2018 3Nov

Facilicom: Low profile giant

2018 3Nov

Facilicom CEO Geert van de Laar on the roof of Facilicom head office in Schiedam. © Jan de Groen

'Annoying', he blurts out. Throughout our discussion, Facilicom CEO Geert van de Laar (59) is a good, if careful, conversationalist. Until the subject of the company's long cherished sense of family is raised in combination with the huge number of employees. He doesn't know all the names of the 32,000 employees and that annoys him.

The Facilicom Group in Schiedam is one of the biggest employers in the Netherlands. The group name may not ring a bell, but the names of the individual companies Gom, Albron, Trigion and Incluzio probably do. Gom employees clean numerous offices, including many Ministry of Defence offices as well as the Pathé cinemas. Albron is famous for staff restaurants and the catering facilities at Center Parcs. The security personnel of Trigion provide surveillance for asylum seekers centres all over the Netherlands, for example. Incluzio is Facilicom's care company, which looks after various home care and welfare organisations. This youngest branch ('a growth market') is still the smallest with over 3000 employees.

Facilicom is one of the top 20 biggest employers in the Netherlands, alongside companies like Shell, McDonalds and Philips. In terms of full time jobs, that is. Facilicom has many more employees on its payroll than these well-known employment providers, but many of them work part time. "Cleaners tend to work 14 hours, catering employees 22 hours."

Geert van Laar in the emergency centre talking to switchboard operator Natasja Pothoff. © Jan de Groen

Van de Laar effortlessly serves up the facts. With his silver white hair and dark glasses, immaculately dressed in a dark check suit and brown-orange tie, he resembles Willem Reimers, the distinguished hotel advisor and television presenter who used to come to the aid of poorly performing hotels and restaurants. Coincidence or not, Van de Laar went to the Hotel Management School in Maastricht. He later chose a different career path. Ostensibly, because he still has a love for hotels.

He fills the glasses with water. The Facilicom CEO is envious of directors who are good at names, he says. He's not gifted in that field. "I always remember good stories though." That's what he does. Managing by walking around, he calls it. Going in somewhere and asking how things are going.

With a twinkle: "Most employees don't recognise me either." And that has the advantage that they are happy to talk freely to him. Those conversations can bring about changes to the company. Like the new rota system which is being created at Trigion which will allow security personnel to decide when they work. Van de Laar had heard that they were dissatisfied with how the shifts were allocated. "The hours are already irregular and there are often changes in the rota when colleagues are ill for example. That can be irritating." If the trial is successful, security personnel will be able to say when they want to work. If they wish to swap shifts, they'll be able to arrange it among themselves. He hopes that it works out: "That personal responsibility produces less irritation than always being told from higher up when you have to work."

Schools

Geert van de Laar stepped down as managing director of Facilicom in 2016. The company was founded back in 1966, when detergent supplier Johan Geurts was awarded a contract with the municipality of Rotterdam. With the Gebouwen Onderhouds-Maatschappij (Gom), he kept the city's schools clean. Geurts was good at doing business. His company became a multinational with companies in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Belgium and an annual turnover of 1.3 billion euros. The head office of the market leading facilities provider is in Schiedam, on the A4 near the Benelux tunnel. In 2001, Johan Geurts transferred the daily management to his son-in-law Hans Gennissen. Fifteen years later, Gennissen appointed Van de Laar as his successor. At that time, Van de Laar had been working for Facilicom for over 25 years.

"In a different position every five years, though." After Hotel Management School, he started work as facilities manager in Bergweg Hospital in Rotterdam, before joining Facilicom as district director Zuid-Nederland. He then became managing director of Gom and later Trigion, so he's familiar with all the companies. Van de Laar calls himself living proof that it is possible to make a career in a cleaning company. He'd really like to become a minister one day. "It's an ambition, but I very much enjoy my present job."

In the 1990s, he talks about his 'young years', he was a municipal councillor for the VVD in his home town of Zwijndrecht. If he had to choose a Ministry, it would be the Ministry for Social Affairs and Employment. "It would be nice to move from a people-based company to public affairs. And then focusing on everything that drives people."

During a tour of the head office, Geert van de Laar meets cleaner Levina Ribeiro Cardoso Mendes. © Jan de Groen

He's 'pretty ambitious' and 'likes being the first non-family member' at the top of Facilicom. The family watches in the background. Until recently, even Johan Geurts used to visit the head office in Schiedam every week. Van de Laar says that he enjoys this involvement because it keeps him on his toes. "I need to know my stuff when I speak to them, because they know what they're talking about." The lack of profits in recent years, for example. "Our sector was the last to benefit from the recovering economy." We have a vision for the long term, he says. "Fortunately, this isn't a listed company which responds to all the issues of the day."

Van de Laar doesn't exclude the possibility that another family member will become CEO in the future. "The next generation is ready." Three of the five boys are still studying and two have just started their first jobs. "To get experience somewhere else." He isn't yet involved in preparing them for a career at Facilicom, he says.

