Facility Manager Update: Manufacturers weigh in on the needs of facility managers and how to be effective partners for them - Dec 2020
By Darius Helm
Facility managers may well have the least glamorous role in the commercial built environment, despite their outsized contribution. The glory goes to the owners and executives for their vision and leadership, and for their expression of that vision, to the architects and designers (A&D) go the awards and accolades. And for the execution, credit goes to the general contractor and subs and the manufacturers providing the materials. Meanwhile, those who manage and run the facilities, responsible for the entire physical space and the occupants within it-essentially the linchpin of any substantial enterprise-toil largely in the shadows.
Over the years, facility managers (FMs) have accrued an endlessly increasing set of responsibilities, but it started out fairly straightforward. Picture the business as a boat, a sailboat-designed by A&D, assembled by contractors and set on a course by its leaders. The facility manager would be the skipper, responsible for sailing the boat from point A to point B in good working order. But just like businesses, boats have evolved. They have grown bigger, more complex, engines replacing sails, AC and DC electrical systems, water makers, waste treatment-with every new responsibility falling to the skipper. Today’s large businesses are more like a cruise ship, and the skipper is now tasked with not only the navigation and operation of the vessel but housing, amenities, food service, entertainment, lighting, flooring, digital services, healthcare, employee welfare and retention, sanitation, waste disposal, scheduling, maintenance, lifecycle assessments…the list goes on and on.
Put simply, the FM runs just about everything outside of the enterprise’s core business-that which brings in sales and generates profits. In bigger businesses, today’s facility managers have teams working for them to effectively cover all the moving parts in these complex and rapidly evolving operations. These days, the most cutting-edge facility managers have incorporated digital technologies to help them manage and coordinate their myriad responsibilities. And the buildings themselves are increasingly communicating digitally, creating data streams channeled to and optimized for FMs. But that doesn’t mean that facility managers have more time on their hands, because they keep accruing new responsibilities.
Fortunately, facility managers are increasingly being recognized for the value they bring to business operations, and these days will more often have a seat at the table with A&D and executive decision makers when it comes to a range of operational issues, human resources, risk management and even pandemic-driven remote working strategies.
However, not every business requires a facility manager. Certainly, smaller standalone businesses don’t tend to need that role. All they need is some maintenance, which they get from external janitorial or cleaning services for maintenance considerations. And businesses in leased spaces tend to be maintained by property managers. Hotels of a certain size have facility managers, as do hospitals, large offices, corporate campuses, national retailers and most schools from K-12 to higher education. In some cases, the facility manager is contracted from real estate service firms like CBRE and JLL.
FACILITY MANAGERS VERSUS A&D
Manufacturer reps and contract dealers work with both A&D and facility managers in specifying product. As Mark Bischoff, president and CEO of Starnet, puts it, a key difference between the two is that the goal of architects and designers is to support the client’s mission, vision and values long term through their design and interior décor, while facility managers are largely focused on the practical, day-to-day issues while at the same time having to take the long view, including the lifecycles of all of the components, such as flooring, under their supervision.
These different priorities manifest in various ways. It’s mostly a matter of emphasis, since both groups value design, performance, sustainability, long lifecycles, low maintenance and other key flooring considerations. A designer has to balance the look with durability, says David Dembowitz, Mohawk’s SVP for the education and government sectors, “but they don’t have as much skin in the game when the project is completed.”
At the outset, reps work more closely with A&D, from custom strike-offs and other design decisions to budget issues and scheduling, as well as maintenance and lifecycle considerations, where the facility manager will be heavily focused going forward.
Once A&D’s specified flooring is installed and the project is completed, responsibility for sustaining the specified products shifts to the facility manager, whose focus is on performance and longevity. And the manufacturer’s reps and contract dealers pivot from working closely with A&D to building their relationship with the facility manager. The A&D firm will maintain a role going forward, but the onus shifts to the FM.
Also, because A&D go from project to project but FM’s responsibilities remain entirely focused on a single business entity, the relationship manufacturer reps and contract dealers have with facility managers has a continuity to it that episodic relationships with A&D often lack, requiring a deeper commitment and a higher level of trust.
