Mihaela-Cora Cristescu, CEO of Atalian Romania spoke to Property Forum about the growth of the local facility management market and about investments in new technologies, including robots, which are expected by companies in the commercial real estate sector.
This interview was first published in Property Forum’s annual listing of "The 50 most influential people on Romania’s real estate market”.
What are Atalian Romania’s business objectives this year and what strategy are you pursuing to develop your client portfolio?
Atalian’s strategic objectives remain those that the entire Group has been working on in recent years, namely, to become the market leader in integrated facility management (IFM). The entire structure is built to contribute to this goal, while the Group’s investments in recent years have focused on team development and innovation.
The growth of the customer portfolio is a consequence of the services market. This requires a strong team, hard work, flexibility and an understanding of business needs. As has been the case for years, we focus on listening to our customers and constantly developing our people, Atalian’s most valuable resource.
We strongly believe in this strategy and if you look at what has happened to our portfolio, you will see a diversification of client type, from office buildings to industrial buildings and shopping centres.
What is the outlook for the facility management (FM) market in Romania this year given the economic developments and geopolitical risks in the region?
The FM market has gone through many economic and other changes over the past 20 years. Adaptation is the safest way forward. We do not think we will see stagnation or a decrease in investment or demand for these services.
Opportunities always arise, but we have to be careful to understand them and adapt to the new. Prospects are closely linked to how a company manages to improve its performance. In the services, we provide there are changes already waiting to be implemented: from technology (maintenance software, coding), to repositioning human resources in the field and calibrating KPIs, going further with concern and active engagement in measures that support ESG criteria, and the list can go on.
In our opinion, the domestic FM market is in the settling-in period and will certainly see healthy growth.
Which segments of the real estate industry generate the highest demand for Atalian Romania’s services? Have there been any changes in this area since the pandemic has emerged so far?
Of course, the office side is the most familiar to us and we have been leaders for some time. We have proudly taken on new projects developed or acquired by the biggest players in Romania.
However, in the last 2 years, we have had a very high demand from the industrial segment, where we have now managed to develop a considerable business and have become partners of some of the largest manufacturers of cigarettes, home appliances, pharmaceuticals, automotive and recycling.
Also, one of the most interesting and flourishing lines of business lately has been Facility Management in the corporate area.
With the removal of restrictions, companies are taking important steps to get employees back into office buildings. Are you preparing operationally for the big return to office work?
In the buildings we manage, landlords have been taking steps since the early days that have helped companies gain confidence and encourage a return to the office. Throughout the pandemic, we have not seen significant declines in our services, so we are not in a position at this time to make any additional preparations or efforts. The buildings have been and are as safe from a sanitary point of view, and from a technical perspective, the investments made by the owners and the preventive maintenance conducted correctly only increase the comfort of the tenants.
Of course, there is a leaning towards hybrid work, but I do not think that direct interaction, the socialisation of the individual, can be ruled out. Just as “home” is the place where we strive to give ourselves a special and different feeling, the “office” is the place where in the last 2 years building owners have invested a lot of creativity, brought in new concepts, and managed to change the vibe a lot, created relaxing spaces and many interesting amenities.
So, I believe there is no need for special preparation for the “big comeback” because this stage has already been completed.
How do you manage the workforce area at the company level? Have you called on workers from abroad to develop operations?
It is true that labour is the biggest constraint we have, and not just lately. We have not yet turned to foreign markets, but we are considering this move in 2022-2023. So far, we have tried hard to provide jobs for those at home, but unfortunately, the number is getting smaller and smaller. We are not talking here about offering a certain salary, but about the fact that for certain specialisations, such as technicians, there are no longer people willing to follow a certain form of education. Thus, FM companies have ended up catering to a limited number of professionals and often it comes down to wage competition.
For more than 10 years, we at Atalian, have tried to promote values other than financial benefits and we have succeeded. Our staff turnover is extremely healthy, under 5%, and the percentage of colleagues we have worked with for over 10 years is admirable, I would say.
Our strategy remains the same, even in these times, relying on young people eager to learn FM, on progressive growth in the organisation, on internal promotion, on constant appreciation.
Atalian Romania's entire middle management team and beyond comprises colleagues who started with us in entry-level positions and have had a great career over the years, and the success of the company today is due to them.
What do you see as the biggest opportunity for the facility management market in Romania this year?
What we can say is that we are at a time when the FM segment in Romania is starting to settle down, companies are starting to understand that they need to do much more than just provide a minimum service, and clients are starting to look at and analyse the choice of an FM company by other criteria as well. I have had the pleasure of attending auctions with my colleagues recently and I have seen a different approach from both property management (PM) companies and owners. They are looking for quality, creativity, innovation, good business sense and these are the surest opportunities a market can offer you.
How do you approach the area of innovation and how does it translate into efficiency for the facility management business?
The area of innovation is an area we tackled a few years ago when, after a period of careful analysis of what the market was offering us, we decided to develop, together with two smart and resourceful young people, our own CAFM application, IfTask, which is now implemented across our portfolio, and the feedback from clients is very good. The app covers the entire FM area, from the ticketing system, recording all maintenance activities, plans, analyses, reports, costs and, more recently, cleaning activities, all provided in a transparent, very easy to access and extremely simple to use way.
In addition, we have partnerships at the Group level that will bring us in Romania in the very near future efficient robots that are suitable for the specific local market, Atalian already has an experience in the use of the robotics concept.
What is needed for the long-term growth of the facility management market?
In the long term, it requires a lot of investment, responsibility in the way we choose FM companies to provide this service, creativity, and obviously human resources. It also needs to be seen and treated as a partnership between the client and the service provider to grow in a healthy way.
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