New direction

First of all, he's got another job to finish, because he is leading Facilicom in a new direction. The company is coming out of the shadows. He wants the 32,000 cleaners, catering employees and security personnel to have a more prominent place. Too often, they are regarded as a cost item, says Van de Laar. Too often it's about how things can be done more cheaply. Too little is said about what they can generate for companies. He refers to research that his company conducted together with Wageningen University. This showed that productivity in the offices of employee insurance agency UWV rose 4 percent after the staff restaurant was given a new, more homely design (flowers on the table, background music and LED candles instead of fluorescent lighting), more attention was devoted to the toilets (fragrant mats by the urinals) and the Facilicom people presented themselves as hosts and hostesses. "Looking at people and smiling really helps." He calculates how much. At the UWV, 7000 employees were questioned and that 4 percent higher productivity is for 280 jobs.

Employees are given training: head high, make eye contact and smile. This makes it easier for them to talk to people who have a query or comment about the cleaning work, resulting in a quick solution.

Trigion's emergency centre is also based at Facilicom's head office in Schiedam.

If van de Laar had his way, cleaners wouldn't work early in the morning or late in the evening when the buildings are empty, but during the day. "We want people to see what we do. With a smile, because happy people, make happy people.'' That's the company's slogan. It also appears on the bottles of water that visitors to the head office are given when they leave.

That approach works well at the Pathé cinemas, he says. "The cleaners act as extra hosts and hostesses. They contribute to the experience." According to the man who once went to the Hotel Management School. He wouldn't like to say whether the cinema-going public make less mess because they see his people at work. "That also depends on the film."

Vacuum cleaners

In offices, they worry about having cleaners in the middle of the day, he notices. Because employees might have to leave their desk for a while. "For how long? At most five minutes, just enough time to walk to the coffee machine or ask a colleague a question." Because the noise of the vacuum cleaner is distracting. "We have quiet vacuum cleaners." Afraid that the cleaners will talk to everyone and keep them from their work. "Doesn't happen. Cleaners are professionals. They have to do their work well within a certain time."

And then it's about regarding the Facilicom employee as a cost item. There are plenty of news headlines reporting trade union claims that employees in the cleaning sector in particular aren't given enough time for their work. Van de Laar points to the length of time that employees stay with Facilicom. Every year, a big celebration is organised for people marking their anniversaries with the company. This year's event was held two weeks ago in the Beatrix Theatre in Utrecht. 461 people were called to the stage because they had been with the company for 12.5 years, 105 employees were celebrating their 25th anniversaries and 31 employees had been with us for 40 years!

Van de Laar spoke at the event about the 'sense of home'. "That's important for the employee, but also for the company. Particularly in this time of labour scarcity. We have between five and six hundred vacancies. We recruit what we can. For pupils, we have work placements, traineeships and for young people from Rotterdam we even offer job guarantees." This summer, Facilicom launched the social organisation ‘Buitengewoon’ (Exceptional) which offers people with an educational disadvantage, debts or a disability a training and a job guarantee. "But most of our employees come from word-of-mouth recommendations from our own people. They may tell a nephew to apply for a job or they recommend a friend."

Sensors

According to Van de Laar, the important thing in facilities services is to do the work as well as possible, as quickly as possible. Facilicom seeks solutions in technology. Here Facilicom benefits from its size and different business activities, he says. "Sensors which are often used to provide security for buildings can also check how often a room is used and help decide how intensively somewhere has to be cleaned. If I'm not in my office on a particular day, they don't need to clean it."

He enjoys being out and about and often visits the various companies in the country. Most of his weekends are spent on the water: for many years on a sailing boat in Zeeland and for the past two years on a motorboat in Friesland. With his partner. Van de Laar has been living with his partner for thirty years. Again with a twinkle: "Here too, there's longevity." They don't have any children. They spend their holidays sailing in the Netherlands. "Nothing beats it."

Back to the technology of the future. The security sensors which now make cleaning easier can also be useful in the care sector, where 'we have to work with less and less people.' "By installing them in homes where people still live independently but who are not very mobile. If something seems to be wrong, the sensor sees it and we can help."

He also mentions nanotechnology, which makes surfaces like windows and desktops so smooth that dirt can't stick to them. A robot vacuum cleaner at the office? Van de Laar doesn't see that happening. "The areas are too big, they're too crowded." Facilicom's work will never be fully automated, he says. "Not in ten years and not in twenty years' time. Cleaners, catering workers, security personnel and care employees will always be needed, even though we see that cameras and sensors are able to do more and more things remotely. There will always be work for people." Current technology could make it possible to have hotel and office receptions unmanned, he says. Check-in by computer. "But it's still nicer to be greeted personally when you arrive. That's the first impression and that sticks."

Cleaning company Gom is the biggest Facilicom company branch.

SOURCE: Ad.nl Published on 3-11-2018