“The smartest reps form these relationships,” says Max Cavalli, Mannington’s director of education segments, adding that FMs are looking for a partner rather than a transactional relationship.
One key difference between facility managers and architects and designers is that FMs are more risk averse, since they are responsible for the flooring on a day-to-day and ongoing basis. “They’re more cautious,” says Tommy Miller, national segment manager for K-12 for Interface, “because they have to live with the outcomes of these products.”
Close relationships built on knowledge and trust are essential for facility managers, whose success relies on the strength and integrity of those relationships. They want to be able to lean on that partnership, and they want their manufacturer reps to take ownership of product, from conception to end of life.
As Cavalli puts it, “In a sense, they want you to be in their business.” He adds that until facility managers trust you, “they don’t want to hear what you have to say.” FMs want to know that that their rep is not only capable and knowledgeable, but also will be with them in good times and bad.
Once trust is established, facility managers expect reps to guide and advise them when necessary, from installation to maintenance to troubleshooting. And if a manufacturer’s rep can establish a deep enough relationship, it’s not uncommon for facility managers, when renovating or adding new spaces, to take specs to the designer and recommend using products from that manufacturer.
Good communication with facility managers is key to sustaining a strong relationship, but their time is precious, so they’re not looking for an overabundance of communication. Far from it. If a rep isn’t respectful of an FM’s time, the relationship will falter. Communications must be efficient. What facility managers really want is responsiveness-for that rep or contract dealer to be available when needed, to pick up the phone or respond promptly to a text or email.
Most of the larger flooring manufacturers have extensive experience working with facility managers and have fine-tuned their ability to serve them. Market leaders like Shaw Contract and The Mohawk Group target the commercial market by segment, so their healthcare specialists, for instance, are intimately familiar with all of the healthcare concerns-roller mobility, sterility, maintenance requirements and scheduling-that are critically important to healthcare facility managers.
Where possible, Mohawk will try to keep in touch with FM needs through trade organization conferences and educational events, says Dembowitz, and the firm also holds its own education summits. In fact, it held a virtual summit in October, bringing together education designers, facility managers and other stakeholders with a panel of industry experts to discuss “Creating Worry-Free Education Environments.”
Another advantage of being a larger player, Daniel Collins, Shaw Contract’s director of workplace, points out, is the ability to leverage the breadth of their offerings-facility managers value a one-stop shop, particularly when running operations that require a wide range of flooring solutions.
However, not all of the major flooring producers offers all those flooring types. Bentley Mills, for instance, sells carpet and LVT, which are, fortunately, two of the biggest commercial flooring categories. So Bentley doesn’t put as much focus on sectors like healthcare that require more flooring options, but its high-performing goods, like its carpet made with Antron nylon 6,6, drive business in sectors like corporate and higher education, where it works closely with facility managers, offering everything from floor plan layouts to expertise on branding and corporate colors.
Another of the large, well-established flooring leaders is Interface, a carpet tile producer that has added LVT in recent years as well as rubber through its Nora acquisition. The firm has a lot of experience working with facility managers and has recently launched new products that it hopes will be problem solvers, including a new LVT backing called SoundChoice that reduces sound transmission between floors (with an IIC rating of 57), as well as its new CQuest carpet backings, including CQuest BioX, which is used to create carbon-negative carpet tiles. The new products will likely be well-received by A&D, which will hopefully help catalyze the opinions of the more wary facility managers.
Mannington uses its wide range of flooring options-broadloom, carpet tile, rubber flooring, LVT and sheet vinyl-to serve facility managers in a range of segments, including K-12, higher education, corporate and healthcare. Close relationships with FMs and contract dealers have helped the firm’s flooring solutions gain traction with facility managers. A few years ago, it divested itself of one of facility managers’ biggest headaches, VCT, shifting demand to its LVT and rubber programs.
THE ROLE OF CONTRACT DEALERS
The other core partner to the FM is the contract dealer, also known as the commercial flooring contractor. Contract dealers work hard on developing strong FM relationships. Their expertise and knowledge base are essential resources to the FM community. Savvy reps realize that their own strong relationships with contract dealers are key to elevating their value to facility managers.
