Outsourcing business maintenance

Good management makes good neighbors

It is all fun and games until one tenant in the building goes rogue and decides not to pay allotted monthly fees, another wants to butt heads over details, and a third does not show anyone their purchase receipts. Chances are you have been there, or heard the horror stories.

In Lebanon, many problems among neighbors emerge because a functional system has not been put in place. CEO of MMG Holdings Youssef Abillama explains that there are relevant laws, but these require co-owners to be organized and form committees. This means electing people to specific roles, agreeing on a pre-set budget, and attending meetings—all of which can be time consuming.

This is exactly why many buildings, especially the larger ones or those occupied by wealthier owners, hand over such duties to facilities management companies. Is this peace of mind worth the price, and is it for everyone?

Facilities management is a multi-disciplinary domain that ensures the functionality, comfort, safety and efficiency of built environments, including residential and office buildings, as well as institutions, such as hospitals, hotels, restaurants, and more. Services vary depending on a given building’s needs, but usually involve a range of preventive and corrective support, such as cleaning and maintenance, operations, landscaping, pest control, and security.

While for smaller buildings with few tenants there may not be added value in hiring a company to manage their common areas, the increase in Beirut’s larger buildings, skyrises, and complexes has seen a complementary rise in demand for their management. While many development companies provide these services themselves, other providers are independent entities exclusively dedicated to post-construction maintenance.

Real estate development company Mouawad Investment Group originally started servicing their own buildings through an in-house department, but when second generation Paul Mouawad joined his father’s business and saw a growing need, he set up a separate company, LifeQuo, to manage Mouawad properties, as well as other non-Mouawad projects in Lebanon.

Mouawad says there are many misconceptions about the business, recounting how he is frequently asked: “What do you do, exactly? A building just runs itself.” He says the services LifeQuo offers are “a must” and that the market is growing, as evidenced by the launch of more companies. “Big projects need to be monitored through a building management system, followed up on daily, and maintained [properly],” he says.

Facilities management 101

Mouawad summarizes LifeQuo’s work into three parts: engineering, servicing, and management. Ultimately, these companies deal with buildings, so it is important for them to have engineers and other professionals on board who understand the structures in order to be able to maintain them properly and fix any problems that arise. Besides this knowledge, facilities management is a service industry that must take clients into consideration, exhibiting good communication skills, etiquette, and protocol. As with any management company, efficiency and transparency are top priorities, especially when it comes to budgets.

In fact, one of the most sensitive aspects of facilities management is budgeting. Managers must accurately calculate building costs, such as consumption of electricity and water, and other things that need to be regularly refilled or replaced. The job also includes the maintenance of metering systems, to make sure they always work accurately. Since metering systems show numbers in terms of consumption and not dollars, managers need to be able to make the conversion between these values—a relationship that fluctuates. Such monitoring helps companies understand patterns of excess consumption that could then be prevented in the future. MMG Holding’s Abillama explains that for the projects they manage, “We try to optimize and do cost savings by having audits and implementing the recommendations that come through our audits.” This is done with the help of MMG’s sister company EEG, an energy service provider that performs electricity audits for large institutions around the world—including big names in the hospitality and industry sectors—and helps optimize electrical consumption.

Mouawad and Abillama agree that the Lebanese are often reactive and do not have a strong preventive mentality, tending to fix problems when something is broken rather than planning for it. Mouawad explains that monthly or annual fees should not only cover continuous expenses but should also foresee the wear and tear that is inevitable in any construction—planning for long-term maintenance issues. “For instance, let’s say the epoxy [flooring] of the parking lot is going to depreciate after around five years. We don’t come after five years and tell the tenants, ‘Listen, the parking is damaged and we need to fix it.’ No, we collect a small amount every year, based on our calculations … so that after five years the amount is already collected.”

Transparency is vital and the amounts paid by clients need to be justified. MMG has around 500 sites in its three countries of operation: Lebanon, Qatar, and Syria. With 14 projects in LifeQuo’s portfolio today, the company prefers not to expand too quickly, but rather aims to establish trust and make sure they are delivering quality service to their clients. Another way they aim to gain client trust is by becoming ISO certified, and they have been awarded two certifications to date. While the frequent reporting is time consuming, it is a form of quality control that ensures everything runs smoothly, and is more professional, Mouawad says. “At the end of the day, delivering perfect services is our main focus,” he says. “We’re not looking for growth just by numbers or projects; we’re looking to grow our reputation.”

Inside private spaces

Another problem many Lebanese face is a lack of trust in interactions with their plumbers, electricians, handymen, and other laborers. Mouawad believes the notoriously murky domain needs more transparency, explaining, “This industry is full of lies and it’s not transparent at all. You don’t know what you’re paying for, you don’t know when [the service personnel] are coming or if they will be on time. You don’t know if they are fixing things or not.” He mentions anecdotes of plumbers who promise to come “bukra” and never show, while problems linger and worsen, becoming burdens on the owner’s time, energy, and wallet.

Seeing the opportunity to do better, many companies, including LifeQuo and another of MMG’s sister companies, Sprucely, have begun offering indoor services for the private areas of buildings—inside individual apartments and offices, rather than just in common spaces. For any company that wants to stand out, offering reliability and quality are a top priority, and that means having a strong team of technicians who abide by those principles.

LifeQuo has hired a dedicated team to provide these services and does not outsource work to anyone they have not trained. This sounds straightforward, but it is no easy feat. “It’s very tough to have the proper team running our vision [of quality] because we are talking about a Lebanese mentality that has been going on for decades,” Mouawad says. “When you are recruiting, you cannot change the mentality of a man who has been operating like this for 20 years. This is our toughest challenge—to have our teams speak the language we want them to speak, to teach them transparency.”

Both Abillama and Mouawad say educating their teams on soft skills is vital. Some of the training their staff receives covers cleanliness, privacy, personal hygiene, and respectful communication. “It’s attention to detail,” Abillama says, adding, “We teach them these [skills], and we pick and choose [the right people] in order for them to give clients these services.” Mouawad notes that LifeQuo’s main focus is discipline and communication skills.

Management of the future

These days everything is going online and facilities management is no exception, as companies begin to develop websites and apps to make clients’ lives easier than ever.

Sprucely, a web-based subscription service, launched in Lebanon earlier in 2018, after previously debuting in Qatar. It is so far available only in the city of Beirut. Abillama explains that by subscribing to one of several packages—starting upwards of $500 annually, not including fees for parts that may need to be replaced—clients are offered a variety of facilities management services such as plumbing, electricity, and painting. In Qatar, pet care is also available. Once clients choose the bundle of their choice, MMG sends professionals to assess the space and create a preventative maintenance plan.

For LifeQuo, Mouawad says, “We wanted to go a step further and integrate technology. That way you ensure the quality of the service.” In 2016, the company launched an app for clients living in the buildings they manage, and hopes in the future to make the app a public product (for people living and working in buildings not managed by the company)—perhaps as soon as in the next year. The app allows users to request services within their homes or offices, such as plumbing, electricity, or repairs. Once a request has been submitted, clients receive an estimate of how much time the serviceman will require at the premises, and they are able to rate the service, document the problem with photos, and pay via credit card.

Whether these kinds of new services help homeowners and other proprietors sleep better at night perhaps depends on the size of their wallets. What is certain is that the rise in the availability of such services is an indicator that the maintenance and real estate management industry is making a strong effort to grow out of the old “bukra” business model that was unreliable, expensive, and inefficient, and make a move in the right direction.

Olga Habre is the Executive Life editor.