UKAA In Conversation with … Oliver Ringsby-Burgess Group Managing Director, HPS Services

In conversation with Oliver Ringsby-Burgess, group managing director and co-founder of HPS Services, the facilities management business which made the 2023 Sunday Times Top 100 list for fastest-growing private companies in the UK. However, it’s not company growth which drives him; it’s providing social value and feeding more families.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey to HPS

When I left university, I went into banking but after about a year the bank I was working for was acquired by another bank and I, and about 6,000 other people, were made redundant on Christmas Eve.

So, I got into FM by accident really because I managed to grab the opportunity to be mentored by the MD of a medium-sized security company, but one which was growing very rapidly.

I was put through the wringer – put on site to work as a security guard for a start – but worked hard and worked my way through head office departments and into operational management.

That company was acquired by a global business and that really propelled my large-company career. I got to work in security, engineering, catering services, cleaning, integrated FM – over a period of about 12 years.

It meant I went from being green out of university to having a really good knowledge and understanding of all areas of FM, from education to industrial to defence to offshore oil and gas.

Another career-change moment then happened as the global CEO was changing and, as usually happens in large companies when that takes place, teams change and that gave me the opportunity to leave that company in a positive way.

The big personal dilemma was do I stay in big, corporate FM – which is attractive because of the skills you pick up, plus the training and opportunities they can provide – or do I go and do something different?

One of my former colleagues had become the MD of a BTR operator – I won’t name who, but she’s a very capable person with a background in facilities management – and I remembered a conversation we’d had where she said it was amazing how hard it was for operators to find FM partners who really understand the residential property sector.

The procurement process was basically ‘look at where your development was located and then check the Yellow Pages’ – basically there wasn’t anyone really specialising in it.

I always had that in my head and then I met Marcus Ginn, the founder of HPS, and those two strands – the conversation I’d had and then meeting Marcus – rather came to fruition.

So, what happened next?

HPS was founded in 2013 as a specialist deep-cleaning company for the PBSA sector in London. It was a niche within a niche within a niche but even though they were doing one thing within one city within one sector, what struck me was, firstly, they were geared up and understood residential property in a very intimate and specialist way and, also, they were very well loved and respected by clients.

You could see the potential of the student sector and, of course, the future potential in the residential sector generally, especially as this was around 2018 and the BTR market was kicking off.

I was marrying that core with the understanding and conversations around the fact that the residential sector was under-serviced, so I joined HPS in January 2019 and am celebrating my fifth year with the business.

The whistle-stop tour is that since that time when we were a very niche outfit, we’ve been able to develop a wonderful team and turn the business into a truly national facilities provider for the resi sector.

We operate in three core business units – year-round security, cleaning and support services for people who are in buildings every day; we have an engineering arm dealing with everything from planned preventative maintenance, compliance, and reactive maintenance right through to large-scale refurbs and refits, and, finally, we have the core, the summer deep-cleaning of 150,000 student units between June and September every year.

What has stayed the same is that we have grown the business on the foundational belief that everyone deserves a fantastic place to live, so while we do tiny bits of ‘other stuff’ – normally for clients who have moved into different areas and still want to work with us – 90%-plus of our business is still focused on residential.

The reason we think that’s important is that it’s just different when you’re dealing with people’s homes.

The way I explain this to people who join our business would be along the lines of ‘if you change the kettle in the office, probably no-one would notice. However, if you change the kettle in someone’s kitchen, they’ll notice straightaway and want to make sure it matches their other appliances, how much energy does it use, how fast does it boil … The response to that is far more emotional, so that impacts not only the type of service we deliver but how we do it.

It’s crucial to understand how it impacts the residents. For example, a lightbulb going out in an office is a two-week fix but a lightbulb going out outside someone’s door to their apartment matters to them.

I think that’s why we’ve been successful. We make sure that me, all our frontline colleagues, everyone really understands what drives the residential property sector and how we as a supplier can help the BTR operators create these communities.

What’s a typical day?

My normal week is spending time with our central functions. We have two offices, one in London and one in Birmingham. Our main administrative centre is in Birmingham while London hosts our finance and HR.

Primarily I get out on site, visiting clients up and down the UK, from student accommodation in Newcastle to a BTR site in Bristol and everywhere in between.

There’s no substitute for marking your own homework and although we have a geographically spread-out team, it’s important we communicate. We have Zoom calls weekly because although someone in the south-west may never see their colleagues in the north-east face-to-face it’s important they build a relationship.

They talk regularly, they are on the same calls and are part of the same discussions. That breeds a collaborative business because great ideas can come from anywhere and you can’t be open to those unless you’re seeing people and talking to them.

It’s not about the big, innovative steps, it’s the small-scale improvements you can make every day, that you can do continuously.

The other thing is that senior management has the responsibility of being the voice of the customer. A manager who goes to the same building every week could get an element of snow blindness so the ability of me or HR always going to sites can provide a self-critical eye to spot the little things.

We are experts in what we do and will see more than a customer, but we ally that to a sense that we’re not looking for problems, we’re being more positive than that.  The KPI’s might be fine, the audits might be tracking well but if the perception from the customer or a resident isn’t that it’s fantastic maybe something’s not clicking.

We want to be aware of the possibility of that disconnect between statistics and perception because that perception is the most important.

What’s top of your in-tray?

