Chronicle article – Johnson controls – insight from the Middle East

Author Matt Long
August 7, 2013

David Swavley, Regional HR Director, Building Efficiency at Johnson Controls explains how the Middle East is opening up to modern HR practices and employee engagement, and how that benefits his organisation.
Interviewed by Simon Stephens, Frazer Jones, Middle East.

Johnson Controls has around 3,600 employees across the Middle East, spread between Saudi, UAE, Qatar, Turkey and Egypt. My role covers the entire region, where we predominantly employ expatriates, with something like 45 different nationalities in our business. Our company deals mostly in heating, ventilation, air conditioning and building controls, often as part of major multi-million dollar projects: current projects include the new Dohar International Airport, and Kalifa Hospital in UAE, the world’s biggest hospital.

I’ve been in Dubai with Johnson Controls for almost two years, but I’ve been in the Middle East since 2003. There is a lot more focus on employee rights now than ten years ago and that’s changing the nature of the marketplace. Parts of the region have started to allow Trade Unions and steps are being taken to open up the employment market to enable people to move more easily from one employer to another. The focus on safety has also increased, reflected through a changing approach towards working hours for labourers. Overall there is more focus on valuing employees, not seeing them as an expendable resource.

Our main focus right now is our recently completed employee engagement survey. Johnson Controls has employee engagement as one of its core values. From top to bottom we have a focus on people and doing the right thing by them to help them to be at their best. Once we get the survey results we will go through a solid action planning process with focus groups and managers working within their teams to respond to the feedback. We’ve been doing this for a few years, and this year we had the highest participation rate that we’ve ever had – 93% – which is a very positive indicator. We’ve worked hard in the last 12 months on a range of improvements, from greater investment in training to English language classes in Turkey and additional buses on the weekend in the Gulf states. In the Gulf, the employer is responsible for providing accommodation for blue collar employees, so we now provide buses at weekends to get to various community locations.

The focus of growth this year will be at the operational level – though we don’t want to increase our overhead costs out of step with increases in revenue. One of the major parts of our business is service operations, providing servicing and repairs for air-conditioning systems for example. That’s a human resource intensive business, and we will be growing that business by about 25% this year. I’ve worked with Simon at Frazer Jones over several years, as an employer and also for my own career. He’s sourced roles for me within Johnson Controls, including recently placing a new regional HR Director who we are very happy with.

We’re currently seeing steady growth across the region. It may not be the boom times of ‘07 and ‘08, but there is a lot more government investment now. Across the Middle East, approximately $51 billion of infrastructure investments were announced in 2012. There is, however, a time lag between the announcements and the actual projects beginning. Of those announced in 2012, 27% are on hold and 50% are in the concept stage – so there is growth, and oil prices are good, but I would describe it as a mix of positive indicators and cautious indicators at the moment.

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