MKO Balogun, a mechanical engineer and consummate academic with diverse interests, is the MD/CEO of Global Property, Facilities and Infrastructure (GPFI) company—a frontline facility management company in Nigeria. In this interview with CHUKA UROKO, Property Editor, he shares the journey of the company’s merger; challenges, and footprints the company has left on the sands of time 11 years on. He also speaks on the road ahead for Africa’s facility management (FM) industry and the role of GPFI in it. Excerpts:
Congratulations on the 11th anniversary of your group’s merger into what is now GPFI—a leading FM firm in Africa with presence in over 10 African countries and serving many blue-chip clients. 11years on, tell us about GPFI; where is it coming from and where is it today?
Yeah, it’s been quite a journey. Reflecting on how we started, where we started, and the journey so far, we can only give glory to God. I was telling my children three days ago that it has been a wonderful experience. It has also been a milestone. One of my directors said three months ago that starting a company 15 years and transforming into this level is not a joke.
Talking about me as a person, my orientation and interests as a young man has always been in engineering. I’d always want to do things that I can use my head and hands together. That led to engineering. My idea for engineering initially was working on aviation. Focusing on airplane development and management. However, at that time, Nigeria was not ripe for knowledge in that area.
Also, at the time I finished my degree, Nigeria had been removed from many multilateral agencies because of the Sani Abacha’s government. So, I had to choose mechanical engineering because it was very broad. They call mechanical the mother of all engineering. I had the opportunity of working in the automobile industry which I saw as a sister field to automotive engineering.
I started my journey into facility management at Mr Biggs where I did two jobs— one as a project and the other as a facility manager. At the same time, I was doing my MBA at the Lagos Business School. This was when Tony Elumelu of United Bank of Africa (UBA) visited to give a lecture as the bank’s MD.
In the process of our engagement after the lecture, we exchanged numbers and he invited me over one day asking me to come and join the bank. Eventually I did. At that time, they were transforming the head office of UBA to a world class building for a monster bank, a pan-African bank with the head office in Lagos.
His intention was that our head office should represent what we are as a bank. It was very exciting in all the journeys and transformation, with challenges and opportunities to learn new things. However, all the while the idea of entrepreneurship remained keen in me because of my MBA. Before then I’ve set up two other companies. One was in automobile repairs. The other was in procurement and logistics. I also worked at the Muritala Mohammed Airport terminal as a facility manager.
At what point did the idea of setting up your own company start and when did it eventually evolve?
During our final MBA project, part of the requirement was to set up a new company or re-activate an existing one. The company will have to be run. We were lucky to have Dr Doyin Salami. Our first meeting took place at Mr Biggs where four of us who were interested in the concept met to discuss how we can see this through.
That was 2006 when we finished our MBA. And then we registered the company in 2007 as Domme Facility Management. After the company was set up for a year, I had to leave paid employment to focus fully on the business – bringing the experience and expertise from working over the years. The vision from Day one was to become a global company.
That was our objective. We didn’t want to be a fringe player. We wanted to be a major player. So, all along as we were developing the company, we were also seeing what was going on abroad, globally to see the companies we can profile our business plan on.
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When we were developing our profile, our model company was WSPFM in Nigeria, which was the first indigenous facility management company. We were also looking at ISS headquartered in London. We were looking at other expanding companies, and engaged companies in France and the UK just to have conversations on expectations and what the industry looked like in order to position ourselves for future opportunities.
What led to the merger of the company? What were some of the key moments that have defined the success of your company since the merger?
We started effectively in 2008 and had a couple of projects. In 2011, I was approached by WSP to become the MD of the company. I told the board then that I couldn’t leave Domme to take a job. So there was a proposition to merge and that was how Domme became part of WSP.
Agreements were signed in 2012 and both companies become one. At that time, the company had two different models to their business. We had to bring an integrated model into the business. At the same time, the industry was changing and there were consolidations. Africa had only two strong FM companies at that time, both in South Africa.
