Andrew Hulbert tells Fiona Perrin that it is Pareto FM's approach to people that is driving success; and he's determined to foster this ethos as the company grows.
It’s the ultimate successful SME conundrum – how do you bottle what’s made you special when you’re small and keep it as you grow the business?
Some might say it’s a nice problem to have. On track to achieve a £13m turnover this year and employing 110 people, Andrew Hulbert’s company has grown steadily since its inception in 2014 when, armed with a laptop and a lot of ambition, he set up Pareto FM, determined that his organisation would offer something different.
His wife wasn’t that keen, he says, when, at 26, with a fast-track career at first Rollright, where he was operations director at 24, and then with Bilfinger, its acquirer, he came home and said he was going to set up his own business.
Ambition and drive
His story is a familiar one to entrepreneurs – from a working-class background, he was determined to prove himself and run his own show. It was a big battle to go to university, he says. And, as the first member of his family to do so, once there he was determined to show his folks what he was made of.
At Essex University, studying business management, he landed an eight-week internship at Rollright FM, working with then commercial director Charlie Sinton. “He took me under his wing,” Hulbert (left) recalls. “And it was great: a business sector where it seemed to me there was loads of opportunity – and it’s exciting when someone else is paying for the beer.” Cut to 2008 and he’d joined full-time as a graduate, and then “worked my arse off” to take charge of around £12m of contracts across sectors from TV to tech through to corporate services.
His honesty is a hallmark of his style – and this is a story he has shared many times with the young graduates he has inspired through his work with the Young Managers’ Forum and IWFM’s Rising FMs Special Interest Group. He won the Young Manager of the Year himself in 2010 and has been a big advocate of FM as a career, taking to the stage at schools and colleges whenever possible.
At only 32 now, his tale and the transparent way in which he tells it will hit home with Gens Y and Z in a way that is difficult to replicate with greater age. He talks, for example, with confidence about “building a brand” around opportunities for young managers, not only springing onto the stage but becoming a go-to spokesperson on the subject in the FM press.
The corporate years
It then turns into a story of some corporate frustration. He stayed with Bilfinger for two years but admits that he struggled with the ‘big company’ mentality, which doesn’t have the same ability to adapt systems to respond to customers. So then came that conversation with his wife.
“Luckily, it worked out,” he says now - but admits that he sat with his laptop on the first day of self-employment with trepidation.
In the first year, through the contacts he had built up, he won a contract with a five-star hotel – and others followed. The pitch, he says, was that Pareto will offer a completely bespoke approach responding to what the client wants: setting up in 2014 when cloud-based nimble systems were available – as distinct from trying to adapt legacy enterprise systems – was a distinct advantage. As the company grew from one contract to around 25 clients today, Pareto delivered, Hulbert says, on its pitch through employing people with great attitude who were in constant contact with colleagues and clients to adapt services to meet their individual needs.
It has worked – sustained growth in turnover has also delivered at the bottom line. The model is TFM and building engineering, with soft services sub-contracted to a chosen pool of sector specialists. Clients include Twitter, Paddy Power Betfair and London Zoo, as well as others from the online, science, charity and professional services sectors. Hulbert says they are characterised by being “quality customers that want good levels of service and understand it has a direct impact on the productivity of staff. We want to work with clients who understand that FM and workplace is important to the business.”
Pareto turns down a number of tenders every year, he says, but works hard to be on the list for those they want, admitting the typical growth headache that sometimes they are not “big enough or established enough” to be appointed. In addition, when they are pitching, Pareto brings the team who are going to deliver the contract so that clients know exactly who they will be working with – there are no business development people who promise the world and then pass it on to the operators who need to deliver.
“If you can get the right staff, then clients will be happy,” he explains. He is proud that amongst directly employed staff the churn rate is less than 2%, and of his entire leadership team of 25 no one has yet left.
“A lot of them have come from big boys, frustrated by a lack of opportunity,” Hulbert notes. “We have flexible systems which lead to innovation and we let them show us how things can be done and be creative. Of course, that has to fit within parameters, but we give them an opportunity to prove themselves without being stuck in the ways that bigger organisations have to do it.”
Connecting through food
Everyone in the business meets their manager at least once a week, so engagement is constant. The ethos is about treating everyone as equals within a “why is the CEO more important than a cleaner?” context and with a focus on understanding the human in the worker. He puts great store by getting to know people through that connection, and what makes them tick – the hashtag used at the company is #lovewhatwefood: “If I turn up with a plate of doughnuts for a chat, I’m going to learn so much more,” Hulbert says.
Being a smaller and more personal operator also allows Pareto to support people in individual ways. The company has lent money to staff at zero interest for cars, for travel and in one case for IVF – and it’s always been paid back. Managers are all offered IoM level three leadership training and he’s proud of the stories of engineers who are now established leaders. Equally important is social value and diversity; the leadership team has always had a gender ratio of 50:50 and the organisation is a lead proponent of the LGBT+ group in FM.
From SME to scale
The culture then, feels young, fun and empowering - and that is important to the talent Hulbert is trying to attract and retain. His clients, too, love seeing people progress in their careers.
But, how to hang on to all this as you grow? Luckily, cloud-based systems support a drive to scale and are no restriction on growth, Hulbert explains – instead they are a competitive advantage.
But will he still be able to ensure that he can sit and chat with his colleagues over a plate of doughnuts as Pareto wins more business and employs more staff?
“It’s still going to be about the people,” he says. “Recruiting the right type who buy into the journey we’re on.” At this point, he still recruits all managers, looking not necessarily for the person with the most qualifications, but for the person with “enthusiasm, attitude, the right approach to life and work. We always recruit on potential to find the right person with the sparkle in their eye that will work hard.”
With a growth plan that points to a £25m turnover in the next few years – the one that makes sure he will never be seen as “too small” again – we’ll catch up with him then, maybe over some doughnuts, and see how he is doing.
https://www.i-fm.net/features/fm-a-human-business (Sign Up Required)