In the latest instalment of our commercial cleaning and FM industry executive interview series we spoke to Raja Taj, Group Finance Director at SBFM, about the company, his career path, and what the future could hold for the industry.
Can you tell us about SBFM and the services it provides?
SBFM is one of the fastest growing, innovative soft services businesses in the UK, providing cleaning, pest control, waste management and security services.
How is SBFM different to other commercial cleaning and soft FM providers?
How long have you got? SBFM is different in almost every way. A key differentiator is that the business is owner operated, therefore, there are no external investors steering strategy. That means we can focus on delivering unrivalled service excellence to clients, investing in technology and innovation.
SBFM clients can speak directly to the owner of the business. Decision making is rapid, making us much more agile than major competitors. Then there’s the culture -more open, honest, and transparent than anywhere I have experienced.
What is your background? How did you progress through the profession to your current role?
After graduating with a BSc Hons in Business Management I started working in Industry. Whilst working in the FM sector for Europa FM, then Bilfinger, I became a CIMA qualified accountant. I achieved rapid promotion everywhere I worked, becoming a Statutory Finance Director within the Capita Plc Group, aged thirty-two. My key achievement there was divesting ‘ParkingEye’ to private equity investors for over £200m, in 2018 working alongside Goldman Sachs and then remaining on the board with two different private equity investors. I joined SBFM in December 2020, as the Group Finance Director.
What is your role and responsibilities within SBFM?
I am listed as a director with Companies House, sitting on the Statutory Board, with responsibility for Group Finance, Legal, Payroll, and IT. I look after acquisitions, all investment related matters, strategic growth plans and how we track growth against forecasts. SBFM is a financially strong and stable company; my role is to keep it that way.
What’s the most exciting thing about your job?
I am excited by the immense potential for growth and diversification. At SBFM we are all part of the growth journey. Being able to really invest in the teams across the business and see people being promoted though effective succession planning is something I value highly and enjoy.
What’s the most challenging?
During rapid business growth the key is always to remain financially stable, and profitable, with a high level of liquidity. SBFM has achieved all those objectives, despite the challenges of COVID and Brexit.
The challenge is always to mitigate any risks, be they from staff attrition to client retention to successful contract mobilisations, as all of which have a financial impact. We continue to do that, by being an employer of choice, offering clients unrivalled customer focus and senior management engagement, and recruiting the best talent to deliver seamless transition to the enhanced service we offer new clients.
What have been the biggest challenges the commercial cleaning and FM industry has faced over the past two years?
The biggest challenges have been COVID and Brexit, with both happening within a few months. Brexit happened first, and we knew it was coming. But it has created challenges in recruiting unskilled and semi-skilled labour, in an industry where much of the workforce came from EU countries, a source that is now turned off. COVID magnified the recruitment issues, as many were reluctant to report for work, or chose to change jobs during furlough. SBFM addresses this by having an inhouse recruitment team focused on frontline roles. A strong focus on staff development and training attracts and retains colleagues.
But COVID had other impacts. Many client sites were closed, needing no cleaning, leading to a loss of revenue. The sites that remained open needed more cleaning, with the challenges there being to source labour with so many colleagues off sick, finding ways of cleaning workplaces to infection control standards. SBFM sites included food distributors and retailers, which had to remain open.
We redeployed staff from clients who were not trading, implementing highly visible cleaning regimes, to increase the confidence of client staff, and met rigorous safety standards to keep clients trading. It’s no exaggeration to say a number of key cleaning contractors played a significant, if unheralded, role in keeping the UK safe by providing an excellent cleaning service throughout the pandemic.
What have been the biggest opportunities?
Perversely, COVID created opportunities too. Where premises remained open, they usually needed more cleaning, and a different type of cleaning. Whereas pre-COVID ‘deep clean’ were often annual events, COVID meant cleaning more thoroughly, more often. We introduced new cleaning methods, like fogging, and highly effective cleaning agents that kill COVID. Cleaning contractors benefited from more ad hoc work, like post-infection cleans. COVID changed the perception of cleaning, which is now seen as essential to safety and business continuity, rather than just a cost line on the P&L.
What does the future of commercial cleaning and FM look like? Do you envisage any key trends in the market in 2022 and beyond?
Innovation and automation will play a key part in the future of commercial cleaning. The investment in robotics and better-quality cleaning machinery will become even more important as technology improves. The future has exciting possibilities and SBFM will continue to lead the field in embracing emerging opportunities as they arise.