We talked to Tom Harmsworth of WeMaintain on how to offer building managers and owners a service that combines the passion of skilled engineers and the agility and predictive capabilities of proprietary technology and this is what he had to say.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Tom Harmsworth: All good. We have navigated the pandemic as the rest of the country has, mainly via Zoom, but although a few of us suspect we have had it, thankfully, it has not been severe. We are very much looking forward to socializing over Christmas, albeit in a restricted setting.
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined WeMaintain.
Tom Harmsworth: I began my career working for one of the industry leaders in London, which kick-started my career and gave me a real breadth of knowledge, as well as significant experience, early on.
Within a short period, I moved up in the company, jumped from sales to sales management, and then sales management to operations, where I was managing a team of seven engineers. At this time, I started to fully understand the industry and appreciate the years of experience and expertise that these engineers possessed.
It made me realize that there was a chance within the industry to help great engineers assist with complex repairs and technical work. And so it was with a close friend and industry expert that I set up a company that specialized in carrying out lift repairs and upgrades for larger companies. We intended to reward great engineers with better pay and a better work-life balance. I was delighted with what we had created and couldn’t imagine working for someone else ever again.
That was until Benoit, Tristan, and Jade, the founders of WeMaintain. They told me about their Paris progress and their ambition to change the lift and escalator industry using technology. It was all fascinating, but what appealed to me most was their business mission to reevaluate the technical engineering profession and recognize it deserved. WeMaintain had shown already in Paris that it was possible to reduce an engineer’s workload while simultaneously increasing their remuneration, and I couldn’t wait to bring this to London.
And so I was hired as UK Country Launcher and had been leading the operations in London ever since.
How does WeMaintain innovate?
Tom Harmsworth: We always innovate with the customer and engineer in mind. We have a healthy head of Product in Victoire who reiterates the need to get close to the customer and be led by them. She is right. If we can continue to use our technology to empower engineers and solve our customers’ problems, then we will continue to lead the way in this field.
A lot of discussion within tech is about job destruction and how this will affect society. We firmly believe that technology can be used as a force for good to empower humans at work, and we always innovate with that goal in mind. Of course, our focus is on efficiency and delivering the best possible service. Still, we think that when you treat humans like extensions of robotic machinery, you lose the efficiency generated by human passion and endeavor.
Our app gives engineers information at their fingertips when they need it. Our customer portal enables transparency and trust. Our IoT technology allows engineers and customers to make decisions based on data. We are also keen to assist as much as possible with the real estate industry’s push toward net-zero.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Tom Harmsworth: This year, we have seen the devastating impact made by the pandemic on so many industries. But it has also highlighted how resilient our industry is and will continue to be. As lifts and escalators are ubiquitous and regulated, maintenance is the requirement is there, even if the usage of that equipment declines.
We have been lucky to be a digital business from day one, so we did not need to adapt to continue business during the pandemic. Collaboration between our teams in London and Paris continued unabated, and we leaned on the digital tools that we have at our disposal. However, while we can continue to operate, other businesses and especially our customers in commercial real estate, have struggled with reducing footfall in their buildings, reduced rent collection, and an uncertain outlook as we entered and exited lockdowns.
We found that due to the equipment’s reduced usage, we made fewer callouts and therefore saved money by needing fewer replacement parts. So we wanted to do something to support our customers. We developed the FAB offer for our customers, meaning ‘Flexibly Adapting to your Building.’ It utilizes our IoT to offer flexible pricing dependent on our customers’ building occupancy. We can’t succeed if our customers are not growing, too. So this seemed an obvious choice.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Tom Harmsworth: Luckily not. The only real impact was the impact it had on our plans to increase in year one. Obviously and understandably, the people we were engaging in discussions about lift and escalator maintenance had other priorities during that summer, such as making sure their spaces were safe and managing their tenants.
Luckily, due to the fundraising we had done in 2019, we were able to continue hiring and building London’s operation. The lesson learned is not to try to launch a process during a global pandemic. I’m not sure how much value that lesson will have for future generations.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Tom Harmsworth: I am fortunate that we have a strong culture based on values, one of those values being Care. Everyone who works for WeMaintain gets support in their role, and the only pressure is the self-imposed pressure we put on ourselves to deliver. So despite this year’s being difficult, it has also been hugely rewarding.
The team we have been able to build in London has been fantastic, and it is a privilege to work with them. Everyone believes in the project, and every single member of the team has gone above and beyond when we found ourselves in tight spots.
When there is residual stress after work, use a glass of wine, a novel, or a gym trip.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Tom Harmsworth: WeMaintain operates in an oligopoly. Four industry leaders have dominated the lift and escalator maintenance industry for decades. Because of this, the incentive for innovation has been low, and customers have poor service.
We Maintain’s founders saw an opportunity to reshape the industry and provide a different offering that benefits both engineers and customers.
We think our relative size as a start-up entering an already well-established industry is advantageous because we can build the company the right way, rather than have to reform and change, which is a lot harder. The perceived small odds of overcoming multi-billion dollar corporations give us the determination to succeed, and this shows in another of our values, Grit.
As I mentioned before, we believe that our proximity to our customers and our willingness to respond to their needs quickly and effectively will differentiate the established players and us. We lack in size (for now!). We more than make up for agility, and we’re playing to our strengths!
Your final thoughts?
Tom Harmsworth: Although the real estate industry has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic this year, and despite the doom-mongers prophesying the end of the traditional office space, we firmly believe that they’ll be in use once the pandemic has passed. Their usage may change, and we think that there will be a focus on social aspects of workspaces, but the regulated services that allow that space usage will continue to be required and improved.
There has been some talk of ‘building back better,’ and we fully agree with this sentiment. Rebuilding our economy—commercial real estate being at the heart of that—should focus on net-zero targets, diversity, and inclusion. The one positive of this year is that it has allowed us to pause and reflect. But that will only have been of value if we act on the insights gained from this moment of communal introspection.