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On Facilities Leadership: Leading By Example
A collection of scientific tools of various vintages perches on a credenza along the wall of Alex Kogan’s office at Rockefeller University. Microscopes and other tools with a patina of scholarly concentration stand at quiet attention. Obsolete for the purposes of the cutting edge science undertaken in the university’s myriad labs, they’ve been saved from the trash by Kogan’s affection and curiosity.
Kogan, associate vice president of plant operations and housing, has been at Rockefeller for 22 years. His official hire date in-house was 01.01.01, which is a perfect sciency start date, and it means he has experienced a lot at the university. His history at the institution is palpable in the lived-in feeling of his office, the stacks of paperwork punctuated by hard hats and safety vests, a nod to the major construction ongoing on campus. The collection of artifacts. The way he repeatedly refers to the university as a second home and the staff, faculty, and students as a second family. Equally palpable is the effectiveness of his leadership style, which is quietly confident and effortlessly generous. With him as their leader, the result is a tight-knit facilities team with an all-hands-on-deck attitude that sees no challenge as insurmountable.
There is something ineffable about being on the Rockefeller campus. It’s not very large, sitting on 14 acres in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, right on the East River. Most of its 21 buildings are connected by a tunnel. Kogan estimates he could walk from one end of campus to the other in 10 minutes, at most. Past the ornate guardhouse gates, the closed campus has a hushed tone that somehow skips over pretension and goes straight into calm concentration. This effect is heightened by the fact that everyone on campus for the last 117 years has been there to do one thing: advance science for the benefit of humanity. “Here you get a sense of helping the science advance and the faculty always remind us of that, which makes you feel good,” says Kogan. “You feel like you’re helping find discoveries for human diseases and better the lives of society. You feel like you’re a little part of it.”
(The Stavros Niarchos Foundation–David Rockefeller River Campus, shown here under construction over the FDR Drive on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, added two acres to the university. The project required careful coordination, including working with the East River’s tides. Photo credit: Halkin Mason / Rafael Viñoly Architects)
Kogan always knew he wanted to be an engineer — just not like his father was an engineer, bound to a drafting table. After getting his degree in electrical engineering, Kogan went to work for a firm involved in what would become known as building commissioning. He worked on many different projects, from hospitals to cultural institutions to educational facilities, including facilities at Rockefeller. The job provided him with a lot of exposure to all of the facets of designing, building, and operating large-scale commercial facilities, experience that has served him well in his career. He learned how large industrial equipment is supposed to work and when it doesn’t work, how contractors sometimes try to manipulate or hide problems, and how the focus of facility staff is on longevity and access.
Tom Stepanchak, associate director of plant operations at Rockefeller, worked with Kogan at the same company before Kogan hired him on 10 years ago. “We did go to a lot of places back then,” he remembers. “In five years, you got five years of experience. Not just one year five times over.”
Trying to marry all those perspectives is the fun part of his job, Kogan says. When Kogan was hired in-house at Rockefeller, that breadth of experience was instrumental in changing the tone of the facilities team. There was a bit of an upstairs/downstairs dynamic, which Kogan immediately subverted by rolling up his sleeves and pitching in. “Even though I was part of the management team, I would help the guys sweep up the construction site,” he says. “I understood how hard they worked.”
Stepanchak tells of a time there was a flooding event on campus and when the then relatively new Timothy O’Connor, executive vice president, came on the scene he had a hard time telling who was who. “Everybody was mopping,” says Stepanchak. “No matter who you were you had a squeegee in your hand. We all become peers in a situation like that.”