People Person

Nancy Bechtol’s emphasis on training and teamwork has created a world-class facilities organization at the world’s largest museum

By Greg Zimmerman, Executive Editor  

Losing upwards of 75 employees in a year would probably cripple many facility organizations, but for Nancy Bechtol, it’s just another year at the office. That turnover rate is why Bechtol, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Facilities Management and Reliability, makes recruitment and retention of staff one of her highest priorities. It’s a bit unusual for a senior level facility executive to be as involved in the hiring process as Bechtol is, but it’s a process she thoroughly enjoys and one in which she takes pride.

“People are what make or break an organization,” she says. “Attracting good people doesn’t just happen, so I’m actively involved. It sets the tone for the organization so the managers are particular about the hiring process as well.”

Bechtol is committed to recruiting people that fit the culture of her organization. That is, workers that are interested in staying for their life’s work because they know they have opportunities to constantly climb the career ladder.

For Bechtol, recruiting quality staff is especially critical as her workforce is growing older and beginning to retire. She estimates that about a third of her current staff of about 800 will retire within the next five years — one of the key factors behind the high turnover rate.

Competition for top talent is another reason Bechtol loses six to eight workers a month. Attracting younger workers — especially in blue-collar fields — is a challenge many facility organizations are facing. But in the highly competitive Washington, D.C., area, where the cost of living is high, the challenge is even greater. She explains the problem succinctly: “If a maintenance guy can get 50 cents more an hour somewhere else, he’ll leave tomorrow.”

So Bechtol tries to get creative with the recruiting process. She uses strategies such as recruiting trips to Puerto Rico, which has the added benefit of diversifying her staff. She networks at conferences and trade shows. And she partners with local trade schools and universities, like George Mason, which offers a Certificate in Facility Management program Bechtol takes advantage of with her current staff.

But Bechtol admits that attracting younger workers is an uphill battle. “Younger workers are mostly interested in pay,” she says, and although the federal government offers better benefits than most other employers in the area, the pay scale is lower. This means her organization tends to appeal to experienced workers who have already established themselves in their careers. The Smithsonian also offers the option of working a 40-hour week, an attraction to some blue-collar workers used to working long hours away from their families.

The prestige of the Smithsonian name is also one of Bechtol’s best recruiting tools. The largest museum and research complex in the world includes more than 700 facilities encompassing more than 12 million square feet of space. It houses more than 142 million items culled from all corners of the nation’s history — from the Wright Brothers’ plane to Lincoln’s stovepipe hat. Bechtol’s organization, the Office of Facilities Management and Reliability, is an arm of the Smithsonian’s Office of Facilities, Engineering and Operations, a massive organization that also includes departments for project management; design and construction; safety, health and environment; protection services; and resource management. So the name and the size of the organization are often their own best recruiting tools. But it’s still a challenge getting people to stay. Ultimately, says Bechtol, the one criteria that all workers look for is an organization in which they can grow in their careers.

“The most important factor is having a changing and growing organization,” says Bechtol. “It’s very important to these workers, no matter what profession, to want to come on board an organization that is alive, vivid and growing. So that is something we try to articulate from the first interview forward.”

One tangible illustration of this commitment to her workers’ growth is her emphasis on improving their skills. With a multitude of training programs for all trades and an enormous facilities organization that always has openings, workers have the opportunity to move up quickly if they put in the time and effort.

“We make it clear that once they get their foot in the door, they can move up quickly,” says Kendra Gastright, associate director in the systems engineering division of the Office of Facilities Management and Reliability. “For instance, Nancy brought in the National Association of Power Engineers to do training for our group. Usually that’s something we’d have to do on our own time. She’s very interested in keeping the saw sharp. That’s very attractive to all workers, but especially younger workers in skilled trades.”