The idea for us then was to position ourselves to become a major player in Africa. We wanted to become a leading player on the continent for anyone coming from outside Africa. We started developing processes, we went for ISO process, and were developing people, because those were the things that we believed would help us and also ensuring that we’re connecting with our clients because when you connect with clients, you get better because clients can give you feedback, can give you objective reviews to say these are the areas to improve on. So that’s how the journey started.
Mergers & Acquisitions are infamous for performing below expectations and relatively rare in sub-Saharan Africa. What were the challenges and how did you overcome them?
I think basically the only challenge, which I won’t really want to call a challenge, was integrating the two company cultures. One company was more people-driven, the other was more contract-driven. So it was just bringing the two together and making them work and one of the things we did was to first study the culture of the two organisations.
We know where we are coming from, I was coming as the MD from Domme, so I was transiting my team into who we are at a time and we had two people who had to resign because of where we are coming, they felt they would not fit into the new structure and it was a conversation, not misunderstanding.
After some time, everybody started getting back into that new orientation. We also had the opportunity of having very good board in the new company who understands and who are experienced, and who had also handled similar projects. So, they give us an opportunity to manage the business and supported the process.
Clients from both sides didn’t feel any different about the evolution of the new company. There were no issues. I remember, even post-merger, when we were to do change of name, we did a scenario planning, to detail the worst case scenario presented which was done to the board. It was thought that clients will go away for not knowing the company but they didn’t.
We are a learning organisation, a focused organisation. But you’re going to always have people, your ability to manage them matters. One of the key things that was also very important for us was that at that time, there was a balance of renumeration between the two organisations.
The junior staff in Domme were earning more than the junior staff in WSP. The senior staff in WSP were earning more than the senior staff in Domme. We needed to bring everybody to the same level. There were a lot of grumbling, which is normal, but after several conversations, we were able to let everybody realise that, as one organisation, we could not operate disparity. Remuneration for everybody has to be at the same level. And eventually, were able to overcome that.
How is technology transforming the facility management industry and how is GPFI leveraging it?
Technology has always been in in FM. It’s only becoming more in demand. We have had computer-aided facility management as far back as 2003. Even in Nigeria as far back as 2006. I started talking about computer-aided facility management when I was in UBA. It’s been existing all the way back but it has advanced.
The use of technologies today is beyond just getting data. Even to manage the building, we now use technology to get data. Before now, we just used it only to understand. But today we use data to manage the building. It gives you an idea of how many people visit your office, how many visit restroom, what kind of temperature is in your office, what’s the air quality; is it low or high.
A whole lot of things are happening with technology today. You can sit in your office in Lagos and be managing an office in Dubai. You can see everything that is going on in the building, temperature of the AC in the office, you can see everyone in the office, and see everything that is going on.
Technology is enabling a lot, including use of space. COVID-19 turned offices to hotels, which we now call office hoteling. Now, you can book desks and spaces, not just buildings. So, technology is playing a major role in FM today. Even in the real estate sector, Proptech has become huge. It gives information on data utilisation, and how you use that data to manage people, cost and space.
How has the facility management industry in Africa changed since the inception of your company, and what trends do you see emerging in the near future?
Two things, basically, I would say has changed. There are more clients requiring our services and there are more expectations. When there are more clients, that means there are more opportunities out there. More people are now aware that we need FM. COVID also helped us.
People actually thought that COVID was going to shut us down. COVID actually projected FM higher. When people have more expectation and there is more demand, training and knowledge become important. For a client, he knows what to expect. In the past, about 10-15 years ago, it was like doing him a favour
Today, he has expectations. He signs an agreement with you. He has expectations, because he knows what he needs. He holds you responsible for what you’re doing. So those are the opportunities, but also there is demand. There is increase in demand for performance par excellence in delivering results. This is not just in Africa but across markets globally.
And as everything is changing in the market, it is also affecting the expectation, affecting the demand as it changes every day. FM has become like technology. Expectations are changing, requirements are changing. With COVID, space utilization changed and everything about FM also changed.