An exclusive interview with i-FM – Matt Chapman, CEO of SBFM

An exclusive interview with i-FM – Matt Chapman, CEO of SBFM

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If you don’t know the name SBFM, you should. The Leeds-headquartered soft services specialist looks set to make its mark on the FM landscape as its ambitions move into strategic implementation mode.

In an exclusive interview with i-FM, SBFM’s CEO Matt Chapman recently caught up with Elliot Chase to discuss the company’s growth ambitions, focus on technology and commitment to its people. you can read the full article here:

One big step was May’s arrival of Matt Chapman as the company’s new CEO. Chapman, formerly chief marketing & development officer at Atalian Servest, is a typical FM type – no knowledge of the sector before he arrived in it, lots of ‘learning by doing’, steady rise up the ranks as he demonstrated his abilities in various roles at various FM companies. A law graduate, he subsequently moved into marketing and sales, crossed paths with then Servest CEO Rob Legge in 2011 and got recruited into FM, left Servest after five years to join Interserve, and then was enticed back to what had in the meantime become Atalian Servest.

Chapman was vaguely aware of SBFM as a much smaller competitor in the soft services market until, in a ‘friend of a friend’ situation, he was introduced to Colin Shute, the company’s founder. “I was swept away by his vision and by how he had built the business so far,” Chapman explains. “A 33-year-old entrepreneur, he’d built it from scratch starting when he was just 22. And we very much have the same view of how the future could look,” Chapman adds.

Growth opportunities

Chapman was at Servest at a key stage. The business was turning over about £23m when he arrived and growing fast. After three years at Interserve involved in both business and talent development, he was back with his former colleagues as Atalian Servest was climbing towards a £600m turnover. Thinking of his experience and the opportunity at SBFM, he says: “I had seen the journey. I knew what clients were looking for and how a company needs to respond. And Colin liked my vision of what service perfection looks like. Perfection may not be a reality in FM, of course, but there does need to be a target that we can work towards, through the right systems, with innovation and regard to how we treat people.” 

So, where does SBFM sit in the market?  Primarily a cleaning services provider, the current run rate indicates a turnover of  £100m. The past year has seen rapid growth in terms of new business brought in, primarily from its core market sectors of retail (both high street and retail parks), leisure, corporate and logistics & distribution.

“Ironically, one of the biggest growth periods for SBFM was lockdown – hygiene demand went through the roof,” Chapman explains. “The largest market for us is distribution & logistics, and that really helped us as they witnessed greater demand. Retail also bounced back faster than expected – in part, because we have all the necessary systems and processes in place, plus we have a lower overhead than our larger competitors ] In addition, our innovative systems cut administrative time demands over what I’ve seen in bigger companies. So with clients saying they need these services, visibility of delivery, plus they need to save money, SBFM compares very well, with lower costs and innovative, effective systems. And on top of that, we know what we stand for and our people feel part of the business – that’s very important.“

The company works nationally, with about 6500 employed overall. There is a well-developed regional management structure, with the job of each regional manager being to know intimately his or her particular market and the clients being served. Company founder Colin Shute also has interests in tech businesses – which is proving to be very beneficial for SBFM, withvarious in-house technology systems, including the most recent one released being a gig economy system – a bit like Uber’s software,” Chapman says

A good match

We’ve interviewed Matt Chapman before. One of the themes that no doubt emerges from any serious conversation with him is his concern for people – specifically, their comfort, wellbeing and confidence as employees. We saw this at Atalian Servest, and it is already clear at SBFM in his enthusiasm for the company’s Unify system, which enables every team member to have a career pathway mapped out.  “This goes way beyond the typical FM company statements about training,” Chapman notes. “The record starts with induction – the what, how and why that goes into community building (and it is essential that people feel part of the SBFM community) – and runs right up to an individual’s ambitions and how they could be fulfilled, whether that is with SBFM or some other organisation, even a client organisation.” He continues, clearly enthusiastic about the message: “This has social impact benefits, too, where we can help individuals progress in line with their interests and abilities.  Quite a powerful thing, to provide education and career progression. We’re not just an FM provider; we’re a tech provider, a service provider and a recruitment provider – helping people to develop for the future.”

By way of illustration of the concept in practice, he notes that there are people at the company who started as cleaners and who have since moved into management, including one on the recruitment team who can talk with real knowledge about what the experience of working at SBFM is like. Unify, the career progression tool, is also a great recruitment tool, he adds, as it provides evidence of real opportunity.