Training Builds Energy

Of course, training isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition, especially with such a breadth of trades and crafts in her organization. So Bechtol’s strategy is to find the national standard for training or certification in each specialty or occupation. For instance, Bechtol encourages her cleaning crew to become certified with the Cleaning Industry and Management Standard offered by ISSA. Her current goal is getting 10 percent of her staff certified, and once that’s accomplished, another 10 percent — and so on.

“If you keep your staff educated and focused on training, you’re building energy into your staff,” says Bechtol. “Complacency is one of the biggest things we have to fight. Working here is not like being a tenured professor.”

Bechtol’s focus on training also provides staff with the opportunity to explore other career options and gain interdepartmental knowledge. She recently reorganized the Office of Facilities Management and Reliability into an eight-zone structure to ensure that each of the Smithsonian’s main gallery buildings has its own staff — as opposed to individual trade “shops” that serviced all the buildings. This accomplished two goals. For one, staff members learn their buildings backwards and forwards and across a variety of disciplines, and therefore are more capable of responding to particular problems and providing better service to the directors, visitors and other customers. “This has saved us too much money to count,” says Bechtol. “Plus it’s saved the museum’s priceless artifacts.”

The other benefit: Cross-trained workers are more valuable and happier. And they have a better chance to advance.

“Nancy’s done great work taking mundane jobs and reclassifying them,” says William Brubaker, director of the Office of Facilities, Engineering, and Operations, and Bechtol’s boss. “It’s invigorated her organization.”

Gastright concurs: “It’s nice to have staff in tune with the artifacts, customers and clients of a particular museum. The art museums may have a much different clientele than the Air and Space museum.”

Task Forces Save the Day

A cross-trained staff is important for another reason as well. Bechtol likes to solve problems by convening cross-departmental task forces.

Gastright says that Bechtol’s penchant for task forces has even become a sort of running joke among staff. Bechtol admits it — “They say, ‘Oh no! Another task force!’” — but a recent problem tackled by one of Bechtol’s patented task forces was certainly no laughing matter.

Early in 2006, as energy and gas prices rose and rate structures changed, Bechtol realized she would have a huge utility budget shortfall. Bechtol convened a task force, led by her energy management branch, to search for strategies to cut energy use.

Bechtol appointed staff members from each of her eight zones and then opened the task force to volunteers from all areas of her organization. More than 70 staff members responded and met once a week from April thru October to discuss strategies and report progress.

“We weren’t getting more money from Congress, so we would have had to skim from other areas,” says Gastright. This gave the entire Office of Facilities Management and Reliability good motivation to help out — their jobs may have been at stake, or at the very least, their own budgets.

During those six months, the task force implemented about 300 energy conservation strategies that saved about $2.7 million. The shortfall ended up at about $3.1 million, so close to 90 percent of the shortfall was covered.

Most of the strategies implemented were operational — lowering setpoints on HVAC equipment and disconnecting lighting deemed unnecessary, for example. Other strategies included changing out T12 fluorescents for T8s and optimizing control systems.

“Other federal agencies were just getting organized,” says Bechtol. “And we had our plan in place and were already saving money. Success came from having that many people involved, all contributing ideas.” For Bechtol’s staff, it was a lesson in what could be accomplished when short on money but long on creative thinking about low and no-cost strategies. No capital improvements were made to achieve the savings.

“Nancy really put on a full-court press,” says Brubaker. “Her team ameliorated the significant shortfall.”

Again, in early 2007, Bechtol diagnosed a potential utility budget shortfall. And again, with similar low- and no-cost operational measures, the team shaved $2.4 million off the energy bill between October 2006 and September 2007. Next year, for the first time since she took over as director in 2001, her energy management team will be working with the design and construction organization on some energy-related capital projects — new chillers, for example.

Meanwhile, Bechtol continually reminds staff that energy conservation is a high priority, and has instituted a system to more carefully meter energy performance.