Contractors who are members of the two leading contract dealer groups-Fuse Commercial Flooring Alliance and Starnet Worldwide Commercial Flooring Partnership-benefit from the focus their groups bring to facility management relationships.
Fuse Alliance’s executive director, Geoff Gordon, says, “Fuse is a best practices organization, so the members and Fuse management are always contributing ideas that the individual members can use to improve their company’s performance.”
“Starnet has members working every day with these clients,” says Starnet’s Bischoff, noting that these are network- and campus-based endeavors, not project-based like A&D business. “There’s generally a high level of trust with contract dealers.”
Experienced contract dealers will build into their operations the needs of facility managers, which often involve high-speed solutions to unanticipated problems they’re having in spaces, so it pays to be flexible and responsive, including some support for quick-ship programs-though that’s challenging right now because so many manufacturers pushed their inventories low in response to pandemic impacts. A lot of these manufacturing facilities are unwieldy, scaled for high demand and much more inefficient when they have to take their foot off the gas.
“Service and quality are fundamental to a successful relationship,” says Gordon. “Facility managers have high expectations and often limited amounts of time to get the work done. The flooring contractor must be organized and efficient.”
Gordon notes that most facility departments are much smaller today than in the past, meaning that FMs are busier than ever, covering larger square footages. He adds, “If a flooring contractor can provide on-time service, whether it be quotes, sample delivery or installation, they are freeing up time for the FM to focus on other priorities.”
According to Bischoff, FMs who are used to working with contract dealers will come to them with problems and dealers will work to deliver multiple options to help solve the issue. If it’s a good relationship, the FM will reach out to the contract dealer for challenges like acoustical solutions and even non-flooring products, like lighting or wall elements. Some contract dealers already do business in these other areas, and for others it’s an opportunity to expand their services.
Cleaning and maintenance services have always been a business that brings FMs and contract dealers closer, because FMs appreciate the impact of professional maintenance on the performance, visuals and lifecycle of their products. And over the last few months, many contract dealers have moved quickly to add disinfection services.
For instance, Diverzify’s RD Weis, a Starnet member, started offering disinfection services all the way back in March. Its disinfection and sanitization program includes electrostatic spraying and fogging of the entire space, carpet care, panel and upholstery sanitization, tile cleaning and grout restoration.
Starnet also created a specifier and business development committee to reach out to facility managers and determine how their needs are changing during the pandemic, covering issues like budget impacts, goals for the next few months and operational changes.
PRODUCTS THEY NEED AND WANT
Working successfully with facility managers requires empathy “understanding the intent of the space and focusing on the occupants of that space, how they will utilize it and the best solution for it,” says Shaw’s Collins. And now more than ever, the intent of the space is about the occupants. It’s not just about providing products that are durable and easily maintained; it’s also about the ingredients in the products, including the chemistry of maintenance products. For instance, FMs will tend to favor solution-dyed carpet fiber for its stain resistance and extended color performances, and polish-optional LVT for its reduced maintenance profile.
Christi Hitch, Bentley Mills’ vice president of business development, notes that FMs are also leaning toward fast-track options, since they’re always short on time, as well as more standardization across campuses and larger facilities, which helps streamline their operations.
In terms of products, facility managers generally follow the trends coming out of A&D, though at a slower pace. They like products that they fully understand, and particularly those with low maintenance requirements that don’t introduce a lot of chemicals into the environment-since they’re tasked, among other things, with ensuring that all of the firm’s standards and certification are met, be it low VOCs, green chemistries, greenhouse gas reductions, efficient use of electricity, and more.
VCT is one product that facility managers don’t favor any longer-and most architects and designers would agree. All of that polishing and recoating is becoming a thing of the past, an inefficient holdover from the 20th century-though it’s worth noting that the largest VCT producer, Armstrong, has alleviated the issue with its new finishes. Most FMs are very familiar with commercial LVT, so the shift from one to the other has been fairly straightforward.
In general, when it comes to products, what matters most to facility managers is information and transparency. They require a clear understanding of everything from maintenance protocols and installation guidelines to ingredient lists and environmental assessments.
Copyright 2020 Floor Focus