The promise of technology

It’s not unrelated, of course, but Matt Chapman is as enthusiastic about technology as he is about people and opportunities. At one point in our conversation, he recounts a recent in-house tech meeting focusing on the question of ‘who is the stakeholder?’  It turns out there are five answers to that: the client who is outsourcing services to SBFM; the frontline colleague whose job is to deliver the service; the management team responsible for managing the service delivery; the wider set of HQ-based employees; and the client’s employees and other building users. “Understanding that as the target population,” he says, “enables you to layer the communication system to each different set of needs. We think it is crucial to understand that we are serving five different stakeholder types at all times.”

Part of the systems development process here involves client research panels, where the service provider talks through with a client what the client wants from the systems. Much of this is the basic information, Chapman notes – how many people, where they are, when etc. Beyond that, systems can be quickly customised in-house to meet individual client needs.  Then, he adds, there is the challenge (for all in this industry) of training the people using such systems so that the data going in is accurate and the information coming out is genuinely useable. A recently recruited learning & social impact director is taking the lead on training development, learner experience technology and implementation, and tailoring this to people’s roles and needs. 

“One danger in this industry,” Chapman says, “is too many off-the-shelf systems that then prove to be less than successful at communicating with each other. I have seen that at some other FM providers, and we also see tender documents for clients reading very convincingly when the reality can prove to be quite different.

“But I was blown away by the tech here. It’s easy to be in your bubble somewhere and think what we’ve got is pretty good – then you go somewhere else and you think ‘oh, that’s very good!’ Many of the messages are broadly the same across the industry, but I came here and I saw a differentiator in the technology. It excites me – and we can effectively develop it all in-house!”

Where to from here

So what are the new CEO’s ambitions for the company?  “There is an ambition to grow faster,” he explains. “But we want to stay in our soft FM lane because we haven’t maximised growth there.  Too many companies diversify too quickly and try to be everything for everybody.  For us, that means we do have ambitions to provide other soft services, but not hard services.

“Also, one of our missions is to ramp up the tech systems. Eventually we might be seen as a tech provider that can do FM, as opposed to the reverse.  I won’t say too much about that, but we do have the advantage of direct access to tech resources.  We are now building what clients in this market need, catering to all those stakeholder personas so we can communicate and unify across the business. And because we are founder-owned, we can move very quickly: some of the things we already have in place could well have taken other businesses a year or more to introduce.”

What about the industry – does he see any big trends on the horizon, anything that might be a game-changer for FM?  A couple of moments’ thought and he offers these:

Longer contract periods and more in-depth partnerships – “Changing suppliers every two or three years means losing knowledge and experience. If you are going to really crack net zero, we need more longevity and accountability, more partnership to really deliver the results that are necessary. Short-term thinking and decisions on cost will not work; there has to be investment to get to the goal. We saw some thinking like this during Covid when contracts were extended to meet extraordinary circumstances.”

Digitalisation – “We have lots of data, but few are doing much with it.  In addition, the industry has various systems that don’t marry up. We have to do better. Clients need to know and trust; providers need to ensure they can be trusted.”

Automation – “Clients and suppliers are torn: there is pressure to create jobs and employ people, but on the other hand there are pressures on cost. Robots are an easy solution, but how does that square with the former?  Intelligent robots, cobots, are the future direction for some service areas.”

Training/education – “With these changes, especially in tech, the pressure is on training to ensure systems are used as intended and all the data is accurate.  Clients want to know what they are hearing and seeing is accurate along with getting what they are paying for, and they probably need help with interpretation, too. We, as service providers, need to be able to do that.  We need to upskill the people we have or create new roles to handle the data management.  We’re seeing some clients talking less about the cleaning spec – that is settled – and more about the data that captures the impact in terms of customer experience, satisfaction, concerns and expectations. So that data has to be captured and it has to be accurate, and we have to know we have the people who can deliver this.” 

But as far as assessing trends – let alone game-changers – goes, he knows that this sort of list could change in a matter of months. So a part of the new job is to keep thinking about what’s next.

The right man for the job

“I have a personal ambition to make this industry better,” Matt Chapman says, adding: “I have been very lucky in life, and I want to ensure that we bring opportunity to everyone in the business, whatever their ambitions are.”

And the fact is a lot of his experience has been, one way or another, in business development: “I have been talking about and writing about ‘best practice’ in FM for years,” he says. 

Bring those two themes together with the fact that he now has the opportunity to deliver on them, to make the vision a reality, and the next couple of years at SBFM should be interesting times.