The facilities manager

Ken Potter, facilities manager, BC plc

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Down in the bowels of the building, where the floors are all shiny concrete, hard by the postroom and opposite the anti-reception (where couriers and others banned from the gleaming foyer arrive), is a lone office like no other in the building. For one thing, its occupant obviously smokes. And, with its battered furniture and patina of grime, the aesthetic is more 1980s garage mechanic (is that a girlie calendar?) than millennial moderne.

The man behind the desk is Ken Potter. Like the room, he's a throwback to another era: a cheap suit with a whiff of beer and sandwiches, a shock of red hair that recalls the younger Scargill, and yellowed fingers that are always rolling, or on the point of rolling, or have just rolled another roll-up from a voluminous pouch of Golden Virginia. In the winter, you'll often find a couple of the sales boys in with Ken, chatting and puffing away, his office being the only alternative to a fag in the sleet.

Ken started out in the late '70s as an electrician's assistant, working for the sub-contractors who serviced the first Brett-Chesham building. As the company grew, he was taken on as in-house electrician. At the urging of his manager, he took a couple of courses in computers in the mid-80s but, deciding he'd already found his metier, went straight back to electrical maintenance.

Popular and personable (he still calls the girls sweetheart), Ken was soon deputy head of maintenance and then maintenance manager for Brett-Chesham, a business whose commercial success was more attributable than its management realised to the fact that blown lightbulbs and misbehaving electric typewriters were fixed in a jiffy. A couple of years down the line, his department merged with the other big back-office function to form facilities and maintenance, with Ken at the helm. He took to his new role with aplomb, gaining his present office and running one of those recondite but oddly effective departments that you had to belong to in order to truly understand.

One day, the company hired someone who didn't understand it. In one of its me-too quests for mindless efficiency in the mid-1990s, BC's newly installed 'Resourcing Director' hired a crack team of recent graduates from the consultancy Indicko at a cost of roughly three years' facilities budget. One of its bright young things was 'tasked' with streamlining the facilities department; he immediately saw an opportunity for a spot of outsourcery.

On the assumption that those who spend 15 minutes walking round a company with a clipboard know more than those who have spent 15 years working there, the resourcing director made Ken and half his team redundant, hoping to reap thousands of pounds in 'efficiency dividends' by contracting the function out.

It was a disaster. Essin, the lowest-bidding company, won the contract but lasted no more than the two months it took the reasons for its low bid to became clear. The next management company cost a lot more but was not a lot better. The problem was twofold. First, for all their glossy literature, these businesses could never be as customer-focused as an in-house department. Second, no-one knew where anything was. For two months, staff suffered everything from water outages to stationery shortages. Grovelling phone calls were made to Ken - who told them to piss off. The business sunk deeper into the mire.

Another two months and BC's CEO, Paul Ridout, begged Ken to have lunch with him. Ken selected the Harvester near his home in Walthamstow, a restaurant choice that has entered BC folklore. Over Cajun chicken strips and curly fries, Ken read out a list of demands before taking the proffered salary and adding 50% plus car. With a wimper, Ridout agreed.

To say that Ken returned to a hero's welcome is to understate the importance of clean, functioning toilets. Young female staff cheered him like an Olympic gold medallist; young male staff hailed the reinstatement of the one office they could smoke in; and the hierarchy breathed a collective 'thank Christ for that'.

Everything has returned to normal now, except that the facilities manager drives a Mercedes and wears a smart new suit, one that should last him comfortably to retirement. And the board of BC has learned two valuable lessons. First, that the efficient is often the enemy of the good. And, second, that while your facilities manager may not know where the bodies are buried, he knows where the sewer pipes are buried. When the loos are backing up, that's pretty much the same thing.

POTTER: A POTTED HISTORY

1960: Born 5 July, Lancaster. Educated New Malden Comprehensive. City &

Guilds apprenticeship as an electrician

1978: Electrician's assistant 1982 In-house electrician, Brett-Chesham

1985: Trains as information technology engineer, Brett-Chesham plc

1986: Deputy head of maintenance, BC plc

1988: Head of maintenance BC plc

1992: Facilities manager BC plc

2001: Made redundant

2002: Reinstated without prejudice and with a new Merc.

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