It’s always about people. My management colleagues and I can’t be everywhere but there’s been an impact on client budgets because of the increase in the minimum wage and it’s a competitive employment landscape: How can we attract and retain the right talent in what are difficult, lower-paid roles?

That’s crucial because unless we have the right frontline colleagues whom we can motivate and engage we’re not going to be able to deliver a great service outcome for residents.

It’s a difficult problem because we’re dealing with some of the lowest-paid people in the BTR sector; it’s a challenge.

We are pushing the real living wage agenda because it’s not right that some of these fabulous buildings have people working in them who are living below the poverty line.

That’s the main, foundational challenge and you can look at it from commercial terms, as perhaps shareholders would, and say costs are going up, how shall we deal with this? Or you can look at it from a responsibility perspective.

As MD, I generate zero income for the business, I am purely a cost. The people who drive the business are our frontline colleagues because they are the ones doing the billable work. It’s having an ethos that we work for our frontline colleagues. Everything we do must support, enable and equip them to add value to the business – or we serve no purpose. We are the anchors of the business; they are the accelerators.

My daughter, who is seven, often asks what I do, which is hard to explain. For years I just told her I was a cleaner but now she understands a bit more, she asked: ‘Are you the boss?’ and that rather stopped me in my tracks.

So, then she asked: ‘So does everybody work for you?’ and my answer was that I am the boss, but it actually means I work for everybody else because the great responsibility is that we have 500 people working across the business and that I and the management team are responsible for feeding 500 families.

If you keep that approach and focus on the people who are driving the business and influencing the quality of the service you can filter that into respect and a sense of value for what they do.

Do you see other companies with that kind of ethos?

I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to say we’re an outlier in that regard but in my experience it’s highly variable.

The challenge we’ve got is we self-identify as a property brand, albeit that we are delivering FM services, but there are some challenges we have which maybe operators, developers, investors don’t.

We do have different challenges related to employment and staff retention at very competitive, lower levels of the employment market but having said that, talent retention is a key issue at every level of the BTR market. No-one is immune from it, it’s just that ours is more acute and more economically driven.

How do you fit into the UKAA agenda and where do you see the UKAA impacting over the next few years?

The role we’ve tried to play has basically been three-fold.

Firstly, we’ve tried to be a voice for FM. We’ve been the longest-serving, most consistent and had the loudest voice for facilities management in the UKAA. We’re really proud of that.

Secondly, we’ve been a voice for suppliers in general whether wearing my HPS hat or being myself, without the HPS hat, on as many committees, panels etc as I can manage.

Up until recently I chaired the suppliers’ council, recognising that over 60% of the membership of UKAA is made up by suppliers and that’s been key to giving a voice and representation to the wider supplier group whether they are providing services, products, or intellectual property to the BTR sector.

Thirdly, it’s going back to the people piece. Because of our understanding in these areas, especially around employment, we’re really keen to drive the social value agenda. As I said in my earlier point, it’s not OK for anyone working in the BTR sector to be living below the poverty line and we feel we can be a positive voice for change around the real living wage and what actually impacts the service.

Through legislation it’s changing but £1 an hour could be the difference between having a different cleaner every three months as opposed to someone who is there for years and a real part of the community, known on a first-name basis by residents and who adds that extra value to the service. You can’t expect everybody to just know that; somebody’s got to jump up, wave the flag and shout out about it.

So how can UKAA support you?

What the organisation brings are three things. Firstly, thought leadership, collating information and being in a position to analyse it and share it; secondly, advocacy, whether it’s central government or local government and planning, being a respected voice or lobbyist in those arenas; and lastly what that means is – even though BTR could exist without it – UKAA can be the accelerator for the sector.

Through the advocacy, through the thought leadership it could make BTR operators more successful and play a leading role in ending the eons-long housing crisis.

From a more selfish, HPS perspective it’s the hub which brings us all together. Operators can’t survive without suppliers, suppliers can’t survive without the clients, and the investors need to be part of that mix, that melting pot.

What I really value is it’s a forum where you can remove the company hat and contribute to the sector as a whole because, as we know, a rising tide lifts all boats.

What’s your call to action?

We are really proud of the relationship we’ve had over the last five years with UKAA and it was one of the first thing I did when I joined HPS, becoming more actively involved and being a sponsor.

The success we’ve had has exceeded my expectations; we’re 10 times the size we were 5 years ago. But I’ve worked in a large FM company, and I don’t want us to become one; I want to stay in that medium bracket because in order to be a leader in the sector, have partnerships in the sector and build relationships with clients, having meaningful personal relationships is very important.

The accolades are great and we’re really proud to be the only FM business in the 2023 Sunday Times Top 100 for fastest-growing companies. If you look down the list it’s all tech companies or fashion brands and I was looking through it and thinking we can be really proud we’ve achieved that growth, primarily organically because our clients’ businesses have grown, they’ve trusted us and the service we provide so they have given us more opportunity.

Also, not many companies on that list had as many employees as us. The ‘S’ in ESG always gets overlooked and, actually, what does ‘social value’ mean?

 We see our role as creating jobs, in paying people fairly, making sure the country is better off because there’s more income tax being paid and fewer people on benefits. The growth of our clients in the BTR sector is something we’re really grateful for because we can’t do all that standing alone.

The UKAA has also helped us achieve those growth goals, but also those social goals to be responsible for and contribute positively towards more families.