaries. There are many highlights that I’ve experienced throughout my career to date. At the time I was CEO of Spotless, I was one of only 12 female CEOs of publicly listed companies. Prior to that, my role as COO at Spotless was accelerated with the opportunity given through new ownership with private equity. Mentoring by the incumbent female COO, clear objectives and the endorsement to be given a voice at the table all led to strong career development.
In my current role at BGIS, I can be very focused from a market and growth point of view. We are a technically led organisation, backed by strong capabilities and reputation in this area. The organisational development piece that I am driving is to leverage and grow the diversity of our people across the business. One of the first things I did at BGIS was implement a diversity and inclusion pillar. The business has responded quickly – we have many people who are passionate around Indigenous and gender diversity. Within this proactive group we have built a gender diversity committee to promote the career development and retention of women. I am pleased that our executive leadership group is reshaped with a new female Head of Client Accounts and a new Head of Safety and Compliance. We’re not at 50:50 yet, although I am pleased with achieving a 40:60 improvement. Overall, my career highlight is progressing to where I am today in what is still a largely male-dominated industry. My personal success has come through developing the capability within myself to have strong relationships and engagements across a range of clients and sectors.
LC: Based on the current climate that we’re all experiencing – living and working in a pandemic – what advice would you like to share with the Australian FM community?
DN: Technology and the part it plays. How you understand technology and how you implement it – both within your teams and your clients – is important. I’m a process- and data-driven person, so I’m always interested in new technologies. As an industry, we have been slow in this space. Important questions to be answered include: How do you coordinate your processes? How do you use data better to allow your accounts teams to be more client and customer focused? How can data drive an improved employee focus?
It’s about trying to lift the industry from being reactive to proactive. Staying connected and supporting your workforce is critical. We continue to regularly connect with our people through many channels including email, webcasts, SMS, phone calls, webinars and direct-to-home mail. We have become far more open and connected across our organisation as a result of the increased communications needed in the pandemic. Having solid business continuity plans in place has been a real lesson learnt this year, in particular ensuring that those plans interface with your clients. We’ve had instances where our plans are far more robust than our clients and they have looked to BGIS to help navigate their way through. Also, really understand how you keep your business going, making sure it’s resilient and sustainable, as well as how it works together with your clients. Think ahead to what your clients are going to need in their future way of working.
LC: What advice do you wish you had been given when you first started and what advice would you give to others interested in joining the industry?
DN: I wish I had appreciated the value of technology and data more in the early days, because I think it is a differentiator from a market point of view. It’s a really stimulating industry if you grab opportunities that come along. It’s a diverse industry if you think in terms of the sectors and services you can operate in. We are probably quite unique in that way.
I would also be encouraging your team to think about how they can expand the various services they can deliver. There is real value in providing a technically led integrated offer. It’s important to challenge yourself to think about how you can build capability in that space. The one thing I’ve learnt in the past 10 years is to really understand and take time to invest in your purpose. Think about the technical piece and how that can change the dynamics of what you do. We talk about continuous improvement and operational excellence – investing in this is just so important, and a market differentiator.
LC: While women only represent 17 per cent of the total FM workforce, women in FM have been steadily increasing in number over the years. What do you believe is the reason for the increasing numbers, and the low percentile?
DN: I believe the increasing numbers of women in FM is because diversity in organisations is now valued and the benefits of having a diverse workforce are proven. Gender diversity is expected by executive teams and boards. The traditionally low numbers are in part due to the job roles not being promoted as viable and attractive careers for women.
Offering an interesting career path so that young engineers – both male and female – will gravitate towards our industry is critical. The industry has suffered from a lack of investment in its people. We need to create an interesting story about why you would want to work in this space, especially for women. Importantly, we need to break the model of the majority of project managers being male. We’ve got a high portion of female project managers moving into senior roles, which is great. We need to do that, however, in the more traditional FM roles, such as account manager.
LC: What changes, if any, have you seen in the industry since you’ve been working in it?
DN: I’d say technology and the fact that our industry is far more competitive. I think there is a shortage of skilled people, which goes back to my original comments around making it an interesting and valuable industry for people to work in. I think that, in some cases, clients don’t value or appreciate the service and that then translates into how hard it is to retain people and keep them interested and motivated.
LC: What do you think the important issues in FM are now, and in the current COVID-19 climate?
DN: Regardless of the business conditions – COVID-19 or business as usual – we need to be better about promoting what we do – articulating our value to our clients and celebrating our capability, both internally and externally. My observation compared to other industries is that FM organisations do not do a great job of promoting and celebrating the fantastic work we deliver, along with how critically important our services are to our clients. Unless we do more to create a level of interest and excitement around this space, it will continue to be difficult to attract and retain talent.
In the current environment and at BGIS, for us it’s about making sure we’ve got robust systems, strong dialogue and communications avenues, and clear deliverable plans in place as we navigate our way through this. We hope that one thing that may come out of this is our clients have a greater appreciation and understanding of what we do and how critical we are to ensure their continuity. That would be a positive outcome.
LC: What would you like to see change in the FM industry?
DN: I would like to see the industry celebrate what it does and actively promote what we do. We’re seen as creating a point of difference with our clients. I’d like it to be a space that people gravitate to when they’re studying engineering or other technical qualifications. So that they think about this industry as they would think about going to join a mining company, or an aviation company. It should be on the list of what would be an interesting profession to go into – a career path for people from all walks of life.