The Metrics: Reloaded

The importance of measurement is one lesson Bechtol learned from the energy crises. “You are what you track,” says Bechtol, emphasizing why gathering data and analyzing it is crucial. To Bechtol, metrics are important for gauging the performance of all aspects of her facility organization, but especially so for devising her maintenance strategies.

This fiscal year, which started Oct. 1, Bechtol has a budget of $50 million for maintenance. She estimates that, to perform all the maintenance she’d like, she’d need $95 million, so a system based on metrics to prioritize where scant funds should be spent is critical.

“Our priorities are based on the safety of the visitors first,” says Bechtol. “Secondly is trying to protect the nation’s treasures — the safety of the collections.”

Bechtol uses a facility condition index — a calculation based on nine different factors, including things like HVAC, structural, roofing, electrical, etc. — to help determine maintenance projects or facility problems that need the most attention.

“The facility condition index is an overarching, across-the-board inspection so we can compare our facilities and justify expenses based on the same criteria,” says Bechtol. “It removes the possibility of making decisions based on which building manager cries the loudest.”

For each building, Bechtol does a simple inspection every year, and an in-depth examination every five. Many of the Smithsonian facilities are relatively old, but as Bechtol says, building maintenance and replacement projects aren’t always age-based. “Even a building that rates well on the facility condition index could require a large maintenance project.”

Bechtol’s philosophy on preventive maintenance is a reliability-centered system, a strategy she considers an FM best practice. (See “Reliability-centered Maintenance” above.) She also uses APPA (formerly the Association of Physical Plant Administrators) benchmarks for staffing needs and to compare the performance of Smithsonian facilities to other similar facilities. APPA is an organization whose members are predominantly facility executives at colleges and universities. But Bechtol believes that the way visitors treat university facilities resembles the way visitors treat her museum facilities closely enough to make a good comparison. “Those types of facilities are beat up similarly to how ours are,” she says.

In fact, her benchmarking program and her organization as a whole have been so successful that Office of Facilities Management and Reliability won the APPA Award of Excellence in 2006 — the first non-university organization to win the award.

The APPA award is just one example of Bechtol’s organization striving to achieve the Smithsonian’s overarching goal: to be a world-class institution. And world-class organizations aren’t static, nor are their leaders. Bechtol is known by her colleagues as a “ball of energy,” as Gastright describes her. “She’s established a strong reputation for getting the job done,” says Brubaker. “She’s very well-respected in this institution.”

Bechtol’s own career has mirrored her expectations for her staff — to be constantly learning and moving up; never complacent. Bechtol started as horticulture director at Smithsonian in 1993 and moved up to her current position in 2001. “I like to continually learn,” she says. “If I learn everything at a job, it’s probably not a job I’ll stay in for too long.” It’s a striking example of a successful leader practicing what she preaches.


Reliability-centered Maintenance

“If your car is scheduled to be tuned up every 30,000 miles, most people do it whether the car actually needs it or not,” says Nancy Bechtol, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Facilities Management and Reliability. “But now cars can go 100,000 miles without needing a tune up. So why spend the time and money?”

The same idea can be applied to buildings — it’s called reliability-centered maintenance. The goal of reliability-centered maintenance is to do preventive maintenance only when it’s really needed. Equipment is tested and inspected on a schedule, rather than the maintenance itself being done on a schedule. If maintenance is needed, it’s done. If not, it’s not.

Reliability-centered maintenance is the model Bechtol has adopted at the Smithsonian — an example of what she considers an industry best practice. “Now, what’s automatic is the testing; the maintenance is not,” she says. “It means really looking at the equipment and ‘listening’ to its needs.”

Bechtol says her goal is to use reliability-centered maintenance to improve her ratio of planned vs. demand maintenance. Currently, her organization does about 45 percent planned, a number she’d like to see improved to 55 percent.

— Greg Zimmerman

Contact FacilitiesNet Editorial Staff »

  posted on 11/1/2007   Article Use Policy

Related Topics: